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Over the May long weekend, the first Woodfield Community Garden was sowed. That has remained a tradition until this year.

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On Earth Day nine years ago, ground was broken for the Woodfield Community Rail Garden.

Adjacent to Monarch Park and hard against the train tracks in Toronto’s east end, the green space was established on an abandoned lot by Miranda Snyder and three other moms on maternity leave.

“It was filthy, full of mattresses and bottles and all sorts of gross stuff," Ms. Snyder says.

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Ms. Snyder and her friends, with babies strapped into carriers, hauled out trash. They dug up stones that dated to when a brickworks stood on the parcel of land. Neighbours showed up with shovels and began to pitch in.

“It became a huge community effort," she says.

Ontario declares community gardens an essential service

Tory hopes allotment and community gardens can open in Toronto on May 1

Over the May long weekend, the first Woodfield Community Garden was sowed. That has remained a tradition until this year.

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no timeline.

“We don’t know what to do,” Ms. Snyder says.

It is a concern shared among tens of thousands of people across Ontario who rely on precious communal tracts for fresh produce and an emotional lifeline. In Toronto and elsewhere, the gardens are shut down to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Petitions have been submitted to municipal and provincial officials requesting they be declared an essential service.

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“It calls to mind the era of the Victory Gardens," Ms. Snyder says, referring to the plots that popped up during the First and Second World Wars. “People want to get outside and create something and feel connected to the Earth."

On March 30, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s extended a Declaration of Emergency and shut down all recreational amenities, parks and community gardens included. (On Saturday morning, Ontario issued an emergency order to open allotment and community gardens.)

Other jurisdictions have been more lenient.

British Columbia lists community gardens as essential. The same is true in New Brunswick and some cities in Quebec. A decision to close gardens in Red Deer, Alta., was rescinded this month after officials from Alberta Health Services were consulted.

It is a matter of great interest to gardeners, food experts and policymakers.

“It is not a question of if they will reopen, but when,” says Toronto Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents the ward of Spadina-Fort York. “The minute the province and city’s chief medical officers advise us that it is safe, we will move heaven and earth to make it happen.”

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Community gardens differ from allotment gardens in that they are operated by local groups and not by permit from the city.

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Cressy is a member of Toronto’s Food Policy Council. He says the issue was discussed at its most recent meeting.

“From a public health lens, community gardens are a critical part of our food system, and are also critical for food security," he says. “For that reason, they are a part of the essential fabric of our city.”

A spokesman for the city acknowledged that some people received permits for allotment gardens this week by mail. The permits list June 29 as the opening date. City staff has been clear in conversations that it is only a potential opening date.

Even with allotment gardens closed, there has been increased interest. The city has received about 200 more applications this year than last and currently has a waiting list of 1,067 people.

Community gardens differ from allotment gardens in that they are operated by local groups and not by permit from the city.

Both are immensely popular. For some, they provide a supplemental food source. For others, they are a means to grow healthy, organic vegetables unavailable in stores. In a giant city full of apartment-dwellers, they also offer an emotional release.

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Over the past three years, Rebecca Pinkus has grown arugula, carrots, garlic, kale, radishes, tomatoes and tomatillos in an allotment garden in High Park.

A science and technical writer, she says everyone had gardens where she grew up, just outside of Pittsburgh.

“It has been in my blood forever,” Ms. Pinkus says.

She supports the city’s decision to temporarily close gardens to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The severe respiratory illness has sickened more than 40,000 Canadians and claimed more than 2,000 lives.

She looks forward to them reopening this summer as long as it can be done safely.

Ms. Pinkus says that she recognizes more than ever before that it is a privilege to have a garden in the first place.

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“For me, it’s a place where I can escape the city within the city and make the rest of the world disappear,” Ms. Pinkus says. “It has become really important for me. “

A volunteer at the Scadding Court Community Centre, Carla Wong has had an allotment garden each of the past two years.

Scadding Court, at a usually busy downtown Toronto intersection, offers plots to people who want to grow their own produce, but also uses the garden as part of a program to feed area residents.

“It is really important that the gardens get reinstated," Ms. Wong says. “There are ripple effects.”

She has grown multiple types of lettuce, beans, rainbow carrots and tomatoes the past two years at a cost significantly lower than what she would pay for organic produce in a grocery store.

“I had all this fresh produce and I could pick it the day of,” she says. “You can’t beat it.”

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Members come from a variety of backgrounds, and a portion of the plots are donated to a food bank.

Petitions that call for rollbacks on restrictions in allotment and community gardens are circulating at the provincial and city levels.

One was established by Rhonda Teitel-Payne, co-ordinator of the Toronto Urban Growers and co-chair of the Ontario Community Growing Network. It asks the city to remove gardening restrictions before May 1. More than 5,000 people have signed.

“We’re not just asking them to throw the gates wide open,” Ms. Teitel-Payne says. “We have a list of guidelines that would allow us to operate safely."

She has participated in community gardens more than 20 years.

“More than growing food to eat, the one thing I have heard the most from people is that they like the mental health benefits," Ms. Teitel-Payne says. “It fulfills emotional, physical and social needs.

"People think about it as a recreational activity, but it offsets a significant amount of anxiety and stress.”

Amy Taylor took over an overgrown plot in the Gage Park Community Garden in Hamilton in 2014 and became its co-ordinator the following year.

Members come from a variety of backgrounds, and a portion of the plots are donated to a food bank.

“We want our gardens to become essential, in this year in particular,” Ms. Taylor says. “It is like 1917 and during the 1940s. There is a massive crisis."

At the Woodfield Community Rail Garden, there are 17 raised boxes. The garden has a colourfully painted shed with drawings of a blue jay and a cardinal on one side. There is a park bench where people can soak in the solitude and a picnic bench for a quiet lunch.

“It certainly has become one of my favourite spots in the city,” Snyder says.

She hopes it will not to be too long before it is open.

“People are really anxious,” she says. “It is about making it a part of the rhythm of their day. It’s a powerful thing.”

Paula Fletcher, the city councillor for Toronto-Danforth, says the parcel of land was on the city’s surplus list. With her help, it was turned over to the parks and recreation department so it could house the garden. She has been excited to see other public gardens blossom within her ward.

She understands getting them open is provincial decision, but she believes they should be phased in sooner than other amenities.

“Hopefully, the restrictions will be lifted early,” Fletcher says. “That would be great. Community gardening is not a team sport. It is a solitary, serene practice. Spring is here."

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