In quiet tourism season, Montreal Botanical Gardens grew huge produce crop for food banks

Though the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the tourist season for the Montreal Botanical Gardens, some of the workers at the beloved landmark sound like they barely noticed.

They've been really busy, and this year they were learning to think more like farmers.

In a typical summer, the garden grows some vegetables for educational purposes and then gives it away in the fall.

This year, the gardens took this annual tradition and expanded it hugely due to the health crisis and the ensuing economic crisis. The idea came partly at the request of the city, which asked the garden to ramp up production.

"We have so many more people that need the food, so we need more vegetables than we did last year," said CAP St-Barnabe community group worker Lyne Charbonneau.

Their efforts paid off:workers have harvested more than 2,300 bins of fresh produce that will now be given to food banks.

"It is incredible," said garden director Anne Charpentier. "Squash, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage potatoes, name it -- we have everything."

It didn't take much, at least in terms of money, in the end. Rio Tinto Alcan provided a $20,000 grant, and the garden almost doubled its harvest, all in the same size of garden.

But the ballooning crops did take a lot more effort to organize.

"For one month, it was a big challenge to calculate everything and choose the right varieties," said horticulturist Isabelle Paquin.

"The crops are actually in the space we already have," said Space for Life director Stephanie Barker. "It's just that it's a lot more volume. We put a lot more kinds of vegetables and fruit."

The gardeners had to think more strategically, too, about how to ensure they'd end up with the biggest volumes. In other words, they started thinking more like farmers.

"Instead of growing four pounds of potatoes, we have to grow 50 pounds of potatoes, so we have a lot of insects that attack the plants," said Paquin.

They felt the weather differently: Montreal sweat through a hotter summer than normal, which was good news for squash, but bad news for cabbage.

A total of four organizations like CAP St-Barnabe are loading up vans with spoils of this urban harvest this month.

"This is a really big deal," said Charbonneau. "We've been running non-stop." 

A survey this spring found that one in 10 Quebecers had turned to food banks during the pandemic, half of them for the first time.

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