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A community garden on Saskatoon’s east side shows how gardeners are producing locally grown food. (Photo by Gloria Gingera)

Gardening at USask program more popular than ever during pandemic

When the University of Saskatchewan’s Gardening at USask team launched the program’s website and Facebook page three years ago, even they were surprised by the thirst for gardening information across Saskatchewan, the Prairies and North America.

Over the past 10-15 years, there has been an increase in home gardening as a homegrown source of food and as a family friendly hobby to relieve stress and boost mental health.

“More new gardeners than ever are asking thoughtful and curious questions, especially when it comes to learning how to grow food,” said diagnostics technician Helen Shook of USask Gardenline, a free service offered through USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources to help answer gardening questions and concerns.

Saskatchewan’s climate is unique, and typical online gardening advice doesn’t always work in the province. In previous years, most people wanted to learn about yard beautification, but recently the focus has shifted to growing food for families. Not only is homegrown, pesticide-free food a healthier, environmentally-friendly choice, new gardeners are looking to ease concerns about food security, especially during the global pandemic. In this time of uncertainty, Gardening at USask has received a substantial increase in traffic to the gardening.usask.ca website and social media platforms.

Possibly the largest response is the number of registrations for classes. For more than 50 years, Gardening at USask has offered in-person gardening classes, including the week-long Hort Week conference, which takes place in May. This year, social distancing guidelines resulted in the cancellation of Hort Week and classes were moved online.

While there were initial growing pains getting participants accustomed to digital classrooms, they quickly adapted and the program had a tremendous increase in participation. Since the first livestream class was held March 22,  there have been more than 30 classes and 2,600 registrations. Previously, in-class numbers were capped at 50 participants due to classroom size, but now it is not uncommon to have 200 or more participants from across Canada take part in the WebEx version.

“Having our classes online has allowed us to reach students in remote and rural areas across the country,” said Vanessa Young, co-ordinator of the Gardening at USask program. “Our courses are popular with Prairie and northern gardeners, and we’re attracting students from Newfoundland all the way to B.C. We’ve even had the occasional international student. It’s been really exciting hearing gardening stories from such diverse backgrounds.”

Launched in 2017, the overhauled gardening.usask.ca website features more than 100 articles and videos about soil, plant diseases, insect pests, plant disorders, and growing vegetables, fruits and ornamentals. A major focus is to educate the public about sustainable practices for growing vegetables and fruits, extending the growing season and other growing strategies for cold, challenging climates.

Students seeking certification for personal or professional development can also learn about the Master Gardener Program, the Prairie Horticulture Certificate program and the Horticulture degree options through the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

Analytics show that more than 122,000 users have visited the website for information since the pandemic started, with more than 88 per cent being first-time visitors. The demographics show an increase in younger gardeners, especially in the 18-24 age group, with women accounting for 60 per cent of the total. These demographic trends are similar for Facebook and Instagram followers.

The Gardening at USask Facebook page has amassed more than 11,000 followers in three years, with 1,000 joining in the last six weeks.  Posts average between 5,000-12,000 views, with viral posts reaching more than 100,000 people. A recent post about increased garden growth after a lightning storm received more than 65,000 views and was shared 524 times. Posts from Gardening at USask are frequently shared by horticultural societies, community garden groups, retail greenhouses and other master gardener programs. Last year, posts were viewed 3.4 million times worldwide.

The Gardenline office answers questions from home gardeners via email (gardenline@usask.ca), phone (306-966-5865) and social media. Gardenline is open weekdays from 9am-4pm from May 1 to September 30. Visit gardening.usask.ca for pesticide-free gardening advice and classes, or follow @gardeningatusask on Facebook and @gardening.usask.ca on Instagram.

For more information contact:
Vanessa Young
Gardening at USask Program Co-ordinator
306-966-5097
vanessa.young@usask.ca
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