BY Yordan Ivanov & Anne-Sophie Jobin

What started as a test run for Julee Cunanan gradually blossomed into a passion. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the 19-year-old has embraced gardening as part of her daily routine.

She enjoys spending time tending to her plants.

“I like to talk to the plants as if they were my babies.”

During the early stages of the lockdown, Cunanan tried several things to help her cope with anxiety and boredom. Eventually, she found gardening.

Julee Cunanan tends to her garden to boost her mental health

Julee Cunanan waters her plants as part of her daily routine. Photo courtesy of Julee Cunanan.

“It all started after watching a Tik Tok video on how to replant store-bought vegetables. My first plants were green onions. Seeing them grow, gave me a sense of responsibility and comfort, and I was instantly hooked.”

From there, Cunanan began to expand her produce. She planted vegetables during the summer of 2020. She recalls with a smile how good she felt watering her tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers after work.

Cunanan was not alone in her journey to gardening. Researchers from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University suggest that almost one in five Canadians started gardening in 2020. They report that 67 per cent of new Canadian gardeners say the pandemic was their main impetus due to its effects on their social lives.

A gardening centre in Notre-Dame-de-Grace, a scene that boosts mental health

The gardening centre at Réno-Dépôt NDG is currently a hotspot for supplies with the new gardening season ahead. Photo by Yordan Ivanov.

The surge in 2020 offered gardening centres an unexpected opportunity for success. Because of the practice of self-isolation and physical distancing, most major chains and local stores had to close down for an indefinite amount of time, with the only exception being essential businesses.

During the first wave, gardening centres and greenhouses in Quebec fell prey to the restrictions put in place by the government. But that didn’t last long.

“It was the big turnout of people wanting to garden that won us the status of an essential business,” said Jennifer Dick, a sales representative for the company Urban Seedling in Verdun.

Under pressure from gardening enthusiasts and garden centre owners, Premier Legault allowed the sector to reopen on April 15, 2020.

It sparked what Dick refers to as a boom in the gardening industry.

She says that they were lucky enough not only to stay in business, but to actually make a profit since everyone wanted a garden. In its ten years of existence, Urban Seedling has never experienced such drastic growth.

“Last year, it really exploded with the pandemic,” says Dick. “People were either buying the wood and the materials and building garden beds themselves or they would [hire us] to build it for them.”

As the 2021 season approached, the company had already received a lot of seed orders.

“We ordered a lot more than we had in previous years, but even when we’ve tried to order more to restock, all of the providers [appear] to be out of stock.”

As demand continues to skyrocket, the gardening trend is causing shortages. “There is a seeds deficit. They are equivalent to gold now,” Dick adds.

In addition, the Agri-Food Analytics Lab notes that 52.6 per cent of people who took up gardening last year fear possible food shortages. That is why many have found alternative, sustainable ways to produce and provide seeds.

Some innovations in urban gardening, since seeds are selling out in stores and people have to find alternative ways of being independant. Video by Anne-Sophie Jobin.

As well as being physically active in their new pastime, many have found the green lifestyle to be also beneficial for their mental health.

“Nature-based therapy has always been a big part of the solution to help people who feel isolated,” said Cheney Creamer, chair of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association.

As a specialist in nature-based therapy, also known as horticulture therapy, Creamer was not surprised by the instant success of the so-called pandemic garden. She says that there is a growing realization of how important it is to connect with nature.

“Gardens used to be seen as something that was a hobby for certain people,” she says. “But now the secret is out, and everybody knows how therapeutic the garden is.”

According to Creamer, gardening has become one of the activities that has come to the forefront as a very obvious way for people to escape the feelings of isolation by engaging with nature.

Seedlings produced at the Serres Sylvain Cléroux.

Seedlings produced at the Serres Sylvain Cléroux. Photo by Anne-Sophie Jobin.

Felice Yuen, an expert in leisure and recreation studies, agrees that there are many positive aspects to gardening.

“Relationality is a basic human need. It doesn’t have to be with another human or animal, it could also very well be with plants,” she says.

Gardening can also provide a sense of regularity and structure and motivate people who suffer from depression to increase their daily physical activity. Yuen gives the example of an individual who doesn’t have the energy to go out for a walk but maybe who can trick themselves into going out to water the plants.

“The reasons are different, but the outcome ends up being the same,” she says.

The Serres Sylvain Cléroux greenhouse.

The Serres Sylvain Cléroux had to nearly double their production in the past year, by renting greenhouses and using their space more efficiently. Photo by Anne-Sophie Jobin.

“I would hope that now there is a certain appreciation for gardening and for nature,” says Yuen.
“Along with the trend of food security and sustainability, and being local, I believe it will continue because [people] will want to see it through once [they] have invested their time in it.”

For enthusiasts like Cunanan, gardening has certainly made a difference. It is what has provided structure in her routine during her time in quarantine after recently testing positive for COVID-19.

“Getting in touch with nature and reducing my screen time helped me stay optimistic. So, I believe it is a skill that everyone should try to learn.”

This isn’t the first time Canadians turn to gardening in trying times. History remembers a similar case from the last century. Quiz by Yordan Ivanov.

Main photo by Anne-Sophie Jobin.
Published May 4, 2021.