Getting your hands dirty in the garden offers an easy way to save amid rising grocery costs

As another pandemic winter melts away, some gardeners are already sowing tomato, pepper and other seeds indoors that are destined for outdoor gardens in the coming weeks.

With inflation exacerbating existing barriers to affordable produce, some green thumbs hope to plant a seed of encouragement in the minds of those on a budget to help them save on groceries, develop a new skill and make connections after two years of isolation.

“Many families have been impacted financially and find themselves struggling to afford things,” said Linda Wall, president of the Manitoba Horticultural Association and a St. James Horticultural Society member. “This is a way to lower your food costs.”

This month, Wall provided a tutorial to St. James residents about growing vegetables on a shoestring budget. 

It takes a little bit of experience and innovation, but you can grow fresh, healthy, nutritional food very easily in your home,​​​​​​.– Linda Wall

Garden boxes are great, but for those who don’t have yard space or access to a community plot, Wall recommends investing in relatively cheap hydroponic setups. She points to her DIY arrangement of recycled sour cream and coffee containers filled with water and plant nutrients in which she grows lettuce, dill and borage (a plant whose flowers and leaves, as well as the oil from its seeds are used as medicine).

“It takes a little bit of experience and innovation, but you can grow fresh, healthy, nutritional food very easily in your home,” she said.

Growing lettuce and sprouting mung beans in Mason jars indoors — in soil or in water, under a light or not — are other low-cost ways to produce fresh veggies year round, she says.

Greens from seeds such as barley, mustard, radish, lentils, broccoli and bok choy are also easy to grow indoors without much fuss, said Wall.

Ditto pea shoots — which go well in salads, sandwiches, stir fry and omelettes. Wall grows hers from the same $2 bag of dried yellow peas she bought in the dried food aisle of the grocery store almost two years ago.

“Always check your grocery store shelf,” she said. “You can buy … a one kilogram bag of mung beans for a couple of bucks, whereas if you go to a … sprouting store or the seed house, it’s going to cost you $5.99 for probably a quarter cup of seed.”

Sage Garden has already seen enthusiastic shoppers buying up seeds at its greenhouse, in part, to offset grocery prices, says Dave Hanson, co-owner of Sage Garden Greenhouses.

“People are trying to think about how to take some of the difficult sort of heaviness that’s out in the world and sort of channel that and think about ways to maybe improve your food security as well,” Hanson said.

The Weekend Morning Show (Manitoba)14:13Dave Hanson from Sage Garden Greenhouse is back to discuss how to prepare your garden for the season.

You might not be able to tell by looking outside, but right now is the best time to get your garden ready for summer. Dave Hanson from Sage Garden Greenhouses joins Stephanie Cram to discuss how to get your garden ready. 14:13

The best selling varieties most years are again in demand at T&T Seeds — from sweet cucumber cool breeze, zucchini noche, carrots Nantes and onion sets, says Chitra Paliwal, T&T marketing and sales director. 

The store ran out of seeds in early 2021 due to a surge in demand. 

“We had to just shut off our phone lines,” Paliwal recalls.

She says economic drivers such as inflation and rising interest rates don’t seem to affect sales, though patterns tied to the pandemic linger. 

Paliwal thinks 2021 trends were somewhat driven by food shortages and uncertainty during the pandemic. Despite the end of restrictions and stabilization of some markets, the uptick in demand continues. 

Peak seed season usually falls between November and February at T&T. Yet this year, sales in March are 90 per cent above what they were the same month in 2019. 

The company continues to see more urbanites snatching up seeds than pre-pandemic.

And high demand is also likely thanks to customers who got started last year continuing to garden, says Paliwal, and also might reflect T&T’s added focus on digital marketing and e-commerce in the past two years.

The company is traditionally known as a catalogue-based business, but a North American paper shortage prevented T&T from getting its catalog printed and distributed last fall. They only managed to mail it to customers this week, which could mean seed sales continue to grow beyond the normal period.

Wall’s backyard container garden in 2021. (Linda Wall)

Paliwal said Manitobans are also buying trees and shrubs in higher volumes earlier in the year than usual. Typically, those orders flow in the fall and taper off by now, but demand is still on the upswing, she said.

The Point Douglas Residents Committee has seen a growing interest in tree planting in recent years, as well as growing traditional medicines such as sage, tobacco and sweet grass. 

Maria Epp, an artist and environment co-chair with the committee, says the community group planted 30 fruit trees in the Gonzaga Middle School yard more than two years ago.

Point Douglas Residents Committee volunteers help get their community garden started in spring 2021. (Submitted by Maria Epp)

Food is the biggest need in Point Douglas, she says, and in addition to its community gardens, the organization has had success bringing in fresh, Manitoba-grown food from outside Winnipeg and selling it at a low cost.

Epp says it’s been difficult for the volunteer-run organization to keep up with community needs through the pandemic, which is why she would like to see the City of Winnipeg invest in creating more salaried jobs in the community garden space.

Epp notes gardening is also something many struggling to get by might feel they don’t have time for.

“It’s presumptuous to assume that people have the energy and time to dedicate to this,” Epp said. “If you’re in a survival state, to think about gardening — it’s not practical.” 

Point Douglas Residents Committee community garden volunteers provide seeds and spinach, kale and swiss chard plants in spring 2021. (Submitted by Maria Epp)

On the flip side, Epp says she witnessed the mental health and social benefits some experienced participating in community gardens last year.

“They really took ownership of the garden boxes and watered them every day and just made food from them. They were sharing recipes and it was just beautiful to see that kind of emergence take place,” she said. “They needed something positive.”

The Point Douglas Residents Committee and partner organizations are working on introductory planting classes to be announced in the coming weeks. The committee’s first in-person tree pruning workshop is planned for April 1.

Epp says anyone interested in donating seeds can email pdrc.environment@gmail.com.

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