Canadians are digging into victory gardens for 2020
TORONTO -- The Victoria Day long weekend marks the beginning of the planting season for many Canadians and this year of self-isolation and worry has many turning to soil, seeds and plants for perhaps both therapy and security this spring and summer.
The concept of a victory garden is a recurring theme – perhaps because virus garden doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it.
But can gardening in 2020 be a modern victory for our environment and ourselves?
Victory gardens have their roots in patriotic war gardening efforts during the First World War, but didn’t really sprout into the national consciousness until the Second World War, when governments around the world urged citizens, especially in urban areas, to plant vegetables to supplement their food rations, contribute to the war effort, and boost morale.
In this year of coronavirus, surging interest in gardening is about concerns over food security and rising prices, along with a strong desire to get outside after a couple of months of being in the house, says Sheila Colla, an assistant professor in environmental studies at York University in Toronto.
As a conservation biologist, Colla sees an opportunity to shift from the idea of a victory garden to a resiliency garden. Growing food in our yards and on balconies and patios, and Colla hopes in public spaces such as schools and street boulevards, will bring more plant pollinators to urban places where only lawns have existed before.
“We can use this time to change the landscape to bring more biodiversity. Increased biodiversity means more resilience for the ecosystem.”
That is not only a boon for the environment, but it brings communities together as neighbours share their yields, and brings enormous mental health benefits, she says. Plenty of people have been forced to slow down during this time, allowing them the luxury of growing their own food.
“And with children not being in school, there are a lot of skills that go along with gardening, like counting of seeds, and learning what plants need in terms of sun, soil and when to plant, how to prune and harvest,” said Colla, who is planting in her Toronto front yard with kids who are three and six.
“That experiential learning is a form of resiliency.”
Debi Goodwin used gardening as a form of therapy when her husband was being treated for cancer. She had grown up on a fruit farm in Grimsby, Ont. and worked beside her father in a vegetable garden, too.
She started to research war-time victory gardens and spent the fall and winter planning hers. It was the escape she needed, but when her husband died of a heart attack just two weeks after a large tumour was discovered between his heart and spine, she initially felt betrayed by her garden and the hope it had given her.
The “rhythm of nature” changed her perspective, Goodwin told CTVNews.ca during a call from her home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
“It’s a reminder that whatever is going on, whether it’s personally or globally, nature still goes on.”
She documented her experience in a booked released last fall called “A Victory Garden for Trying Times.”
Goodwin says what is happening in the world now parallels her journey and she’s not surprised people are turning to gardening to cope.
“We are all going through a kind of grief and anxiety… and it feels good to be in control of something.”
Victory Gardens Vancouver, a worker co-op that designs, builds and maintains gardens for homeowners, offices and businesses, and non-profits, has seen an “incredible surge in demand,” from people wanting to garden for the first time, says co-owner and co-founder Lisa Giroday.
“They aren’t under any illusion they can grow everything they need. You need about an acre to be fully self-sufficient. But people want to participate in productivity and supplement what they have to buy,” she said from the co-op’s shop as she gathered up supplies for the day’s projects.
The co-op is doing lots of physically distancing coaching to teach newbies, says Giroday. When they named their venture nine years ago, they were thinking about health and sustainability, not food security. But that is playing a big role now, along with a pressing need to get kids away from their screens and engaged outside.
John Barrett is hopeful about that, too.
He’s director of sales, marketing and development at Vesey Seeds in York, P.E.I., which has seen a 457 per cent increase in seed sales for seven weeks running.
It got so busy, the company had to suspend seed sales from April 17 to May 9.
The 81-year-old garden retailer hired more staff and went to double shifts to catch up with the rush of orders.
“It’s exciting to see a bunch of new people interested in gardening. We track our customers through Google Analytics and usually people 55-plus are our biggest segment but now it’s 25- to 34-year-olds,” Barrett told CTVNews.ca.
And maybe that’s a permanent green thumb surge as parents get outside to garden with their children.
“For our parents and grandparents, it was just a given that you had a garden. You were crazy not to grow your own vegetables. But in our hurry-up society, we had gotten away from it. If you asked a kid where vegetables come from, they’d say Sobeys.”
Lori Weidenhammer, an artist and bee educator in Vancouver, wants to see victory gardens planted in parks and other public places to provide both food for people and for bees. She’s encouraged by the booming interest in gardening and that a whole generation could learn about it when they might not have otherwise.
“I think it’s one of the best things to come out of all of this, that we can take this horrible and tragic situation to build some good out of it,” she said.
“It’s so good for our mental health. We spend so much time on screens but we need to be in the three-dimensional world with our hands in the soil. The brilliance of a sun-warmed tomato from your garden is so life-affirming.”
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR 2020 VICTORY GARDEN
Fruits and vegetables need full sun – a minimum of six to eight hours a day, says gardening expert Antonio Valente.
He said if you are unsure, download a light metre app to your phone to help you measure whether your garden is getting enough light for fruits and vegetables. If your backyard doesn’t provide that kind of sunlight, consider shifting to beds in your front yard.
Valente told CTV’s Your Morning Friday that it’s “super important” to get a soil test when gardening somewhere new. That will tell you what your garden soil is composed of and what nutrients you need to add. Gardeners can find accredited labs to test their soil on their provincial agricultural ministry website or they can buy a testing kit at a hardware store.
As for whether to start from seed or plant, Valente says root crops or salad greens should be started by seed.
“You get the most bang for your buck with these types of vegetables when you start from seed and it’s super cost effective.”
Anything else, including peppers, herbs, and tomatoes, can begin from transplant.
Valente recommends against going too big to start, saying a 1.2-metre by 2.4-metre bed is ideal for a first-year veggie garden. He says newbies should concentrate on four or five things to grow. And that might not be what you love to eat, but rather what is easiest to grow. Once you’ve got some experience under your gardening gloves, branch out to more things.
- Focus on food that offers high yields and quick returns, such as greens, bok choy, radish, and herbs, that are also expensive at the grocery store, says Giroday. Understand that some produce, such as strawberries, take up a lot of space for a small volume of fruit.
- Plant perennial flowers that bloom from spring to fall around your vegetable gardens or berry bushes to attract and nourish bees, says Weidenhammer.
- Check out what planting zone you live in here to get a sense of appropriate plants and planting schedules for your climate.
- Goodwin recommends adding manure and triple mix to your soil to boost fertility and to learn from online gardening sources.