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This spring, Gina and her husband Rob, from Trail, British Columbia, planned to travel as they do each year as retirees, when the news of COVID-19 turned their plans upside down. They had intended to travel from the Arctic to Mexico in their RV meeting people who make a difference in their communities and sharing these stories on social media.

Now with time on their hands, Gina recalls thinking, “We should do something that we love to do. With COVID, we didn’t know exactly the impact it would have on food in our region, so we decided that we would just totally put as much as we possibly could this year into the garden and gradually expand.”

Gina has always enjoyed gardening as a shared activity with Rob. It also helps her feel connected to her parents and her grandparents who were avid gardeners. For her, “There’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot in the past. And you’re definitely in the present because your hands are in the dirt, and you’re watching things grow. But it’s also, you’re growing for the future. To me it’s a real connection in so many ways.”

This year for the first time, they explored the idea of growing fruits and vegetables to be stored, frozen, or canned for winter rather than merely for summer enjoyment. The couple expanded their garden, built a greenhouse to extend their growing season, and constructed a 26-foot cattle panel tunnel with beds on either side. They planted a variety of beans that they will dry for winter, again for the first time. 

Gina knows many Trail residents who have succeeded this year in growing food in small backyards and balconies. 

“Some people are starting off with a small garden because they’ve never done this before,” she says. Gina believes that growing food is an integral part of the culture in Trail. “There are so many people here who grow gardens. From the English to the Italians. So many different nationalities here. It definitely is part of the culture here.”

Gina and her husband Dan in one of their newly constructed garden trellises growing beans.
Gina and her husband Rob in one of their newly constructed garden trellises growing beans
Photo by Rob Ironmonger

Another long time gardener of Trail, retiree Toni, shares the view that historically gardening has been a big part of the culture of Trail.

“In the early years that was a mainstay for the families. They would grow their beans and their potatoes and their onions and tomatoes. They would put it away for the winter, and they would have fresh tomato sauce or the beans that were canned in the jars or the peaches or the pears.” According to Toni, Italians brought these longstanding food traditions from “the old country.”

Gina enjoys connecting with people, and she met many first time gardeners when she went to busy nurseries in early spring to select garden starts and equipment. 

Across the Kootenays and beyond, first time gardeners showed up at garden centres in large numbers. According to a CBC report from April 5th, 2020, seed sales surged higher than ever at the big seed companies across the country. This trend is compared to the Victory Gardens during the two world wars when citizens turned their lawns into food gardens. These gardens started in England in World War I when the government encouraged citizens to grow food to help ease shortages. The gardens largely disappeared until World War II when they popped up again, this time across North America. Victory Gardens were planted across Canada during WWII, mostly in cities, and were seen as a way for regular people to support the war effort.

On April 3rd, 2020, MacLeans magazine outlined the economic chaos that was born of the lockdown. Canadians panicked, purchasing huge amounts of food and supplies. This caused seed suppliers, garden centres, and urban farming organizations to experience a massive increase in orders, especially online.

Customers shopping at Bee Greens pre-COVID-19

Bee Greens Organic Bedding Plants in Appledale, BC, sells bedding plants (also called garden starts or seedings). Hamsa Eliza and Peter Slevin, the co-owners of Bee Greens, had a busier year than ever before.

Residents from Nakusp to Nelson travel to Bee Greens for their gardening needs. Half of the bedding plants grown on the farm sell to customers directly. The other half sells at Nelson Farmers Supply and Silverton Building Supplies stores. For Hamsa and Peter, the seedling growing season starts in the winter. Usually, by the end of winter, all their time is spent planting seeds in their large greenhouses. According to Hamsa, this winter was stressful because they were unsure if they would be allowed to open due to COVID-19. 

By the end of March, Bee Greens received confirmation from provincial health authorities that they could open for their usual spring season. As soon as they had the go-ahead, they planted more seeds than usual, forecasting high demand. Customers showed up much earlier than usual, some too early. Customers were buying up tomato and pepper starts, plants that ideally can use several months in a greenhouse or another sunny warm place to grow properly before getting put outside. There was a widespread fear among customers that Bee Greens would sell out.

“We got slammed really hard with demand. We didn’t really have the stock to cover it all with grace but we tried,” Hamsa says. 

Trail gardener Toni experienced this rush as a customer. “When I went to get some of my potato seeds or my onion seeds in early April, they were already sold out, and I was looking for different seeds and those weren’t available. My experience is COVID-19 has gotten a lot of people to garden especially. I’m sure that the COVID has made a difference.”

Gina’s beans and cucumbers thriving on the cattle panel. Photo by Rob Ironmonger

Hamsa recalls the sadness of some new gardeners who planted tender seedlings too early and came back to Bee Greens when they all froze. Because of the heavy demand, Bee Greens hired an extra hand, which they usually do not. Hamsa explains, “On the farm we had almost twice as many sales. This kicked us into a whole other realm. People were coming out really keen. New gardeners. Lots of new gardeners.”

