Story by Matt Prokopchuk

Officials with Roots To Harvest in Thunder Bay say they’re ready for another season of planting and harvesting at their two gardening properties in the city, despite new regulations in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The not-for-profit urban agriculture organization is “excited” that the provincial government announced in April that community gardens are an essential service, says Kim McGibbon, Roots To Harvest’s food and kitchen director. McGibbon also is one of the staff members that coordinates the community garden program. She added that Roots To Harvest contributed to cross-Canada discussions and advocacy around the gardens being considered essential during the pandemic.

People will be working differently this year, however, McGibbon says, as the Thunder Bay District Health Unit has implemented guidelines for community gardens, including rules and recommendations around access, social distancing, reducing the number of visits to the property, as well as washing and sanitizing hands and equipment.

“Each of our plots are 10 feet by 10 feet, approximately,” she says. “We’re asking people to not go to the garden if someone is in the plot right beside theirs … to either come back later or to wait from a distance for that person to be finished.”

People will also have to bring their own watering cans this year, if they are able, McGibbon says; additionally, sanitizer will be on-site at each property’s water access. Extra signage will also be visible and plot holders will have to review the public health guidelines when they sign their seasonal waiver, which has also been revised.

One of Roots To Harvest’s gardens is located on Lakehead Public Schools property on Lillie Street on the south side, while the other is on city-owned land at Volunteer Pool on the north side of town. Both gardens have space where Roots To Harvest staff and volunteers cultivate fruits, vegetables and herbs, as well as dozens of community garden plots where individuals plant and grow their own food.

The group is also getting many more inquiries from the public about how to grow one’s own fruits and vegetables, McGibbon says. As well, seeds are in very high demand.

“People are so keen about gardening this year and there are concerns around food and access to food and food security,” she says. “I think [the pandemic] has people thinking about where their food comes from … and that they don’t have as much control over it as they may have thought.”

“Going to the grocery stores and seeing the shelves empty, I think that made people nervous.”

The pandemic means that Roots To Harvest’s usual programming at the gardens won’t be happening, McGibbon says, however, the organization is now hosting regular webinars due to the large number of questions staff are fielding.

“It’s good that people will have the opportunity to get outside still and be connected to the soil,” McGibbon says. “I think it has a big role in people’s mental health as well as their physical health.”

The community gardens open to those who have plots on May 25.