At 53, Marlene Clow has become a first-time gardener at her nearby community garden in Stratford, P.E.I., because the price of food in stores has skyrocketed.
Community gardens across P.E.I. have seen demand increase steadily the past few years, first during the pandemic as people enjoyed renewed interest in getting their hands dirty, and this year in large part because of the high price of food.
"I think it's great to be able to grow your own food, and the price of food at the stores is just getting higher and higher so why not try and grow your own?" said Clow.
She used to eat from her father's large garden, she said, but with his death over the winter she realized her days of picking fresh, free veggies was over.
"I can't go to the grocery store to get everything, it costs too much. So it's time to do it myself," Clow said.
She plans to plant tomatoes, peppers, carrots and beans — "a little bit of everything to see what works the best for me."
Demand is 'just crazy'
Clow has prepared her plot at Stratford's community garden and will plant after the risk of frost has passed in a couple of weeks.
The garden started in 2013 with 40 plots and has grown to 87. With help from $7,000 from the local Rotary club, the town added 22 more plots this season to keep up with rising demand — all of the plots have been claimed.
"We really saw the demand go up. Even with the expansion, it's still full — just crazy," said Kaylee Busniuk with the Stratford Area Watershed Improvement Group, which partners with the town to look after the garden.
"I think a large part of it is probably the rising cost of food," said Katie Sonier, environmental sustainability co-ordinator with the Town of Stratford. "You can grow your own food for significantly less money."
A lot of people are looking for that connection to mother earth. — Roger Andrew
A plot at the garden costs $25 to $35 and includes access to tools and water, and the soil is organic — no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are used. They've started a seed-sharing basket this year, for gardeners to leave any extra seeds for others.
They have many new gardeners this year because of the expansion and many of them are newcomers to Canada.
They were pleased to hear of the provincial government's food support program of $200,000 announced this week for community organization initiatives such as gardens to expand or improve. Eligible groups will get grants of up to $10,000.
They said they plan to apply, and would put the money toward growing free vegetables for those in need.
"We don't like to see people needing that support. I'm glad they did give the money," said Busniuk. "We're thankful that they're at least thinking about the problem."
'Can always use help'
Community gardens all over P.E.I. are seeing the same increased demand.
Jamie MacKay runs the community garden in Kensington he started five years ago, called Ross's place after his father. Plots there are free.
He started with 12 plots, and it's grown to 50. There's space for another 12, he said.
"I know there is that need," to grow food because of inflated grocery prices, MacKay said. He also sees a lot of seniors who garden not only for food but for mental and physical health and social connections.
MacKay builds the garden boxes and buys supplies himself, even though he doesn't plant a garden himself, so he is also interested in accessing the provincial government money.
"I can always use help that way. Every year there is expenses. There's manure, there's fertilizer, there's lime, there's fuel for the rototiller, there's maintenance, paint for the boxes," he said.
"A lot of it does come out of my pocket. If it's available yeah, I probably definitely will be applying to try and get some help."
Ross's Place is adding a community offering plot this year to grow free vegetables for anyone to take for free.
"We'll bag them up and put them out front on a picnic table and anybody who needs food can come in and take them," he said.
"It's hard times all around, people are having a hard time paying for fuel ... it's got to come from somewhere."
Legacy Garden waiting list
Phil Ferraro helps run the Legacy Garden behind the P.E.I. Farm Centre in Charlottetown, one of three community gardens in the city. It began in 2014 with 85 community garden plots. Ferraro says demand for plots is strong every year.
There are now more than 200 plots, and a waiting list of 10 to 15 people. Ferraro believes the Legacy Garden is the largest urban farm in eastern Canada.
There's a bit of room left to expand, he said, but new plots would need an expanded irrigation system. He plans to apply for a share of the provincial government funding for that.
"Between the necessity of growing food for food security and the increasing cost of food at the grocery store, I think every community garden is probably experiencing the same demand as we are," he said.
The Legacy Garden grows food for the community and gives away about 10,000 kilograms of food annually to the local food bank, shelters and other charities, Ferraro said. Those who wish to help harvest that food also get to take home a share.
Ferraro believes climate change is "creating havoc" in Canada's food industry, and says the food system has to change to grow more local produce. He points out storms, droughts, civil unrest and war all have an impact on the food system.
As part of the City of Charlottetown's Food Council, he's urging the city to create more community gardens.
'Connection to mother earth'
Lenore and Roger Andrew are avid gardeners who volunteer to oversee the community garden in Montague behind Hillcrest United Church.
The garden added seven new large plots this year for a total of 25, with a few still available. The couple is excited a local youth camp has taken one of the plots for the summer to teach kids about growing their own food.
"Through the pandemic perhaps people were looking to get back to the earth a little bit," Roger Andrew said. "It's do-it-yourself problem solving ... helping to feed yourself, and also helping to feed your soul, because it does connect you with the earth. And a lot of people are looking for that connection to mother earth."
The Andrews said a church committee will decide if it will apply for a share of the government funding. If they do, Roger said there's a need for infrastructure such as a water source.
The plots at the Montague garden are provided for free.