Gardening During the Pandemic

By Doris Mae Oulton, Master Gardener In Training

As the pandemic began to have an impact, the gardening community felt little rumblings of change in the gardening world.

Anyone following their usual gardening pattern would have been surprised at their first visit to their favourite nursery to find that the plants being offered were smaller because there had already been a first wave of buying. Nursery owners were surprised that plants started going out the door in March. When there were closedowns of the greenhouses, the beginning of a wave of panic could be felt.

Gardeners who saw the visit to the greenhouse as the ultimate commencement of the joys of relaxed gardening and touching nature, were shaken and some were resistant to the new ways of operating. Gardeners were shocked by a round- the- block line up to access their favorite gardening source, and anxieties started to be seen in many ways: this from what is supposed to be a healthy relaxing pursuit.

When closures were coupled with pervasive shortages, gardeners knew there was trouble: one online seed company shut down sales; numbers of plants were being limited; and local garden centres ran out of soil. A food council COVID-19 update notes many vegetable seed sellers reported their sales more than doubled this year. Minter, gardening expert for the Vancouver Sun, stated that “Seeds became toilet paper”. Seed companies ramped up with 24 hour shifts to keep supplies flowing, trying to satisfy the demand but being respectful of employees’ safety. In one garden centre the situation got so bad that the centre closed its doors because frustrated gardeners had forgotten their good manners and were disrespectful to greenhouse staff. You could almost hear gardeners across the country starting to hold their breath.

Unfortunately, the shortages followed the gardening cycle. This year seemed to be a bumper year for rabbits (and other nasty little garden destroyers) but chicken wire was not to be found. As the flowers needed maintenance, bamboo stakes were hard to find and then couldn’t be found at all, and finding velcro tape was a real treasure hunt.

But there were positive repercussions: political decision makers and their policy advisors, realising that there was a revitalised group of gardeners, considered new policies that were gardening friendly with a real attempt to increase space for community gardens. “It’s a sign of the times… with COVID-19, everyone is more interested in food production than ever,” said Councillor Brian Mayes (St. Vital), chairman of the property committee and Winnipeg Food Council. “The intention is good to try to do some experimenting, try and see if we can use some vacant properties in any ward for community gardening.”

Part of the interest in gardens came as a result of people’s concern about food and the food supply chain: everything from the shut down of some meat processing plants and restrictions of temporary foreign workers who play a critical role in growing and harvesting food crops. Articles from the World Health Organization were released saying that that the only way to avoid disaster from food supply breakdown is for us all to grow food in our gardens. They recommended turning lawns to vegetable gardens. Many people saw growing their own vegetables as a way to become more self-sufficient. As well, there was a growing interest in community agricultural co-ops and community gardeners offering increased access to gardeners because they are unsure how they would sell their produce this year.

However, there was another good case being made for a more important underlying reason for the renewed interest in gardening. COVID-19, and the enforced time for reflection, gave people time to look at what they could and wanted to do for themselves. Gardening brings a feeling of community, something people were searching for in the time of pandemic that requires isolation, and it connects you to nature, both of which boost quality of life.

The question for the MMGA is “How can we foster and support this resurgence in gardening enthusiasm?” If anyone followed any social media exchanges over the summer, there were lots of questions about things that were going wrong in the garden: pictures of tomato plants that had been pruned within an inch of their lives and lots of bottom rot. By fall there will be lots of first-time gardeners asking, “What did I do wrong?” As long-time gardeners we know there are sometimes simply no answers, but sometimes there are easy and helpful supports. It really is time for us as an association to ask ourselves, how can we help encourage all those first-time gardeners to join the ranks of garden enthusiasts who are in it for the long haul?

COVID-19 has given us a unique opportunity to grow the Manitoba gardening community. We need to embrace the opportunity and support the new wave of gardeners.