Gardens sprouting up as pandemic keeps us closer to home

Growing veggies in your front yard is the new sourdough, and seed and soil suppliers are struggling to meet the demand.

Growing vegetables in your own yard is the new sourdough

Across Ottawa, families are turning their front yards into vegetable gardens to grow food during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

They're sprouting up all over Ottawa this spring: raised gardens in the backyard and converted flower beds in the front, re-tooled to grow fresh produce close to home.

Urban gardening may be the new sourdough and seeds the new toilet paper as families seek to grow fresh food in the safe confines of their own property. 

Social media feeds are full of garden boxes for sale. Giant cubes of soil squat in driveways, waiting for this weekend, or perhaps warmer weather. 

Greta Kryger cautions newbies to temper their expectations for a bumper crop. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Interest in the Edible Ottawa Gardens Group has exploded since the arrival of COVID-19, with membership blossoming from 3,000 to 4,600 in just two months, accoring to Valerie Sharp, one of the group's administrators. She said most of them are new to gardening, many using the opportunity to spend more quality time outside with their families.

"We see a lot of parents involving their children," Sharp said. Another reason she hears? "My husband had time to build the boxes."

They're plowing up lawns. They're ripping out lawns.- Valerie Sharp, Edible Ottawa Garden Group

But it's not all loamy soil and sunlight. The pandemic is driving some people to take what might once have been considered drastic measures.

"There is a little bit of an undertone of fear … about food security," Sharp said. "They're plowing up lawns. They're ripping out lawns." 

It's no cheap pastime, either. "People are investing several hundred dollars into boxes [and] several hundred dollars into dirt and compost, and all their time."

It's also an investment in self-sufficiency, said the gardening group's founder, Telsing Andrews.

"In times of insecurity people look for something that they can potentially do to control the situation," Andrews said. "This is a way of building resiliency, or the sense of resiliency."

Goodbye front lawn, hello garden. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

High demand

Unable to keep up with orders, Greta Kryger had to scale back her online seed business, Greta's Organic Gardens.

"I was sold out of a lot of seeds anyway because people were going overboard and just ordering twice as much as they really need," Kryger said. "We have three times more gardeners this year than usual."

Kryger is encouraging newbies to stick with it, even if their gardens fail to yield a bumper crop. "They'll get something," she said. "Not everything is going to fail."

They should still make an effort to grow their gardening knowledge, Kryger added. Just Food Farm has information for people starting front yard or raised bed gardens, and Edible Ottawa Gardens Group on Facebook is a treasure trove of proven growers willing to help.

'The first step is to fail'

And don't worry about failing, said Tom Marcantonio, a well-known local gardening educator who's been flexing his green thumb for decades.

"The first step is to fail. We've all done it. Everybody has to go through it," Marcantonio said. "You don't need a green thumb. The seed wants to grow. Just try not to hurt it too much."

Marcantonio has been tracking a surge in new gardeners over the past few years, and believes "this whole stay-at-home thing has really accelerated that incredibly." 

All that demand means borrowing from next year's stash of supplies. "I know one big seed supplier in our region, he's having to dip into his next year's seed inventory," Marcantonio said.

That's a lot of soil. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

A silver lining

Steve Schiedel, president and owner of the Big Yellow Bag soil company, has 50 drivers delivering yard-square cubes of soil. This spring, orders are pouring in so fast he's had to get behind the wheel himself. His company is still up to 10 days behind in deliveries.

"I think people are nesting. They're home. Normally, people are so busy, they're rushing to karate, they're rushing to and from work, they're wound up like a top, whereas now, they're ... walking around their yard with their coffee and thinking, 'What can I do to improve my home?'"

Schiedel, who's had some trouble sourcing soil due to the demand this spring, said the last time he was this busy was during the economic downtown of 2007-08.

"There's a silver lining in this cloud," he said.

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