Fresh and vibrant tomatoes straight off the vine in the backyard.

Pandemic inspires people to get their hands dirty

New and expert gardeners are digging deep to ensure their own food security this spring

The concept of a victory garden seems solidly rooted in the past but for many Elk Valley residents, the idea is gaining popularity. As the pandemic continues, and residents see the impacts of food shortages at local grocery stores, many people are deciding to get their hands dirty in the garden this growing season.

Rachel Dortman runs the increasingly popular Facebook page Elk Valley Homesteading. Dortman started the group around eight or 10 years ago in order to share her vast knowledge about gardening and various other homesteading activities. She also wanted the page to become a community resource for people across our growing climate.

Since the pandemic has hit, Dortman and other page administrators have seen a marked uptick in page join requests, leading them to believe that more people are looking to get in to gardening this year.

“I think people are concerned about food security,” Dortman said. “I think they realize they have the opportunity to take control of where their food comes from, how it’s grown in their backyards or in their house, without relying on the grocery store or relying on big feedlots or corporations.”

While fears over food security are no doubt inspiring some people to start gardening, others simply have more time on their hands and gardening is a great, socially distant way to spend time outside. Many of the requests Dortman has seen on the Facebook page recently have been from beginner gardeners looking to learn.

“Lately, a lot of the people are first time gardeners. A lot of them are newbies,” she explained. “They might have experience with gardening but not in the valley or it’s been so long that they’ve lost touch with gardening or buying cattle from a rancher and they’re not really familiar with the process. The Facebook group is very much something to help facilitate and connect all of the different local resources that are in the valley.”

As the title suggests, the Facebook page isn’t just about gardening but also helps connect local ranchers and egg producers to people who prefer to skip the grocery store. The group will also discuss beekeeping, composting and many other homestead related topics that go hand in hand with gardening.

Co-author of Down to Earth: cold climate gardens and their keepers and pro gardener Helen McAllister thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic is offering people the opportunity to slow down and enjoy their home environment.

“I have heard from a few locals that they are using the time to start a new vegetable patch,” McAllister said. “They are less concerned about how much toilet paper has disappeared and more conscious of the possible changes in our food supply chain…For those keen to try food growing for the first time, I hope that this new found time will allow them to create a gardening space, throw in a few seeds, see what comes up, and create a bit of food security from a source they can trust.”

McAllister went on to add that since gardening is such a socially distant activity, now is a great time to get into food growing. She noted that growing food in the Elk Valley is far from a new concept. The first immigrants to this area grew their own food because it was their only choice and every generation since then has carried on the food growing tradition in one way or another.

As the woman who literally wrote the book on gardening in the Elk Valley, McAllister, and fellow co-author Jennifer Heath, have in depth knowledge on growing in the area.

“Over the past decade since Jennifer Heath and I first started exploring the Elk Valley to see what fellow residents were doing to grow their own food for our cold climate gardening book, I have noticed a growing interest in food gardening,” McAllister said. “Increasingly residents are taking an active role in their food supply and reaping the benefits of a homegrown harvest. That should give new gardeners the confidence that our climate allows for lots of successes despite a short growing season.”

So for all of those new gardeners out there who are looking to get their hands into some soil, there is good news. A growing community of gardening experts and resources are here to support you on your growing journey.

“If you’re new to gardening and it’s something that you want to get into, take it small and take it slow,” Dortman advised. “Don’t overwhelm yourself with making a huge garden. Start with something small to get your hands dirty. Reach out to people or through Elk Valley Homesteading or the Eco Garden. Get in touch with people who live in your area that garden so that you can get advice and ideas about what has and hasn’t worked. Also, stick with the basics. Don’t try growing anything that’s more exotic. Just stick with the basics and grow what you’re going to eat. If you don’t like beans, don’t grow beans. If you don’t like radishes, don’t grow radishes. Look at what you like and what your family consumes the most of that you enjoy and start with that.”

McAllister agreed with this sentiment by acknowledging that starting a garden can be very overwhelming. Her advice is to start small and expand on your knowledge rather than aiming for your long term vision in your first attempt. She also encourages first times to ask questions, reach out to others for advice and don’t be afraid to fail.

“Start with some seeds or a transplant, a few pots or a patch, and a rough plan of the what, where and when,” she said. “Then let go of perfection, allow yourself to make mistakes and enjoy the fruits of your labour.”

As Dortman says, gardening is “about the joy and the love of being outdoors and gardening and producing stuff where you can walk out of your back door and pick a salad. It doesn’t get any better. It doesn’t taste any better and it doesn’t get any fresher than that.”

In acknowledgement of the increase in interest for gardening, The Free Press will now be running a weekly gardening advice column. Please feel free to write in with your gardening related questions and local experts will answer your questions in the next week’s issue. All gardening related queries can be sent to

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Garden beds will soon be teeming with life and colour. Photo Submitted

Although many chose to grow food this gardening season, there’s also plenty of room for flowers. Photo Submitted

You would be hard pressed to find a carrot with so much character in a grocery store. Photos Submitted

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