'Huge spike' in young new gardeners has Manitoba's horticultural community blooming

Manitoba gardeners say the COVID-19 pandemic brought a groundswell of interest from younger gardeners that has the gardening community blossoming.

Seed producers, community garden groups have seen interest grow since start of COVID-19 pandemic

Madison Pierce holds up a freshly picked cucumber, her first harvest of the season. She's one of the many new gardeners who picked up the hobby in Manitoba this year. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Manitoba gardeners say the COVID-19 pandemic brought a groundswell of interest from younger gardeners that has the gardening community blossoming.

"We've seen a huge spike in interest from new gardeners, and this goes right back to March," said Dave Hanson, co-owner of Sage Garden Greenhouse in Winnipeg and a regular guest on CBC Manitoba's Weekend Morning Show.

"This absolutely coincided with the beginning of a real sense of urgency around the COVID-19 situation in Canada."

Manitoba had its first cases of COVID-19 in mid-March — around the same time many gardeners are planning their gardens and starting seedlings indoors.

Since then, as case numbers grew and public health restrictions were imposed across the country, Hanson and other experts say everything from seed and plant sales to volunteer numbers at local gardening groups have spiked.

"[It's been] incredible," said Kevin Twomey, general manager of T&T Seeds in Headingley, Man.

His business's seed sales are up 50 per cent —  more than 10,000 sales — across the board over last year, he said. The company's website has been down for five out of the past nine weeks, he said, since the server can't keep up with interest — and neither can staff.

"At one point, we were out of 175 [varieties] of flowers and vegetables. They're busy trying to print packets, trying to pack them, trying to get in more seed, trying to fulfill orders," he said.

"I think it's great. It's good for everybody. It's good for the local economy, and it's good for people."

Community, autonomy, food security

A sunny Thursday evening this week found roughly 10 volunteer gardeners in a lush community plot along the Red River in Winnipeg's Riverview neighbourhood, swapping conversation as well as know-how about the feast of produce growing at their feet.

A year ago, an average turnout for the Sustainable South Osborne Community Co-op would have been three or four volunteers, said board member Mathew Scammell — but that changed this spring as that group, too, saw numbers swell.

Lettuce grows in a container a plot in Winnipeg's South Osborne area, planted and maintained by volunteers with Sustainable South Osborne Community Co-op. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Now, a 10-person turnout is almost a slow day, compared to the 20 or 25 volunteers they've had on busy Tuesday meetings, he said. He estimates about 50 new faces in the co-op overall, many of whom are young people.

"We've actually had to … manage an unexpected increase in gardeners," said Scammell.

"It feels really good, because … 'sustainable' is in our name, and we need to make that connection between the older folks who have been involved for a really long time [and] the youth."

One of the new volunteers is Madison Pierce, who finished a degree in nutrition at the University of Manitoba earlier this year. Pierce said she's always wanted to garden, but the abrupt lifestyle change brought on by the pandemic pushed her to seek it out actively.

"COVID definitely gave me time to reflect on ... how I could do that for myself," she said.

Sustainable South Osborne Community Co-op's garden plots are maintained by board members and volunteers. This year, many new faces have joined the group to help things grow. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

For Pierce, the draw to gardening is manyfold. It brings a feeling of community —  rare in a pandemic that requires isolation — and connects you to nature, both of which boost quality of life.

It's also a source of food security and independence, which the new gardener said can't be overlooked.

Sustainable South Osborne grows more food than volunteers can eat and donates produce to Winnipeg groups like the Bear Clan citizen patrol group each year, Pierce said. She's concerned about food insecurity in the city, especially as the pandemic impacts the economy.

"This could be part of the solution," she said of community gardening, which enables people with limited resources or space to take part, too. "Giving people the tools to be autonomous [in] how they feed their families or how they feed themselves."

'Plants make you happy'

Hanson likened the increase in gardening to "victory gardens" during the Second World War, when civilians planted large gardens during rationing that provided food security for themselves and their communities.

A global pandemic isn't a war, but it has highlighted the fragility of global food supply chains, Hanson said.

On the flip side, it also meant many people were suddenly bored and housebound.

"Suddenly, [gardening] was a real opportunity to come together, in a situation where you're kind of stuck at home," he said.

All of this happened against the backdrop of growing interest among young people in plants and gardening, Hanson said, which had been happening for years.

"One of the big, central messages there has been the idea that plants make you happy," he said.

They also bring a level of control, he said, in an uncertain time.

"Plants bring you groundedness, they bring you emotional security," he said. "They bring you calm."

Diana Dhaliwal, co-chair of the Manitoba Master Gardener Association, said they, too, have seen a "substantial increase" in requests for guidance from new gardeners, especially from young people and regarding growing food.

Her advice for new gardeners is not to be hard on yourself if things don't go as well as you'd hoped. There's a learning curve to gardening, like any skill, and there's always more to learn.

"Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes better," she said. "And next year, the carrots will grow better."


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