For Hamsa, the reason behind this surge was clear from the beginning: 

“It was all about food security. People for the first time in their lives going to the store and not being able to purchase what they want, and being inspired to grow their own food. A lot of them said ‘this is something I’ve been meaning to try.’ And then the COVID scare came and they got keen. So we spent a lot of time talking to new gardeners, coaching them through what to do.”

Home gardener Gina of Trail shares this perspective: “There was a little breakdown in our food distribution system, and some of the shelves were empty. And so there was a little bit of fear, I think, around food security. And then some people might have wanted to do it for a long time and maybe never had the opportunity or the time.”

Hamsa and Peter became a gardening how-to, questions and answer home for new gardeners. They answered questions about soil health, pest management, seeding care, and transplanting. Bee Greens became a community hub for people who wanted to talk to each other and learn about growing food.

Hamsa describes the trend of other local outlets and garden centres being overwhelmed and selling out of stock. “This was a big scare for people. They usually go and get their seeds, and they weren’t there. Very scary for people, myself included.” As someone who has devoted her life to food growing, this was scary even for her. She says that amongst the gardeners she knows, most have a more extensive garden since COVID-19. 

She estimates that hundreds of seasoned gardeners came through her farm this season looking to increase their food growing capacity. Of all the gardeners she knows, “Most people increased their growing: digging new beds, growing more winter keepers. And food to process like tomatoes for sauce.” For the new gardeners, many “seemed a little frantic, especially in April, as things were seemingly so dire, kind of like hoarding buying all the leeks or whatever. I had to limit the sales of some varieties. And hide some back stock.”

Photo by Rob Ironmonger

Gina feels for first-time gardeners: “They were a little bit scared. They didn’t really know what to do, what to grow, how to grow it, a lot of them had planted stuff, and of course, they would plant it too early. But some had quite a lot of success. You know that they have got little herb gardens outside their kitchens now, and I think it’s just absolutely wonderful.”

Hamsa believes strongly that small towns are an excellent spot to have a garden. “There’s lots of support. Lots of great places to shop, to get whatever you need.”

Gardeners are further supported by an excellent climate, and she says the growing season can easily be extended with a greenhouse or simple cold frame. Cold winters benefit gardens by killing off pests each year. While we are lucky to have this ideal climate for growing at this time, it is so important that our winters stay cold and there is enough summer rain to keep our food growing culture alive.

After encountering many first time gardeners, Gina decided to start a Facebook group for Trail residents to ask and answer gardening questions. The group is called Gardens, Greenhouses & Harvest. Home gardeners from all over the Kootenays have joined–240 people in total. Gina believes that many are recognizing the importance of home cooking with many local restaurant closures. Others have expressed an interest to Gina to learn how to preserve food. 

Harvesting garlic. Photo by Rob Ironmonger

Gina volunteers in organizing Trail’s farmers’ market. She also puts together videos to share on social media where she sources food from the Trail market and then has a local chef or a home cook put together a simple and delicious meal with the ingredients. The goal is for local residents to follow the step by step instructions and recreate the meal at home. One Trail resident, Erika, who is of Hungarian background, makes a traditional goulash in one of these videos. Another video features Audry, a local resident preparing authentic Russian Doukhobor Borscht. 

Gina is already busy doing what Hamsa recommends, talking with neighbours about gardening. “You don’t have to look very far to find someone with answers to your questions or stories of what they did. It’s a wonderful way to connect with people. You can be outside, stay socially distanced. I really encourage it.”

For Hamsa, gardeners’ motivations are less important than that they are trying it for the first time. The question remains, is this the start of a new era of people growing their food? Or will the kale patches and squash mounds be returned to lawns after we are in the clear from COVID-19? With no end in sight, Hamsa predicts that people will stay committed to growing food for themselves and their families at least through the pandemic. “It was a really good test run for us. I think it was a really good practice. Like our training wheels.”

Hamsa has great hope for the future of food growing. “As new gardeners begin and feel the empowerment of growing their own food, then I’m very hopeful that they will continue to do that and that we’ll see a lot more of food gardening in people’s urban environments. And even out here in more rural situations, there are a lot of people who don’t grow food who I hope will.”

Back in Trail, Toni hopes people will continue gardening after the pandemic despite the time demands of jobs. She finds the relaxing effects to be the biggest benefit. Gina is also optimistic that people will come to love gardening as she does.

“When people start to taste the food that they’re growing, and they know how it’s grown, once they taste that sun-kissed vine-ripened tomato, there’s no going back. It’s an explosion in your mouth, there’s no comparison. Gardening involves all of the senses. All of your senses come alive because your garden is so alive.”