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Renovation & Design

First-time pandemic gardeners are excited to start a second season of food crops

They beat the heat, battled horned beasts and survived an attack of the giant tomato plant. Now last year’s indomitable pandemic gardeners are back for more, come rain or come shine.

"I’m itching and waiting," said Lily Cheng, who as a first-timer last year turned her Willowdale front yard into a prolific veggie patch — and an all-you-can-eat buffet for pests.

"I’m pretty squeamish about bugs but because of my love for my garden, I’d squish them with bare hands … ‘You’re gonna die!’ " she said of her declaration of war.

Her ultimate sweet taste of victory came from a homegrown haul of several types of vegetables, plus herbs and strawberries.

Cheng is among the army of urban farmers trading advice and stories on Grow Food Toronto, a popular GTA-based Facebook group with 2,600 members.

"There was phenomenal interest in food-growing last summer, and all signs point to even more interest this year," said veteran green thumb Lorraine Johnson, who co-moderates the group with Cheyenne Sundance and Rhonda Teitel-Payne.

Thwarting threats of all kinds keeps budding horticulturalists hopping, as Cheng discovered.

"The thing that broke my heart was my cucumbers — when bacterial wilt started happening," she laments about the disease that caused "crushing losses."

This time around she’s searching out disease-resistant species and plans to space plants farther apart in a garden that now extends to a row of straw bales — left over from a local church’s nativity scene — for growing eggplants and pollinator flowers.

The outdoor project was fertile ground for family fun as Cheng’s kids, Carter, 8, and Freesia, 6, discovered the joys of watering and snacking on fresh mint. Tomatoes were still appearing on December dinner plates, said Cheng, who also shared crops among green-with-envy neighbours.

She said her "number one" satisfaction, though, was "watching my kids, and their amazement and pride."

As a fledgling farmer, Deepak Monga "learned a lot of things" after planting himself firmly in his North York back garden.

"I would splash (water) around everywhere" until "the boss" (wife Vidula) told him to direct it at root level, admits the insurance broker. Misdirected dousings notwithstanding, the vegetarian couple was rewarded with bagfuls of organic hot chili peppers, basil, kale, spinach, chives, onions and garlic to preserve and freeze.

Experimental ground cherries were a hit with critters who "had a party every night" but left some for their hosts, said Vidula, a supply teacher.

Trial peanuts yielded a paltry one pound, but blight-free tomatoes just kept on coming. After COVID closed the greenhouse at Black Creek Community Farm where the couple volunteers, they rescued several dozen trays of baby plants to tend themselves and give away to other gardeners.

All in all, "we enjoyed the back yard more than ever before," said Deepak, who’s added a raised bed in the front. Built with busted-up wooden skids, he plans for a colourful new garden with red amaranth, greens and edible flowers.

In downtown Toronto, Jodi Pudge made her first foray into tiny farming on her two balconies after picking up the basics during an online workshop. With six large planter boxes and half a dozen pots, she grew strawberries, Swiss chard, bok choi, kale, snap peas, radishes, beets, arugula and herbs.

But the "six-foot-tall giant tomato plant" was a mistake after she bought the wrong seeds, laughs Pudge, a professional food photographer. And some things were more worthwhile than others, she concluded, singling out strawberries that were "beautiful to watch" but only yielded a "couple of handfuls." Pole beans succumbed to humidity but smaller stuff like beets, kale and radishes thrived, she added.

To her surprise, an abundance of birds and bumblebees found her 11th-floor "little urban oasis" where she also practised yoga.

The daily routine of tending her "babies" and watching them grow was both "a lesson in resilience" and "a reminder to slow down," noted Pudge, who shared her cornucopia with her partner and friends.

With a spreadsheet to organize this year’s garden, the second-year gardener plans to grow additional herbs, plus lavender, wildflowers, fennel and — most important — smaller, bush-type tomatoes.

Newbies in search of inspiration need only look to Kerry Alvarez and her social media platforms. Not only was 2020 her best gardening season ever, it produced a bumper crop of preserves, from cowboy candy jalapeños and lychee jelly to pickled vegetables and salsa verde.

Among the pictures she’s posted on Instagram under the name KerryKeane are artfully arranged peppers, tomatoes, okra, bitter melon, squash and cucumbers. She also gives agri-food tutorials on her YouTube channel.

"I love harvesting," said Alvarez, whose mom was a "huge gardener" in the Philippines.

A server with pandemic time on her hands, she used the front, back and balcony of her Mississauga townhouse to grow an estimated 300 plants in raised beds, containers and trellises.

Growing food is a trial-and-error journey, observed Alvarez, whose first piece of advice is "to accept that a third of your crop is going to go to critters and bugs." Dedicated to her gardens, she bought a $20 black light flashlight for night-time detection of tomato hornworms: fat, green, crop-killing caterpillars.

To save money, she starts her own seedlings, sometimes using seeds from grocery store vegetables. She keeps a garden journal and stresses the importance of pruning for plant health and also urges people not to overwater.

Carola Vyhnak is a Cobourg-based writer covering personal finance, home and real-estate stories. She is a contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: cvyhnak@gmail.com

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