Gardeners can now enjoy the home-grown vegetables. For those living in the City, however, this urban lifestyle can reinforce their belief that gardens are an extra, maybe even a hobby. But not a necessity.
In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets remained open due to their vital role in our daily lives. The Ontario government initially closed down community gardens, ignoring the fact that gardens are also a source of food. After public pressure, the gardens were reopened.
We are public health researchers who have a long-standing interest in food and health systems. We’ve discovered that gardens, contrary to popular belief, are vital to human life.
This conclusion was reached after interviews with gardeners from Toronto, a survey that included more than 100 participants, and extensive participant observations — in this case, gardening together. Participants in the study included people who tended to plants growing food inside their apartments, as well as those who tended community plots, rooftop gardens, and yard gardens. The findings of our study are published in Food, Culture & Society, a peer-reviewed publication.
Growing food in the City
A community garden in Downtown Toronto. (Sarah Elton), Author supplied
You have to be dedicated to growing food. You have to weed and water your garden, as well as deal with squirrels or raccoons that might try to get the food before you.
If you do not have your plot, you may need to invest in equipment and seeds. You might also be required to pay a fee to the City to access an allotment. You must also consider the time it takes to travel if your garden is not near your home. After all this, your crop may fail.
Despite rising prices, there is plenty of produce in the grocery stores. To better understand gardening in cities, we asked people why they do it.
Most people believe that gardening is good for your health. One retired worker summarized it well:
In winter, you need to work out more. In summer, if I skip the gym, I don’t mind because I do more.
Other people have noticed that gardening is good for their mental health. The plants made them feel calm and their minds alert. The gardens were a great way to get people up in the morning when they had mental health issues.
Several people even saw the plants as companions. One participant said, “My garden has helped me live a healthier life.” They noted that gardening contributed to their happiness.
Food and food security
Unsurprisingly, food was another reason people gave us for gardening. The majority of gardeners grow a variety of plants that produce food. In fact, 31 percent of survey respondents reported increasing the number of different types by 10-20.
Importantly, many of the low-income gardeners interviewed stressed that gardening was important to their food security. One gardener who owns a small plot of land owned by a church told us that she had grown so much food she didn’t need to shop at the supermarket during the summer. This helped her family with their finances.
Food grown in cities is not just consumed by the growers but also shared with their friends and families. (Pixabay)
One gardener was able to make a substantial contribution to his family by growing enough vegetables to not only eat during the summer months but also to freeze in winter. One woman grew organic food that she could not afford to buy at the supermarket.
The food was not just kept for the individual but also shared with family and friends.
Growing their vegetables is a great way for gardeners with cultural ties from other countries. Some of them are also new immigrants.
One man said, “We left, but we still wanted the taste,” when asked why he grew a type of spinach from South Asia. These vegetables are not as fresh and can be expensive at the grocery store if they’re available.
Our findings are based on what other researchers found about the benefits gardens can provide to culture, health, and food security.
Urban gardening and health
How might policymakers approach gardening differently if the growing of food in city gardens is important for health, food security, and culture?
Gardens are an essential part of our food system. The people who maintain them, as well as the people on wait lists who are looking for space in the City to grow food and may not own a space themselves, find gardens important.
People who own their home were more likely in our survey to say that they have been growing food for more than ten years. Many homeowners have outdoor space, such as a balcony or yard. Others may not. The pandemic brought to light how fragile and inequitable many of our ecosocial systems were. Other researchers documented the way people turned towards gardens during this time.
The government, schools, churches, and apartment and condo owners, as well as other institutions that have jurisdiction over land, must act to ensure secure access to gardens, especially for those who do not have a yard.
As an important part of our food systems, we should invest more in public gardens.