Growing your own food for the first time can be a surprisingly empowering experience for many of us who grew up having their food come from grocery stores alone. Everything from peppers, tomatoes, and chicken thighs were (and often still are) sold on styrofoam trays and wrapped in cellophane — grown or raised, if one thought about it at all, in distant parts unknown. We knew that if we were going to begin to address food insecurity in our neighbourhood we wanted to include garden education as a significant part of our programming. Fortunately, we inherited a sizable greenhouse and outdoor space at what used to be a farm equipment and feed co-operative where we located over 8 years ago. We immediately built around 40 raised beds where we were able to hold gardening classes for community members and grow a few special things (especially fresh summer herbs) for our community meals programs.

However, our garden program took a giant leap forward 3 years ago, when, in partnership with the City of Stratford, a small crew of enthusiastic and dedicated staff and volunteers jumped on the opportunity to develop some underutilized, city-owned property a few blocks from The Local, turning it into a beloved community garden that includes 50 individually assigned garden plots (and 50 more in development), a large area for communal gardening, and longterm plans to plant an edible forest full of nut and fruit-bearing trees, shrubs, and bushes. Holes have been dug and trees have already been planted. Lots more still to be done. Yet, the Dufferin Park Community Garden & Edible Forest has already become, even in these early stages, an inspiring monument to local food security and, we think, a model for how shared vision and labour can transform an empty and unused public space into a place of beauty and utility about which people genuinely care.

A look back at our community gardens program before the pandemic…

A COVID-19 pandemic, however, threatened to derail our fourth growing season at Dufferin Park. Community gardens were originally categorized in a group of recreational activities that were prohibited by provincial order. We know firsthand that these gardens have become a significant source of accessible healthy food for many of our community members as well as an activity that improves physical and mental well-being. Under the leadership of Sustain Ontario and Ottawa’s Just Food, we called on the province to recognize community gardens for what they are — an essential food service that can be managed as safely (or safer) than a trip to the grocery store. Petitions were signed and letters written to MPPs across the province. Happily, our politicians listened and, under the guidance of Perth Huron Public Health, we found ways to allow safe and legal community gardening for an increasing number of people interested in growing at least some of their very own food at a time when the precariousness of industrial food chains have been exposed. The support for existing local food systems and its further development has never been more obviously important to community resilience.

Below are a few tips and tricks for starting or continuing to manage a community garden in the age of coronavirus:

  • Restrict access to staff, volunteers and registered members; non-members, visitors and pets are not permitted. We posted signs at all entrances and use a sign-in and sign-out system to track who is in the garden each day. This may assist with communication and close-contact tracing if necessary.

  • It goes (almost) without saying that garden users must maintain a distance of at least 2 metres (6 feet) from other people (except for members of the
    same household). Restrict the number of people in the garden to ensure physical distancing and the limit on gathering can be maintained; consider setting a schedule. When scheduling times, consider the space between plots and stagger accordingly to maximize the space between gardeners at the time of use. We’ve also removed or taped off picnic tables and other structures meant for communal seating and gathering as a further sad reminder of our old Harvest lunch parties.

  • If the garden has gate access consider leaving the gate open during operating hours so individuals do not have to handle or touch the gate to enter. Instruct garden users to perform hand hygiene before entering and after leaving the garden site, and after handling common items like hoses. Set up a hand hygiene station at the garden if possible. If hands are visibly soiled, handwashing with soap and water is preferred. If not available, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (70% alcohol content) can be used; the hands should be wiped of visible dirt before applying the hand sanitizer.

  • Post clear and visible signage at all garden entrances, and throughout the garden, including:

    • Only staff, designated volunteers, and members are permitted access to the garden
    • Reminders about the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and where to seek assistance if they have symptoms
    • A warning not to enter the garden if they are sick or have had close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19
    • Instructions on proper hand hygiene
    • Maintaining a distance of at least 2 metres (6 feet) from other people (except for members of the same household)
    • Not sharing food or personal items
    • Garden access will be revoked for anyone not following the rules
  • Bring your own garden tools if you have them, and clean and disinfect them after use. For those who must use shared tools we devised a ‘clean’ and ‘used’ tools bin so that staff or volunteers can properly clean and sanitize before re-use.


There is no question that community gardens are an essential part of our food system and that they are an instrumental piece to a multi-strategy approach in addressing poverty and food insecurity.

At The Local, we believe that access to good, healthy food is a human right. A community garden where our neighbours can choose what they grow – and learn different tricks and techniques on planting, growing and harvesting their bounty from other gardeners – is beneficial to personal well-being, as well as mental and physical health.  Ultimately, community gardens build social capital and that helps our whole community prosper.

When people feel like they belong and are given opportunities we all benefit from their contributions. Let’s build healthier communities, together, one garden at a time.

~Debra Swan, Executive Director

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