Gardens of the future: how your plants at home can help address national food security

Artist Lori Weidenhammer on community building through victory gardening

Jadine Ngan

My pandemic summer of gardening began with a single pothos plant — originally my mother’s — from which I took three cuttings. I placed the cuttings in glass jars of water on the windowsill and waited.

It was the spring of 2020, and I was grieving the loss of the life I’d built in Toronto. When the pandemic hit, I packed up my rented room in a few days and flew home to Richmond, BC. I had no sense of when I’d return to the big city I’d just begun to love. But soon my pothos cuttings started rooting, and I began to look forward to watching the baby leaves unfurl.

Drawn to that feeling, I soon found myself going to the garden centre with my mom. I filled a plastic tray with vegetable and herb seedlings, and at home, I transplanted the seedlings to larger pots.

Nearly every day for the next few months, I picked our plants up and moved them morning, afternoon, and evening to chase the moving pool of sunlight in our backyard. With the image of empty, panic-buying grocery store shelves fresh in my mind, I was newly aware of the potential that seeds, soil, sunlight, and water offered. Gardening gave me a sense of control at a time when the circumstances of my life felt wildly out of my hands.

I wasn’t the only one trying to grow food for the first time during the pandemic. Researchers at Dalhousie University found that nearly one in five Canadians began gardening in 2020. In California, a farming operations director observed that people were rushing to buy gardening supplies, and in the UK, seed sales skyrocketed.

“Everyone who can seems to be ‘victory gardening,’ ” Rebecca Onion wrote in Slate, comparing 2020’s gardening phenomenon to the vegetable gardens that sprung up during World War I and II. My garden didn’t produce as much food as I had hoped, so sometimes I would walk with my family to admire a local community garden where much more productive plants thrived. “Victory Gardens for Diversity” read several small signs propped up in the dirt.

As 2020’s growing season drew to a close, I sat down with Lori Weidenhammer, who helmed Victory Gardens for Diversity. Born in Cactus Lake, Saskatchewan, Weidenhammer is an interdisciplinary artist by trade, but she grew up gardening with her mother. In learning about her approach to gardening and the Victory Gardens project, I realized that, if victory gardens are an urban crisis response rooted in community mobilization, maybe they shouldn’t disappear when COVID-19 ends.

After all, pandemics and wars aren’t the only disasters we face: we deal with a range of long-term crises in Canadian cities, including food insecurity and urban alienation. If those of us with pandemic victory gardens keep them around after the pandemic ends, we can strengthen our relationships and improve our food sources, thus easing the strain of those crises.

Above all, when we tend to gardens, we’re not just nurturing vegetables. We’re looking after ourselves, our communities, and our future.

Gardening for connection and community

When the City of Richmond released a call for a 2020 artist-in-residency, Weidenhammer saw an opportunity to explore the idea of victory gardening. “I really like the idea of people banding together to help the community to grow food for the community,” she said.

For her 2016 book, Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees, Weidenhammer had conducted research on the history of victory gardens. During the world wars, anxiety about food supply had combined with patriotism to drive the development of victory gardens.

“Grow vitamins at your kitchen door,” one advertisement from the United States Department of Agriculture read. “Uncle Sam says: garden to cut food costs,” read another. Weidenhammer found that “the idea was to use any available land that was nearby,” including “churchyards, schoolyards, and backyards,” to cultivate nourishing, home-grown food. Some Londoners even started a victory garden in a bomb crater. “It was a real morale booster,” she told me.

Weidenhammer was selected for the residency, and she reached out to other local artists to begin collaborations for the project. Victory Gardens received a plot of land at a community garden in Terra Nova, Richmond, where Weidenhammer wanted to grow biodiverse plants with various purposes, such as dye plants, tea plants, and vegetables. “I started a lot of the seedlings on my back porch, and then we transported them up to the garden,” she said.

There was no way she could have known that a global crisis was close at hand and that victory gardening would soon undergo a resurgence from when she first envisioned the project. When COVID-19 hit, Weidenhammer and her collaborators began meeting online, pivoting away from in-person community engagement and toward visual presentations and garden talks.

“The garden talks were really popular because, of course, everybody started gardening,” she said. “People were really hungry for that knowledge.”

Today, Weidenhammer lives in Vancouver, on the north side of the Fraser River. In her neighbourhood, “people are digging up their front lawns and gardening,” planting beets, kale, and other vegetables. Apart from the Victory Gardens project, she began a two-block diet with some of her neighbours — within the two blocks where they live, they grow food and share it with one another. “I’ve developed some really strong friendships from that,” she said. “It really changes your quality of life.”

According to Weidenhammer, that newfound sense of community has been invaluable — particularly during the pandemic. Now, she says, if she needs something she knows that she can reach out to her neighbours. “Someone will knock on your door and say, ‘Do you need any groceries? I’m going to the grocery store.’ ” Gardening gave her neighbourhood a newfound support network, to the point where when one neighbour fell ill, the others came together and developed a plan to help them.

