Dianne Wickenden jabs her Japanese hand hoe into the earth and deftly extracts the weeds growing between the rows of lettuce in her garden box. "Weeds always grow faster than the plants you want," she says.
Working nearby, Darlene Karp agrees. She then points to some tiny black beetles chewing on the leaves of young radishes in her garden. "Look at those," she says. "They can't be good for the plants. How do I get rid of them?"
"Those could be canola beetles," says Bertha Klassen, coming over to peer at the horde of pests. "Give them a blast of water to knock them off the leaves."
"Or they could be lily beetles," adds Valerie Denesiuk, suggesting that Karp use an organic bug spray on the plants. "Only use it where it needs to go, on the plants, because you don't want to kill the good bugs."
Welcome to a typical spring day at the Millennium Gardens, a little plot of land in North Kildonan where dozens of seniors come to plant the seeds for vegetables and flowers, as well as better health and well-being.
Located on Douglas Avenue near the corner of Henderson Highway and Chief Peguis Trail, Millennium consists of 80 garden plots, including 39 raised planter boxes, fruit trees and bushes. It also has a large shed for tools, a water system and a gazebo for social events. In other words, it is the perfect place for gardeners to enjoy their hobby, share each other's company and get some exercise in the process.
Karp, for one, really enjoys the social side of the experience. "Gardening is a social tool, as much as it is about the plants," she says. "It gives people a sense of community." To illustrate the point, Karp points out that a number of Millennium gardeners participate in the Grow-a-Row program and donate vegetables to Winnipeg Harvest.
For Denesiuk, gardening is good for the soul as well as mind. She not only has gardens in her yard, but the flower beds have spilled out onto the boulevard.
"I really got into it in my thirties, as stress relief," she says, adding that she learned how to garden from her grandmother.
"This spring, I was out early with my trowel, as soon as I could see the soil, stabbing at the snow crust. That was a great stress buster," says Denesiuk, who is also a member of the East Kildonan Garden Club and the Manitoba Regional Lily Society. "I used to garden at ground level, but I have arthritis and fibromyalgia, so the combination sometimes is too much. A handy reminder is to take a timer with you into the garden and set it for 20 minutes, and then have a stretch."
The health and wellness benefits of gardening - be it in a community garden or your own yard or balcony - are undeniable, according to Eleanor Stelmack, an occupational therapist with the Healthy Aging Resource Team (HART) in River East-Transcona.
Gardening is a gateway to well-being, benefitting everyone from children to seniors. "Fresh air and exercise help people sleep better," says Stelmack. "Your stress levels go down. People feel good about themselves. And there's the whole nurturing aspect to growing plants."
Digging, raking, mowing the grass and toting bags of fertilizer are good cardiovascular activities, rating alongside biking or walking. Lighter tasks like watering the plants and hoeing the weeds also keep people healthy and fend off weight gain, adds Stelmack.
That physical side can pose problems for seniors and those with mobility and strength issues, says Stelmack. "However, there are lots of adaptive tools that are easier on your joints, are lighter, with longer handles. Along with that, many gardens are now being grown in raised boxes, so you don't have to bend over to get at your plants, which also makes gardening wheelchair accessible."
Along with the physical and mental health benefits to gardening, there's nothing like biting into a freshly pulled carrot or a tomato warmed by the sun. "Gardeners want to get out into the sunshine, see how the vegetables are growing, smell the flowers," says Stelmack. "And experienced gardeners are always willing to help people new to gardening."
That's something Wickenden learned first-hand. When she started gardening, she didn't know she had to water the plants, which meant they didn't grow. A neighbour took her in hand, teaching her when and where to plant, how to keep the insect pests at bay and, of course, how to water. By the time she was approached in 2000 by Stelmack to start what was originally called the Field of Dreams, "I had a pretty good handle on which end of a trowel was up."
The original Millennium Gardens were located where the Chief Peguis Trail now runs. Moving the gardens to their new spot on Douglas took quite the effort. "Just the compost took a lot of people and trucks," says Wickenden. "And then we had to move our big shed on a flatbed truck. We learned a lot about permits and how the city works, when we were doing that."
Community gardens have become a common feature in Winnipeg over the years. The City of Winnipeg rents allotment gardens at locations throughout the city, while community gardens are run by local horticultural societies, community groups and organizations. Community facilitators working for the Winnipeg Health Region have also played a role in starting community gardens or encouraging people who need a bit of fresh and exercise to join one.
"These gardens bring people together," says Cath McFarlane, a community facilitator with the Winnipeg Health Region's River East community area. "The gardens are looked after by seniors, by families, by newcomers living in the neighbourhood. Not only do the gardens put fresh vegetables onto their tables, they increase the mental and physical health of everyone involved."
McFarlane was one of a number of people from several community organizations that helped develop the community garden in the Chalmers neighbourhood in Elmwood. Students from Elmwood High School helped with the labour of building 32 raised boxes, on an old railway route near the corner of Watt and Levis streets, says McFarlane.
The Elmwood community gardens are a labour of love for a number of organizations, including the Chalmers Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation, Community Ventures Henderson, Elmwood East Kildonan Active Living Centre and the Elmwood Community Resource Centre.
