April 30, 2020

COVID-19 gardening: Get grounded and grow your own food

In an unsettling season, Calgary horticulture experts say tending a garden is a gratifying path to increased personal resilience as well as sustainability

Right up there with yoga and knitting, gardening has long ranked at or near the top of mentally and physically healthy activities. It burns calories, strengthens the immune system, relieves stress and can have an uplifting effect on mood.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only does the world need more such positive focus than ever, but the most obvious upshot of gardening is, of course, a cornucopia (or at least an impressive handful) of home-grown veggies. In this angst-ridden era, producing our own food has never been more meaningful.

Traci Berg, a program co-ordinator and instructor with UCalgary’s Continuing Education programs, is a seasoned vegetable gardener. For four years, she lived off the grid in Tahsis, a town of 317 (now 316) on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “I wanted to grow my own food and learn more about my own footprint,” says Berg, who will begin her Master of Landscape Architecture at UCalgary this coming fall.

Calgary weather? No problem!

From Tahsis, the nearest grocery store was a two-hour drive, making onerous the prospect of popping into a store — something we can all currently relate to. In moving back to Calgary in 2014, Berg was undaunted by the less temperate climate. “I brought my self-sustainability with me and, though the climate is different, gardening can be done really well here.”

This season, here in Calgary, she’ll grow everything from broccoli and cauliflower to herbs and a variety of greens. In growing food, Berg says she finds fulfilling connection, tackles challenges and celebrates constant, small victories — a tiny universe of joy and resilience in her backyard.

Kale, lettuce, tomato, leek, nasturtium and Brussels sprout seedlings, as well as soon-to-sprout golden zucchini, thrive in Traci's house as they await outdoor planting in a couple of weeks.

Kale, lettuce, tomato, leek, nasturtium and Brussels sprout seedlings, as well as soon-to-sprout golden zucchini, thrive in Traci Berg's house as they await outdoor planting in a couple of weeks.

Traci Berg

Supportive online community

“With the stress of the pandemic, people want to go outside more than ever, and we want to talk and share,” says Berg. Gardening, she believes, can give us the connection and purpose we’re craving. “There’s a really strong, supportive online community of gardeners ­— we share our learnings and accomplishments with one another constantly.” As well, planting and growing food gives shape and meaning to our days at home, which roll at a slower pace than many of us are used to.

When we see the fruits of our labour, so to speak, we get a sense of accomplishment. Everyone can do that — raise something, give it life, see it take on a life of its own … that’s inspiring at a time when it’s hard to find inspiration elsewhere.

Not only that but, while our industrial food system isn’t going anywhere, there is currently added pressure on an already strained system. Certainly, there’s something to be said for having access to food right outside your door. “I think having some control over our food at this time of economic and social change brings resilience.”

Even having a couple of different herbs in a pot on your porch, says Berg, can save a trip to the grocery store. “There’s been a lot of change dropped on us all at once and gardening can help us feel stronger, less stressed, a little more in control.”

How you can get started gardening now

This week, Berg and Kath Smyth, a zone 4a gardening guru with the Calgary Horticultural Society, co-instruct a Continuing Education course titled Vegetable Gardening: Growing Resilience. They’ll cover food gardening methods, site prep, soil health and planting and harvesting tips.

Meanwhile, Berg recommends planting warmer weather seeds indoors right now, in small plastic containers with drainage, but she gives the green light to sew peas, radish, spinach, and chards into garden beds now to get a jump on the season. "They can withstand — and actually like — a little cold."

Otherwise, the next couple of weeks are an exercise in restraint. Berg suggests we try to “resist the urge to disturb our gardens just yet. Leaf cover, she says, is “prime habitat for ladybugs and other beneficial insects so don’t rake — just leave it as long as you can.”

Above all, she says, the best thing you can do for yourself now and all summer long, whatever you’re growing, is “discover the sunny spots in your yard, listen to the birds and watch your garden grow.” It’s food at its slowest, most gratifying pace.

Get started:

Connect with local gardeners

Seek out fellow Calgary green thumbs on social media or become an online member of YYC: Calgary Horticultural Society or the Permaculture Calgary Guild.