Even when Weidenhammer isn’t working on a specific project, she uses gardening to connect with those around her. Down the hill from her home, she keeps a garden that she calls her sharing plot because she grows it to share knowledge and food. “I usually have to spend an extra hour down there because I’m chatting with someone and talking about gardening. And then a preschool class will come by, and I’ll get them to water my garden,” she said. “It’s like an outdoor classroom.”

However, not everyone in cities has an appreciation for these outdoor classrooms, and many lack a connection with nature. Weidenhammer said that some people call that phenomenon “plant blindness,” but she prefers the term ‘nature deficit disorder.’

As part of the Victory Gardens for Diversity project, Weidenhammer hosted nature walks in the area of the garden site in an effort to promote ecological engagement in the culturally diverse local community. She worked with preschoolers to nurture an early love of plants and insects, and later invited art students from Emily Carr University of Art + Design to work in the garden.

The appreciation for nature Weidenhammer seeks to impart can give people access to new relationships and ways of being in community. She told me about a community garden in the Riley Park neighbourhood of Vancouver that is walking distance from where she lives. Some gardens use the one person, one plot system to designate certain patches of soil for individuals, but Weidenhammer noticed that those gardens have waiting lists that span years.

“What we found was that people didn’t know how to garden, and so what they wanted to do is just… cooperatively garden the whole plot,” she said. Now, that community garden holds “work parties, and people come and they grow and they harvest together… so it has that victory garden spirit to it.”

Gardening for food and the future

Weidenhammer’s family has roots in a Saskatchewan hamlet called Bounty, and she told me that they have a long relationship with food insecurity. Weidenhammer’s grandparents were prairie farmers during the Great Depression and the 1930s dust bowl. One family photograph captures her grandmother and father standing in a field; there had been so little rain that the ground was shot through with cracks.

As a result of that experience, Weidenhammer’s grandmother never threw away food, which sometimes meant that others needed to clean out moldy food when she wasn’t home. Weidenhammer inherited that Depression-era mentality of food scarcity: “I get panicky if there’s not enough food in the pantry,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I love gardening.”

The history behind victory gardens seems to run parallel to her personal history. When the US federal government got behind the Victory Garden program during World War II, Americans gardening at home managed to produce 40 per cent of the country’s fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

Although no similar estimates are available for COVID-19 victory gardens, it’s not hard to see the potential that these gardens have for feeding our communities. They could fill a real need: during the pandemic, one in seven Canadians is experiencing food insecurity, representing the worsening of a crisis that predated 2020 — in 2017–2018, 4.4 million people in Canada qualified as food insecure.

When Victory Gardens for Diversity came to a close in October 2020, Weidenhammer shared the lessons she’d learned from the initiative and the future she visualized for gardening in a webinar titled “Kinder Gardens.” Much of that vision revolved around food security.

To Weidenhammer, truly noticing the plants around us could lead us to notice food sources that we currently overlook. For example, she often sees rose hips and hawfruit in her neighbourhood, both of which are edible and nutritious. What we need to figure out, she said, is how to process that food and make it more accessible.

On top of that, urban gardening can become a radical means of community care. Weidenhammer showed attendees a photo of a bucket garden in east Vancouver, close to where people line up for the food bank at the Mount Pleasant Community Centre. “If you are hungry, please harvest and eat what you need,” a chalkboard sign beside the garden read. “If you have kids, you are welcome to explore and taste everything.” Onion, tomato, strawberry, and herb plants sprouted out of the buckets, which were tended by people known only as “your neighbourhood gardeners.”

You have to imagine, she insists, that each block has its own small sharing farm and puts produce on shelves for people to help themselves to. Imagine networks of food gardens running through our cities, springing up at schools and churches, in parks and greenways. Apart from providing food in the immediate future, the proliferation of biodiverse gardens in these spaces could make our cities friendlier for pollinators, since they struggle to thrive in urban habitats and are critical to a food secure future.

Filling our cities with ‘kinder gardens’ would require us to rethink our urban green spaces and gardening practices. “We gotta forget about the lawn. The lawn needs to go the way of the dodo,” Weidenhammer told me.

To her, the gardens of the future need to move away from plastic gardening tools and supplies as well. “What if everything plastic had to be bright neon orange?” she mused. That would mark plastic as a sign of failure to find a more sustainable solution. She also expressed a desire to give land back to Indigenous communities corridor by corridor and to learn from them to help our society become more plant knowledgeable.

She later told me that this vision for ‘kinder gardens’ of the future can’t just stay with her. “It needs to be everybody’s vision — needs to be your vision.” Pandemic victory gardens, which Weidenhammer believes exposed a new generation to growing food, may represent a step toward realizing this vision. In order for that step to be significant, though, these gardens need to outlast the pandemic for as long as they have preceded it.

After all, as Weidenhammer told me, everybody used to have “a parent or grandparent that was a farmer,” but today, that’s becoming less and less common. To her, it’s empowering to see people grow their own fruits and vegetables.

“It also makes people realize the true value of food,” she added. “When you realize how hard it is to grow a tomato, you don’t waste any tomato.”