Every day last week, a team of Ottawa volunteers gathered at the Pat Clark Community Centre, where they sat hunched over tiny zip-lock bags at strategically placed white folding tables.
For three hours each morning and afternoon, they stuffed these bags with seeds — pea, kale, chard, beet, bean, and squash. Over the course of the week, they collectively packaged 20,000 bundles of seeds for distribution to 3,000-plus Ottawa families eager to start their own home gardens.
The seeds, along with soil and introductory gardening resources in five languages, are being offered free of charge to local residents as part of the Ottawa Food Garden Project. Launched on May 27 following a unanimous vote by Ottawa City Council, the municipal program was created and executed in collaboration with Just Food, a non-profit devoted to promoting sustainable urban and rural farming in the greater Ottawa area.
The goal of Ottawa’s Food Garden Project is threefold: to increase food security amid turbulent economic conditions; to offer opportunity for physical activity among residents in lockdown; and to promote socializing among family members and neighbours on whom isolation has taken a toll.
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“This is the time for people to start new things,” says Councillor Theresa Kavanagh, who sponsored the motion for the creation of the Food Garden Project. “We've all heard about the bread baking and all that. Well, this is kind of similar, except it's going to have longer-lasting consequences because people are going to get in the habit of using their land for something quite useful.”
The move made Ottawa the third municipality in Ontario to invest in the creation of home gardens during the lockdown. While community gardens remained difficult for many to access — despite being deemed essential by the province on April 25 — legislators in Brampton and Sudbury have also taken this time to help residents build gardens of their own, with free seeds, soil, and online gardening tutorials.
“People in isolation, they couldn't get to the garden, so we brought the gardens to their backyard,” says Brampton city councillor Doug Whillans, who chairs the city’s new Backyard Garden Program.
The initiative’s popularity skyrocketed soon after its launch on April 15, Whillans says. Within an hour of the city’s sign-up for seeds and soil opening, 1,000 Bramptonians had applied. By the next day, the number had grown to 6,000. The program reached full capacity soon after and is still “nibbling away” at a waiting list of 8,000, Whillans says.
Marissa Canning is one of the Brampton residents who signed up for free soil and seed. A naturopathic doctor who lives with her partner and mother, Canning says she’s teaching herself to grow vegetables for the first time, after having played around with the idea for a while.
“We were kind of thinking, like, I don't know how to even start a garden — where do we even start?” Canning says. “It gave us an opportunity to just go for it. We had all these excuses before, and then it inspired us.”
Her backyard is now home to five boxed-in rows of lettuce, cucumber, carrot, tomato, bok choy rainbow chard, beans, and kale sprouts, most of which she plans to donate to local food banks after they’re harvested. Canning says that the idea of giving back to her community was a major incentive but that the garden has also brought her household together and offered her a newfound sense of self-sufficiency. “It's kind of empowering, when you could just walk outside and grab your own groceries, and you know that they're organic and treated with love and respect,” Canning says, adding that she expects cutting her own vegetables later this summer will prove therapeutic.
Indeed, research supports the idea that gardening produces physical and mental-health benefits. A 2007 study based in south-east Toronto found that community gardens offer urbanites opportunities to exercise, improved nutrition, increased access to fresh foods, a chance to socialize, and an outlet for feelings of stress and frustration. A 2017 study out of Singapore found that these effects were most pronounced for older populations, who are more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle and experience feelings of loneliness.
But the benefits of working in a shared garden can also be reaped through home gardening, says Moe Garahan, executive director of Ottawa’s Just Food. For those with low mobility, home gardens offer the chance for physical activity and stress relief. They also offer neighbours a talking point and a chance to share produce. “I've seen home gardeners have a sign up that says ‘Help yourself to some of the herbs,’” Garahan says. “So you still can build some of those community relations through home gardens.”
Sudbury city councillor Deb McIntosh says she’s seen this effect play out in real time as her team distributes seeds and soil to residents through the Home Garden Project, launched May 5 with $30,000 in funding from the Healthy Community Initiative. Inspired by Brampton’s project, McIntosh says she hopes to provide at least 300 Sudbury residents with the tools to start their own gardens. So far, it’s been a success.
“It's really neat to see the responses coming back from people and what a difference it's making to them,” McIntosh says, noting that she’s gotten particularly positive feedback from families struggling to find ways to keep kids occupied. “It's planted a seed with people.”
And, while councillors in all three cities say they’re not certain whether next year will bring continued funding for backyard gardens, they all hope first-time gardeners will keep up the hobby with their own tools in years to come.
“If we can have something good come out of this pandemic, it's that people are looking at their property and looking at it in a different light of ‘How can I make this useful and enjoy my property even more and have it give back to me?’” Kavanagh says. “It's a magical time in that respect.”