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Local nurseries, community gardens join MPP in fight to be deemed essential

'We can do the same thing as the grocery stores are doing – only allow a certain number of people in at a time. We are essential. People want us open.'

Easter weekend typically marks the beginning of the growing season when gardeners start their seeds inside and prep their beds outside. It is a rite of spring for many and the busiest time of year for nurseries and garden centres.

“April 15 to June 15 is our peak time,” said Tanya Olsen, owner of Royal City Nursery. “In those eight weeks we do 60 to 70 per cent of our business.”

Olsen essentially grew up in the nursery her grandfather started in 1962 and became the third generation to run the family business when her father retired in 2016.

She said gardening is more than a hobby for most of her customers.

“Humans have a primal bond with plants,” she said. “Garden centres provide a sense of food safety and security because they are a source of expertise and safe products. There is a relationship there.”

In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Ontario government has ordered non-essential businesses and services to close their doors to the public and that includes nurseries and garden centres.

Some are questioning the province’s interpretation of essential. Other provinces are allowing nurseries and garden centres to open.

“It is our customers who tell us we are an essential service,” said Olsen. “I can see both sides but, I truly think, if you are looking for an essential business it falls back to the plant. It’s about the product line, not the building. I think we should be given the choice. Everyone is aware of what is going on and it is vitally important that we maintain that community relationship.”

Andre Marthaler learned all about that community relationship working in the gardens and greenhouses of Brock Road Nursery. His parents started the nursery in 1991 and he and his sister have taken over the day to day operations.

Marthaler has seen a steady growth in customers who are gardening to supplement their diets.

“This year, more than ever, I think people are concerned with the additional idea of food security,” he said. “In past years people have wanted to grow their own, not only for the therapeutic aspect of it for relaxation and reducing stress but also to know what is going into their food. If they can grow it at home, then at least they know they have access to the vegetables they’ve grown in their garden.”

He sees little distinction between nurseries and the farms and grocery stores that have been designated essential businesses and are permitted to stay open.

“I think it is unfair if our services are deemed non-essential that the grocery stores and box stores have been able to set up garden centres,” said Marthaler. “If it is a non-essential service then we should all be playing by the same rules as far as that goes.”

Joe Saliba owner of Meadowville Garden Centre agrees. He and his wife Joanne opened the centre in 1988 and have grown their nursery, garden centre and landscaping businesses over the past 32 years.

Saliba is defying the provincial order if the government doesn’t relax the restrictions on nurseries and garden centres.

“I am fighting for all of the gardeners in Ontario right now,” he said. “I never close my gates because we have delivery trucks going in and out. People come in any way because the gates are open. What am I going to tell them? Get out? No!”

Saliba is a driving force behind a petition drafted by Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner to convince the Province to recognize nurseries as essential businesses.

“I told Mike I’m staying open,” said Saliba. “What are they going to do, fine me? We can do the same thing as the grocery stores are doing – only allow a certain number of people in at a time. We are essential. People want us open. All the growers have said, ‘Joe, we’ve got your back’.”

Royal City Nursery, Brock Road Nursery and Meadowville Garden Centre, as well as many other garden centres, have increased their online services and are providing curbside pickup and home delivery options but they are hoping that pressure from business organization and public petitions will convince the province to relax the order.

Schreiner’s petition also calls on the province to loosen restrictions on community gardens.

“I’ve had a number of food security advocates in Guelph reach out to me who are really concerned about access to community gardens and what it means for people being able to grow their own food, especially people who might be a bit more vulnerable and short on income,” said Schreiner. “We launched the petition in response to those concerns and now I’ve had people from all over the province reaching out to me very supportive of what we are doing.”

Community gardens in city parks and on other municipal property will remain closed until the order is lifted and that is the same for other community gardens including those at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre.

“We have to follow government regulations and they have closed us until May 12,” said Heather Lex, manager of the garden program at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre. “We are asking to be listed as an essential service, but we have to set up protocols that everyone gardener will have to follow or they will lose their garden.”

Lex said everyone wants to be safe but that also includes food security and for people who don’t have a yard or property to grow a garden, community gardens are essential.

“The letters I have received from gardeners have been tear-jerking,” she said. “Some fill their pantries every year from their plot.”

Schreiner said, with the proper protocols in place such as limiting the number of people working in the gardens so they can maintain a safe distance from each other and other measures the gardens can be tended safely.

“You can implement the same, even better, physical distancing guidelines for growing food in community gardens as you can growing food on a farm or for shopping in a grocery store,” said Schreiner. “These are people growing food for themselves for the most part and I know some people who grow and donate to the Food Bank. For a lot of people, especially now that their incomes have been reduced significantly, having the access and ability to grow their own food is going to be really important.”