Act: Inspiration

Growing in the Quarantine: Urban Gardening, Alone and Together

May 18, 2020

“No more food coming!” These words filled my message inbox from a friend living on the east coast. In conversations with nearby farmers and grocery store managers, her concerns were that even if farmers continue producing, the manufacturers could close and therefore food would not get to Canadians. With borders closing, the reliance of our food system on seasonal workers became even more evident and questions around who would grow our food arose. In the time of a pandemic, we have begun to value work differently. The few at the front lines are bearing the load of the whole: doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and all hospital workers are managing our overloaded health care system. And the factory workers, the grocery clerks and shelf-stockers, and the migrant workers in the agricultural fields, some of the previously lowest valued workers, are keeping Canadians fed.

The virus has shaken up the world we expect to see every day. We have a sense of trust in the food system and this unprecedented experience has broken that trust, along with the trust in our economic system and ways of organizing economic lives. And with this, our ability to move freely, travel, work, see and touch those around us, and for many people, survive.

COVID19 has inspired Canadians to grow their own food (Macleans, 2020) and that is exactly what my friend urged me to do. “Set up dressers or tables under every window you have” were her instructions and I was excited to pick up my first spinach, dill, and marigolds. While for different reasons, this reminded me of words by Indigenous plant ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013, p. 126-127)

“People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore the relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, ‘Plant a garden.’ It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate – once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself. Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It’s a place where if you can’t say “I love you” out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans.”

As I write this, I am sitting on my balcony surrounded by my seeds that have grown into sprouts: spinach, marigold, dill, zinnias, and chives. I am giving them temporary sunlight so as to not shock them once they are planted in the garden soil in May.  The buds are coming from the trees, the 8 degree weather feels like heaven, and a little girl has just excitedly proclaimed “spring is here!” while jumping on her backyard trampoline. This piece is my effort to better understand the food system that I am supported by, and within this think and feel through my own process of starting my garden and sharing it with my neighbours through an initiative that arose at the perfect time.

I came across a movement called Food Up Front started by Transition Toronto which aimed to support folks in gathering their communities around local food. Transition Toronto is sharing seeds from the Toronto Seed Library and are asking people to grow a veggie patch, “visibly and proudly”, in their front yards, porches, balconies, or sidewalk planters with a sign that displays Food Up Front to spark conversations with neighbours. In addition to giving out seeds to individuals, they were asking if people would volunteer to be Community Activators, people who would share seeds with their neighbours. With a mask, gloves, and a hope that dropping off a paper note wasn’t completely foolish during a pandemic (mail is still delivered, right?), I went door to door and dropped off these pamphlets in mailboxes and front gates. Text messages and phone calls began the following day, with curious, excited, hesitant, and grateful neighbours reaching out for some seeds.

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This project came with many lessons. The first is the power of imagination. Food Up Front has a strong image of what it would like to inspire: communities reclaiming their food production and proudly displaying it to their neighbours to improve food security at the local scale.  Through this project, imagined and initiated by a person I have never met, I was able to share seeds with seven individuals on my street, sharing the imagination, which in turn they may share with others. My hopes for my own garden were amplified by this project and encouraged a deeper understanding about the potential of my little sprouts.

Another lesson was the importance of place. Starting from where we are, there is an opportunity to use the resources that surround us to create food systems that respond to the realities of the environment and the needs of the community. This movement gets people starting from their precise location, the place they are, to identify what seeds fit into their environment while simultaneously creating connections with those around us to do the same.

Listening was another lesson. Inherently connected to place, growing food requires taking stock of your resources- sunlight, temperature, time, money, and personal energy, among others- and using them to listen and respond to the needs of your garden. It is important to note that Indigenous communities have long understood the importance of listening to the natural world, and it is from these communities that much of this wisdom has been gained.  I have personally found that tending to seeds, sprouts, and an eventual garden has improved my sense of noticing and subsequent listening.

And lastly, it came with the lesson of affect, described by Professor Neera Singh as the power to affect and be affected. My sister and I often talk about our gardens, celebrating the first sprout, tracing changes and growth, sharing over-or-under watering concerns, and often talk about the simple and uncomplicated love we have for them.  In this role I am a caretaker (perhaps helicopter parent is a more fitting term) and I feel a growing connection with the more time I spend on and with these non-human beings. This relationship changes me. And in connecting and sharing the potential of change with my neighbours, new forms of cooperation and communication arise. Though conversations have been limited, there is a trace of community, a light footprint, that did not exist before.

While the production of food will likely continue, with the Ontario and beyond governments identifying reopening dates coming soon, my friend’s concerns acted as a wake up call to the reality that I- along with most others- am entirely disconnected from the people, processes, and environments that produce the food I put in my body. Beginning with a few seeds, the happenstance connection with Food Up Front offered encouragement to thinking about personal food production and sharing that with people near me. Should it continue, this movement can increase overall food in a community, reducing the complete reliance on large-scale agricultural production and perhaps allowing folks to feel better suited in the event of another shock such as COVID19.  Professor Neera Singh outlines how ecological crises challenge us to invest in different modes of humanity and of ways to belong in a post-natural world. While COVID19 was not the ecological crisis we had in mind, it has undoubtedly challenged us to consider alternatives to our ways of being and belonging. I will continue taking the advice of Kimmerer, planting and tending to my garden and being open to listening to what it has to say.

Works cited:

Kimmerer, R. K (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.

Singh, N. (2013). The affective labor of growing forests and the becoming of environmental subjects: Rethinking environmentality in Odisha, India. Geoforum, 47, 189-198.


Teaser photo image: Toronto Seed Library Facebook page

Claire Stevenson-Blythe

Claire Stevenson-Blythe is an Urban Planner in the City of Toronto. Her interests are in community-driven and inclusive development, environmental sustainability, and the importance of policy in community change.

Tags: building resiient food and farming systems, coronavirus strategies, urban gardening