"There aren't that many local grocery stores, so one of the priorities around here is that ability to garden," says Dale Karasiuk, Executive Director of the Chalmers Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation. "We are working with the Urban Eatin' group, who held seed starting workshops in the spring, and who are coming back during the summer for more workshops on how to maintain the gardens and what to do with the harvest."
The gardens are also a destination for Community Venture Henderson, which provides day programming for people with intellectual disabilities, says Twyla Ferris, a day program facilitator.
"We have cooking classes, where we use the produce that comes from our garden boxes," says Ferris. "We make pickles, relishes, freezer jam and then we save it for special events. It gives people a great sense of accomplishment, to say that they grew the food they're eating."
Mark Stine, the program manager at the Elmwood Community Resource Centre, grows vegetables at the Elmwood gardens. Stine says newcomers to Canada enjoy learning what kinds of vegetables can be grown in Manitoba.
"They often try some vegetables and fruits from their old country, but usually those need a longer growing season than we have here," says Stine, adding that the majority of gardeners stick to easy plants, like potatoes, carrots, peppers and tomatoes.
Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.
Gardening is exercise
Gardening for just 30 minutes daily will:
- Increase flexibility
- Strengthen joints
- Decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Lower your risk for diabetes
- Slow osteoporosis
As in other forms of exercise, you need to follow a few basics to maximize your experience. First, warm up a bit. Do some stretching so your muscles are ready. Also, if you plan on lifting heavy objects, remember to always lift with your knees, not your back.
Start off with a moderate exercise/gardening program and then work your way up to heavier tasks and activities. This is especially important if you’re not already an active gardener, or if you’re an older gardener. Don’t overdo it the first time or you may strain a muscle or two.
Source: Health Canada
Learn more about gardening
Want to learn more about gardening? These Winnipeg organizations offer workshops on everything from seed starting and identifying plant pests to making compost and deciphering Latin plant names:
Manitoba Master Gardener Association
FortWhyte Alive Farms
Sage Garden Herbs
Spence Neighbourhood Association
Daniel McIntyre / St. Matthew’s Neighbourhood Association
North End Community Renewal Corporation
Sustainable South Osborne
Winnipeg Leisure Guide
Lee Valley Tools
Assiniboine Park Conservancy
Green Action Centre
Grow your own row
The City of Winnipeg rents allotment gardens at locations throughout the city, while community gardens are run by community groups and organizations.
Individual garden plots are available for rent through the Community Garden Information Centre. Individuals are responsible for planting and maintaining their own plot. Garden plots are rented from May to October and plot rentals may be renewed each year.
For more information, e-mail: email@example.com or visit www.winnipeg.ca/publicworks/parksandfields/CommunityGardens/communitygardens.asp
Community groups handle all aspects of garden membership, maintenance and programming at various plots around town, which are leased from the city.
To connect wth the online forum for community gardens throughout Winnipeg, visit the Winnipeg Community Garden Network at www.facebook.com/Winnipeg.Garden.Network, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a list of some community groups that operate gardens:
Elmwood Community Garden
Bishop Grandin Greenway
Take care out there
There are various health risks related to gardening, ranging from physical overexertion and sunburn to serious injuries from the improper use or maintenance of power equipment.
Power tools and equipment
Injury can happen when a lawnmower slips or overturns on a slope or wet grass, when rocks and debris fly out from underneath, or when clearing clogged blades while a power mower is still running.
Injuries can be caused by falls from a ride-on lawnmower, often due to more than one person riding on it.
Electric shock is a potential danger when operating tools with frayed cords or in wet conditions.
Excessive noise from power garden equipment can gradually cause permanent hearing loss and the inability to hear warning sounds.
Always wear proper equipment when using power tools, including leather shoes or workboots, ear protection, gloves and safety glasses.
Keep children out of the mowing area and never allow them to operate or ride a lawnmower.
Before plugging in any power equipment, make sure the power switch is "off."
Repetitive strain injury can result from doing one task for too long.
Muscle strain, back injuries and blisters can be caused by moving a greater weight than your body can handle, bending, and improper use of garden tools.
Dehydration can occur if you don't take in enough liquid, especially water, when you exert yourself.
Find a comfortable posture for your body and keep your work in front and close to you, to avoid reaching and twisting. Use knee pads or a padded kneeling stool for work at ground level, and rotate tasks to avoid injuries from repetition.
Use the right tools for the job.
Use a wheelbarrow to transport earth and equipment.
Over-exposure to the sun can cause sunstroke, sunburn, and over the long term, skin cancer.
Avoid gardening between peak hours of 11a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is the strongest, or garden in the shade during those hours.
Wear protective clothing: a large-brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants.
Wear a broadband sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 on all exposed skin.
Chemicals and soil amendments
Investigate ways to control garden pests without using pesticides.
Pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides) should always be handled with care. If you decide to use a pesticide, look for the Pest Control Product (PCP) registration number on the label and make sure you use a product registered in Canada.
Follow the label directions to avoid possible health concerns.
Other unintentional injuries
Bulbs and seeds can be choking hazards for young children.
Some plant varieties are toxic to children, who may try to eat them.
Equipment can cause injuries if left lying on the ground.
Keep a close eye on children when they are in the garden. Keep them away from equipment, fertilizers and other chemicals, bulbs and seeds, as well as ponds, which can be a drowning hazard.
Source: Health Canada
Republished from the May/June 2015 issue of Wave, Winnipeg’s health and wellness magazine.