Volunteering During COVID-19 Times

By Meera Sinha, Master Gardener in Training


This article first appeared in a shorter version in the Medical Post on September 4, 2020, where it garnered attention from the National Institute of Ageing. It is reposted here with the generous permission of the Editor-in-Chief of the Medical Post.

COVID-19 zoomed in like the plague on all my plans to volunteer at organized gardening events and complete my Manitoba Master Gardener in Training (MGIT) internship. However, as the saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining”.

My love of gardening started when I planted a potted geranium that my father had purchased for me at a florist shop in a suburb of London, England. Over the years I continued to dabble in various gardens in my life without paying much attention to the details, such as what makes plants, shrubs and trees flourish or not.

I had enrolled in the Manitoba Master Gardener Program (MMGP) in November 2018, the year prior to my retirement, from a long medical career, with the expectation that my retirement years would be relaxing and fulfilling. Of the seven courses offered in the 2018-2019 MMGP syllabus I was able to complete six; (Garden Fundamentals, Botanical Latin Tree and Shrub ID, Identifying insects, Safe Use of Pesticides and Communications). The seventh course on Plant Disease was postponed to January 2020.

On a trip to Tanzania my appetite and curiosity about the plant kingdom was further whetted when I saw the giraffes in the Serengeti, reaching through the thorn tree, Acacia drepanolobium, tree tops with their long tongues and deftly removing the leaves from among the thorns. I learned that the trees had a defense system. In addition to the physical protection provided by thorns and the release of tannin, they could release a chemical (ethylene), warning other trees of an impending attack. Alas, my hosta, hydrangeas and rose buds in Winnipeg have not developed any protection from the mouths of the roaming deer nor the tomatoes from the squirrels. I learned that hedges are not always composed of deciduous bushes. In less fertile, hot and arid climes they could be a row of cacti. It’s about the flora and fauna, about adaptation and survival.

With the completion of the seventh course in January 2020, I was ready to concentrate on completing the forty volunteer hours, in a twelve month period, within a recognized horticultural program, stipulated by the MMGP. As advised by the program coordinator I tried to obtain a panoramic view of the activities that would qualify and were available for the internship.
The Manitoba Master Gardener Program information session and the MMGA newsletters were a good resource. The study groups and various gardening events presented other options. The majority of the events followed the gardening season, with a lull in the winter.

At my first gardening event – Gardening Saturday at the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), I met Darlene Belton the Volunteer Coordinator. I found the CMU hall full of gardening enthusiasts, organizations, greenhouse and plant nursery displays. And in the mix the MMGA booth with the Sustainable Gardening manual on the table and a bevy of Master Gardeners present around. There was a wealth of gardening information available there as at other similar events, such as Earth Day at Ft. Whyte Alive, the St. Vital Agricultural Fair and the MMGA Education Day.

In the winter gardening lull, I wrote an article for the MMGA newsletter and volunteered for The Prairie Garden. Linda Dietrick, the editor, had encouraged Master Gardeners in training to attend. My volunteer hour numbers rose as did my view of the publishing world.

Six months into the internship I had accumulated a third of the required hours but no practical gardening experience. The MMGA’s Education Day presentations on sustainable gardening in January 2020, delivered enthusiastically by Rod Kueneman and Tiffany Grenkow, was to be a turning point. They garden for the Sustainable South Osborne Community Co-op (SSOCC) and were receptive towards volunteers coming and working with them to learn to grow food when the season resumed. As they were not on the MMGA training site list I needed to obtain approval from the Assiniboine Community College MMGP. By early February 2020 the program coordinator Brad Hack approved SSOCC as a qualified volunteer site.

COVID-19 arrived officially in Manitoba on 12th March 2020. On 20th March, all eagerly awaited events were cancelled! COVID-19 is a formidable invisible foe, but ‘sustainable gardening’ are not empty words.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need “ Marcus Tullius Cicero

On the chilly evening of 21st May we at the SSOCC Riverview Intergenerational Garden
Club opened the cold frames of the raised garden beds.

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade” Rudyard Kipling

Twice a week, every week, for two hours the Garden Club volunteers under guidance, watered the raised, pre- seeded beds of lettuce, carrots and beets in the Riverview gardens. The soil in the regular beds, rich in compost from the fall, was cleared of weeds and gently loosened up. Plants germinated indoors and from Rod Kueneman’s green house were transplanted. The gardening was along the principles of ‘no tilling’. The soil around the plants was mulched and the need for weeding was minimum. No chemical fertilizers were used and the plants in the garden grew like weeds, gorged on the rich composted soil and drunk with our hand watering. Hugelkultur was in full display on the riverside garden. We worked in small groups, trying to maintain ‘social distancing’. The outdoors, the fresh air and breeze were our allies against COVID-19. Senior members, although energized by the company of the millennials, maintained a greater distance. Masks were not discouraged.

In the orchards, on the old grassed slopes of Churchill Drive, (a dyke road) between the rows of apple trees, the sod was rich with quack grass, bind weed and thistle. It was cut up (fortunately for us not by hand) and covered by tarpaulins. A few weeks later with the grass mostly dead, we raked and removed roots of the offensive quack grass and thistle. The ground thus prepped was covered with layers of cardboard, and a thick layer of wood chips raked over it. The exercise replaced the need to attend the gym to gain upper body strength.

In between the rows of fruit trees the haskap bushes quickly became laden with sweet, tangy fruit. And in June we tried to not eat too many as we picked them for distribution to residents in need. As the haskaps finished, red currants took their place followed by raspberries and then vegetables: lettuce, beans, beets, Swiss chard, zucchinis, and cucumbers.

I no longer need to count or record my volunteer hours and rather look forward to the combination of physical activity and social interaction.

I loved the aesthetic beauty of landscapes with trees , flowering shrubs, perennials, grasses and aquatic plants and now with the help of COVID-19 have come to the realization that by becoming a ‘growing food’ volunteer, there is a visceral beauty to be enjoyed from fruits and vegetables.

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul”. Alfred Austin