The Gardening Movement

Three soil experts share their knowledge on the past and future of growing

Words by

Photos by



Behind every widely held belief there is a narrative—true or false, sometimes an ever-shifting mélange of ideas. So what was the gardening narrative that accompanied the first European settlers to this country? Deprived of their own farms and gardens, they brought the art of gardening to this “new land” where it was hitherto unknown.

The new settlers did mention the cultivation of certain “wild” crops, notably squash and corn, foreign to their homeland gardens. But this was not considered real gardening, even though recent studies have shown that First Nations people carefully tended the valuable black walnut trees, even moving them from southern locales into what is now Ontario.

Similarly, in western Canada, research has documented how First Nations built and maintained clam gardens along protected bays and inlets of the Pacific Ocean. A recent issue of Hakai Magazine contains an article, “Farming Kelp the Heiltsuk Way,” that describes how the Heiltsuk people practised partial and sustainable harvesting of the local feather boa kelp.

So how did our early settlers fare in their newfound surroundings? When writing home they were often ecstatic about the space and the amount of food they could produce, though also despairing about the ever-encroaching forest. In the years that followed, settlers continually moved westwards, as land and the production of food was the ultimate expression of wealth.

The late 1800s and early 1900s witnessed dramatic changes. Now that much of the potential agricultural land had been claimed, the move to cities and different employment began, and, seemingly, gardening was left behind. But not forever. Two world wars and the Great Depression, leaving many out of work and hungry, reminded people that food production was all-important. During the Second World War, so-called “victory gardens” sprang up everywhere. But after the fighting stopped, so did much of the gardening and suburbs grew grass instead.

Then came the 60s, and the gardening movement blossomed with the back-to-the-land ethic. Gardens took root in gentrified cities, too, whether in backyards, high-rise rooftops, or community gardens, and even chickens were allowed—but no roosters, please!

And now we find ourselves at the most exciting garden movement of all: gardening as a way to combat climate change. That means there is opportunity for an increase in greenhouses, vertical gardens, floating kelp platforms, and plant-based products like soy milk and Beyond Meat burgers.

Now, instead of repeating the old saying, “I’m a dirt farmer,” the modern gardener can proclaim, “I’m a climate gardener!”


The home gardening movement is alive and growing in urban and rural communities all across Canada and the world. Concerns related to soil health, water conservation, climate change, and food security are motivating people who have little gardening experience to learn from those who do. In the last few decades, many core values, attitudes, and practices related to gardening have shifted significantly. Let’s take a quick look at three major changes taking place in the flourishing gardening movement.


Not long ago, gardening gurus urged us to not only dig, but to double-dig garden beds. The rototiller was revered as the gardener’s best friend. Today we know that digging and churning up soil significantly damages soil life and texture. Instead of digging, gardeners are learning the benefits of layering biomass to build up garden beds. My personal gardening motto is: Never dig down; always build up.


It’s hard to believe, but until recent times, the biology of soil was disregarded in favour of focusing on the chemistry of soil. Originally spurred by start-up agro-chemical companies motivated to repurpose and sell by-products of the munitions industry after World War II, agricultural chemical companies have pushed their destructive fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides hard. Fortunately, farmers and gardeners are awakening to the primal importance of natural soil health.

This movement toward traditional practices that nurture, build, and protect soil fertility is steadily growing. These practices, which return life to the soil, include planting green manure cover crops, rotating crops, mulching, composting, and adding manure, yield noticeable and beneficial results. This movement is inspired by one simple premise: Feed the soil.


Permaculture principles are fuelling a whole new way of looking at how we live and garden on our Mama Earth. The term, permaculture, coined by Australian researcher, author, scientist, teacher and biologist Bill Mollison is described by him as “… a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

These holistic approaches consider the impacts and outcomes of our actions while gifting us the power to change our planetary future. In a good way.

outdoor gardening


As with gardeners, climate change and food security issues are incentivizing farmers to come together and help address the crisis humanity is currently facing. Farmers, whose livelihood depends on being able to harvest a marketable crop, face multiple weather-related incidents including heat domes, drought, flood, and forest fires. The result: berries that have literally cooked on the plant, sunburned tomatoes and peppers, animals prematurely processed because hay fields have dried up, and plants that failed to ripen because fields were under water at planting time.

Instead of dealing with these issues on their own, farmers are banding together within movements to help support and energize each other and to share practical technologies that, up until recently, were felt to be very “fringe” methods. Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS) is one group that helps amplify the voices of farmers already committed to reducing their impact on the planet.

Spearheaded by Ontario-based SeedChange, FCS is a coalition of over twenty farmer groups, representing over 10,000 Canadian farmers. When organic and conventional farmers come together in one room, the tension is usually palpable. However, when everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions are a problem, that standard agricultural practices like tillage and excess fertilizer use exacerbates this problem, solutions come to the table quickly. Here, grain farmers from the prairies, beef producers from the Maritimes, and market gardeners from the West Coast bring their ideas forward with farm-tested solutions.

In early 2020, FCS convened farmers, climate scientists, agricultural researchers, and government relations experts to identify the best of these climate-mitigation practices that would both reduce greenhouse gases and help sequester carbon in the soil. The short list of these practices includes reducing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use, increasing acreage in overwintering cover crops, promotion of intensive grazing of cattle, conversion of fossil fuel machinery to green energy, and wetland and forest protection in agricultural areas.

While some Canadian farmers are already using these techniques, the majority are not. Some of these techniques require the support of agrologists and other agricultural experts not always available in every community. Other solutions, like the conversion of fossil fuel machinery to green energy, require large outlays of cash.

The fantastic news is that FCS’s voice was heard, and the Federal Government recently committed $200 million dollars to an on-farm climate action fund. When thousands of farmers come together, it’s impossible for the government to ignore them!