When her daily commute disappeared with the pandemic, Anita Duggal found herself working from home with a need for distraction.
After a neighbour helped her set up a planter in her yard, she took up gardening for the first time – and fell in love with growing vegetables. “Gardening has just been a huge outlet,” she said. “It’s really opened up my eyes and I otherwise would never have met these wonderful neighbours. Life would have gone by so quickly and none of this would have happened.”
Her little patch has been good for her mental health, as well.
“I forget the stresses of COVID, I forget the stresses of my work,” said Ms. Duggal, program director for a tech company. “Getting that opportunity to go outside, checking on those plants and making sure that they’re growing – that’s where I’m getting peace of mind.”
Half of Canadians were gardening in 2020, according to a study published last October by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. And many of those green thumbs were first-timers, making it one of the most popular hobbies to emerge during the pandemic. People took up the pastime for different reasons, including relaxation and outdoor activity; in community gardens it was a way to socialize safely. For others, gardening provided much needed access to fresh, healthy foods.
Canadians were doing everything from growing tomatoes on balconies to volunteering in community gardens, said Janet Music, one of the Agri-Food study’s co-authors.
“About 17 per cent [of these gardeners] were brand new,” she added.
The phenomenon is being felt throughout the industry: Seed purchases across Canada surged last year and once again have exploded this spring, overwhelming distributors. Companies are experiencing some of their highest sales ever.
“We’re getting a lot of people who are just doing it for the first time this year and are eager to understand how it works,” said Jackson McLean, manager of the Seed Company in St. John’s, N.L.
“A lot of people are making some pretty big investments upfront,” he said. “That’s a reason why [we think] people will come back. They’ve made that investment, so they want to make the most of it.”
John Barrett, director of sales and marketing for Veseys Seeds in Prince Edward Island, noted that 25- to 34-year-olds have become his company’s largest purchasing demographic. The company saw its overall sales double last year.
“We hired an additional 40 people to try and keep up with the number of orders,” said Mr. Barrett, adding that the company hasn’t had to market its products this year owing to an already overwhelming demand.
It also upgraded facilities in preparation for another year of big sales. “We don’t anticipate that we’ll ever go back to the level of business that we were doing in 2019,” he said.
For many though, gardening is more than just a hobby; it’s a steady source of fresh ingredients during unstable economic times. Studies show food insecurity (the inability to access affordable and nutritious food) rose to more than 17 per cent from just above 15 per cent in Canada during the pandemic, Ms. Music said.
“[That’s] too high for a country like this.”
The Agri-Food Lab has received a $100,000 grant from the Nova Scotia government to study the issue over the next two years. “We’re going to try and connect food security with home food production,” Ms. Music said.
In Edmonton last year, the Pop-Up Community Gardens pilot project aimed to help people access fresh food and alleviate some of the effects of the pandemic on food insecurity.
“We had people who live in apartments on a low income and who could not afford fresh vegetables at all,” said Ashley Bouchard, manager of Food4Good, the food programming division of the city’s Jasper Place Wellness Centre. “[They were] really enjoying their healthy food intake by being part of the garden.”
It also proved to be a great social outlet for participants. “People were definitely craving some social interaction in a safe manner,” she said. “We had a lot of intergenerational activity which was awesome. We had grandparents who were taking care of their small grandchildren and would come out to the garden and teach the little kids what they knew.”
Also encouraging families to grow food at home are entrepreneurs Frank Giustra, a Vancouver mining magnate who owns an online food publication called Modern Farmer, and Kimbal Musk, a restaurateur who owns the website Big Green, which promotes food literacy to schoolchildren. (He also sits on the board of directors for Tesla along with his brother Elon.)
On March 20, Plant a Seed Day, Mr. Giustra and Mr. Musk launched the Million Gardens Movement, a charitable food initiative aiming to plant one million gardens in the United States and Canada this year for families in need.
“It makes a lot of financial sense if you’re hurting economically, as many people are, to [plant a garden],” Mr. Giustra said. “The average home garden costs about $70 [to create], but the average return in fruit and vegetables is worth about $670 a year.”
For every $10 donated to the campaign a family in a low-income area will receive a Little Green Garden, a compact container garden that can be grown in small spaces such as windowsills and balconies.
But the benefits go beyond the nutritional and financial, Mr. Musk added.
“It’s one of my favourite things, to plant seeds and watch them grow. Looking after a seed means that you get a wonderful bounty at the end. It’s beautiful.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.