Many more people taking up vegetable gardening in Comox Valley

Plant centres and nurseries seeing more demand to grow edible crops

Gardening centres in the Comox Valley have noticed a trend in recent weeks, as more people have been coming in to try their hand at gardening edible crops.

The reasons are varied: more time from work downturns or at least more time at home for those working from home, less income or unpredictability about what food is on the shelves when people do visit the grocery store.

Food security has suddenly become a priority for many people, and garden centres have noticed more new faces coming in as well as a switch away from interest in ornamentals in the garden.

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Art Knapp’s Plantland in Courtenay has reduced hours and staffing but has had more people looking to grow food. The store has seen a huge demand in seeds, fruiting shrubs and trees, and vegetable starts. Many customers are telling staff they now have more time to take up gardening or are concerned about food security, especially from living on an island.

The Gardens on Anderton in Comox has faced a similar spike in interest from new and experienced gardeners alike – some who have more time, some who want a food source nearby and some who want the therapeutic benefits from working in a garden.

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“It’s like May already,” owner Ellen Presley told the Record shortly before Easter. “We’re having to triple our orders.“

They have had trouble keeping up with demands for crops like potatoes and onions, or any edibles.

“We can’t keep our lettuce starts in stock,” she said. “We’re growing it as fast as we can.”

Many previous customers who have had flower beds before are switching over to vegetables. To help customers, Presley points to further resources to learn more like the West Coast Seeds website.

“They have a really good site on how to grow plants,” she said.

Some offer a word of caution. Cassandra Haigh of Paradise Plants on Hardy Road, too, has had people she’s never seen before come in wishing to grow edible plants, and she has always encouraged clients to grow their own food. It’s not so simple to go from greenhorn to green thumb though, as Haigh says for inexperienced gardeners, suddenly jumping into a new and complicated practice is likely to yield as much frustration as it is actual edible crops. All the distancing measures also make it hard for staff to help new clients directly right now.

“It’s been difficult because this has been out of a lot of people’s leagues,” she said. “There’s a lot of people doing a lot of trial and error this year.”

She recommends starting modestly or consider things like certain fruits, such as blueberries or raspberries.

“Berries are a very rewarding crop,” she said. “Those I know that they’ll be eating this year and having some success.”

Then there are related issues like learning how to compost properly, something that takes time to learn.

If there is a blessing, Haigh says, it is that this interest is happening in spring as opposed to August, so people have a little more time to get things in the ground.

In the big picture, she thinks the public health crisis is pointing to a broader food security crisis, and that ultimately people are going to have to take a hard look at the importance of food, what we eat, how we produce it and where we produce it. She points to experiences like driving around the Italian neighbourhoods in Vancouver, where families don’t have lawns; they have tomatoes.

“I think going forward we’re in for a massive change,” she said. “I think we’re going to go back to those old country values in terms of what gardening really should be…. I think people realize how vulnerable they are.”

Beyond the stores, community organizations are trying to keep up with a growing interest in growing food. There are organizations like the Comox Valley Horticultural Society that offer education, resources and networking opportunities for gardeners. While its meetings, workshops and other events are currently cancelled, they still offer lots of ideas for people through the website.

With much of the interest of late springing from people’s food security concerns, LUSH Valley Food Action Society has a number of projects happening, including distributing food to vulnerable members of the community. They are also working on a podcast around issues such as food security in a pandemic and how to be prepared rather than panic.

One of the new initiatives is Grow Food Everywhere, which even has its own Facebook page, with more than 1,000 members already.

“It’s really great to see the community response,” said Maurita Prato, LUSH’s executive director.

Bo Del Valle Garcia, the co-ordinator, had been hired a few weeks earlier as co-ordinator for the community garden project.

“That position really no longer exists,” she said.

The pandemic forced her to adapt to a new job quickly: that of overseeing ways to help people produce food locally by supporting backyard and smaller growers. It was clear there was a sudden need for education and materials, including seeds. As well, they have had to respond to challenges such as seed hoarding.

“We’re trying to target all of those gaps right now,” Del Valle Garcia said.

Grow Food Everywhere has a couple of branches for the campaign: an educational component and one devoted to resources. The educational one was launched quickly and includes a weekly webinar on gardening topics. There are also plans in the works for a mentorship program that will connect new gardeners with more experienced ones.

“I’m really trying to harness that motivation and that energy,” Del Valle Garcia said.

The recent interest does provide groups like LUSH an opportunity to get more people thinking more about how food is produced and how they can be a part of the process.

“It’s such a great thing that people can actually do while they’re stuck at home, if they have a little bit of space,” Prato said.

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Businesses like Art Knapp’s Plantland have seen more people interested in growing vegetables this spring. Photo by Mike Chouinard

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