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Shut-in urbanites discovering their green thumbs amid pandemic lockdown


Anita Clarke had been thinking about starting a vegetable garden on her balcony for a while before COVID-19 lockdown. But it was always easy to put off, the Toronto-based Shopify managing editor says.

So, when the city shut down in March and she found herself with spare time on her hands, she decided to hop on the opportunity. She invested around $300 in supplies — like planters, soil, and seedlings — and got started.

The white brick walls of her balcony are now lined with a vibrant array of greenery; basil, kale, catnip, lettuce, tomatoes, and oregano live in colourful pots and bask in the direct sunlight that her west-facing space receives every day from 2 p.m. onward.

Though it's still too early to harvest much of what she's growing, Clarke hopes to get a few meals worth of produce out of her new garden. And she's not alone: A growing number of Canadian millennials are discovering their green thumbs during COVID-19 lockdown as a way to fill time, improve their home atmosphere, and reduce the money and time spent on grocery shopping.

"A lot of the things that I had put off for so long, I was like 'Well now's the time to get that all set up," Clarke says. "The garden was kind of part of that too."

Emily Compton has used extra time spent sheltering in place to expand the vegetable garden she started last summer on the balcony of her Kitchener-Waterloo duplex. The litigation lawyer and her partner kept upfront costs low by starting the garden from seeds (which run at a lower price than seedlings or plant transplants) and growing them in repurposed Home Hardware buckets.

Compton says she's already begun to reap the benefits of her new and improved balcony garden, which is nearly double the size of last year's and includes chard, zucchini, cherry tomato, basil, kale, potato, and strawberry plants. She's already plucked leaves off her rapidly growing basil plants and has turned trimmings from her chard and kale plants into lunchtime salads.

"We're eating a lot of greens right now," Compton says. She predicts that by the end of the summer, her garden will have yielded at least seven to ten days' worth of meals for two people.

Among homegrown plants that offer the highest return on investment are potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, beans, and zucchini, Compton says. "Anyone who's ever grown zucchini knows that by the end of the summer you will never want to look at a zucchini again," she adds with a laugh.

She also suggests taking advantage of techniques that boost plant growth, like three sisters gardening — a method discovered by Indigenous communities in the Americas in which corn, beans, and squash are planted together to boost each other's growth.

"The beans nitrogenize the soil to help facilitate better growing conditions, the squash provide shade to the soil so that more moisture is retained, and the corn provides a tall vertical space for the beans to grow upon," Compton explains. Employing this technique has improved her garden's yield over the years, though she notes the method is most effective in a large backyard or community garden, rather than on a balcony, where light and space are limited.

Compton also suggests first-time gardeners start with secondhand items to get the most bang for their buck. Used pots are plentiful on sites like Facebook Marketplace, and contactless purchases are easy to set up with an e-transfer and a bit of preparation.

There are also ample community-based resources for sharing supplies and knowledge across the country. Look for neighbourhood- or city-specific Facebook groups or local gardening clubs in your area, where members share ideas, tips for tending to plants, and free or reduced-price seeds and transplants.

To Clarke, the most difficult part of starting a vegetable garden was exactly that — getting started. "The initial setup is where most of the work is," she says. Now that her plants are in full growth mode and her daily duties don't extend far beyond keeping them watered, Clarke says she derives "way more pleasure" from watching her garden grow than she ever expected to.

"It's nice to see the progression," she says. "It's a change, which helps a lot right now because … we've been sitting in our places for so long, everything kind of seems the same."

"Seeing that first tomato," she adds, "I'm staring at it right now and I'm just like, 'oh my god. I'm so excited.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2020

Audrey Carleton, The Canadian Press