TORONTO -- Seed retailers across the country are overwhelmed with online orders as Canadians stuck at home begin looking at their backyards and balconies as sources of fresh vegetables.

Joel Durant, who runs the Natural Seed Bank, an online business based in Ontario, described the current demand for seeds as “unprecedented.”

“It's certainly been a crazy year so far,” Durant told

Sales spiked in the second week of March — shortly after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic — and the orders have become so overwhelming that he’s had to stop advertising and, at times, completely shut down his website to new orders.

“When I did open up the site again for orders, a week's worth of orders came in within 24 hours. I've had to do this every week since then,” he said.

From coast to coast, seed banks are reporting major backlogs as Canadians look for ways to avoid visits to the grocery store and grow their own food. In British Columbia, West Coast Seeds is warning customers to expect a month-long delay due to “a surge in order volume.” Similarly high demand has been reported at seed banks and garden suppliers in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Gardening in times of crisis isn’t unprecedented. During the Second World War, Canadians planted "victory gardens" as a way to put food on the table and free up resources needed overseas. It’s estimated that more than 209,000 victory gardens across Canada produced more than 57,000 tonnes of vegetables by the time the trend peaked in 1944.

Federal officials are not worried that grocery stores will run out of food. But Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Wednesday that it’s not a bad idea to plant your own vegetable garden.

“I think it's a good occasion for Canadians to realize how much food is important and that we should not take it for granted,” she said. “We might have some challenges in terms of variety and maybe on prices at a certain point, but it's always good to learn how to grow food.”

The fact that seeds are flying off the shelves isn’t a surprise to Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. In Europe, which experiences an earlier spring, reports have suggested that seed sales have surged by more than 200 per cent.

“Let’s face it, it's the perfect market for them,” Charlebois said. “People are home and a lot of people felt food insecure for a while. So it’s not just about growing flowers and making things pretty, it's about self-sufficiency.”

While food shortages may not be a concern, there are worries that the cost of groceries could spike due the value of the dollar, which has been hit hard by COVID-19. A report issued last month by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, of which Charlebois is the director, suggested that vegetables and meat will see the steepest jump in cost.

For anyone considering a pandemic garden, Charlebois said any vegetables will do.

“Right now I’d say prices are going up for vegetables across the board,” he said. “I’d start with lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers. I would say those are the really easy and popular ones to grow.”

Mid-April means that the spring thaw has arrived for many parts of the country, and, under normal circumstances, Canadians might be headed to garden centres to prepare their yards and balconies. Charlebois encouraged governments to declare garden centres an essential service.

"If food is an essential component to our lives, given that we’re about a month from the most critical weekend for gardening — Victoria Day weekend — I would certainly recommend that the federal government encourage provinces to make garden centres an essential service,” he said.

“It’s good for the soul. It’s good for morale. It gets people going, it makes people feel good, it makes people feel proud.”

Before the pandemic, gardening was already relatively popular in Canada. According to the most recent Statistics Canada report on gardening, from 2013, 57 per cent of Canadian households reported growing their own fruits, herbs, vegetables or flowers for personal use, with Manitobans most likely to maintain a garden.