In Montreal, the center of the coronavirus pandemic in Canada, the reopening of highly popular community vegetable gardens after a two-month lockdown has come as a breath of fresh air -- despite rigid new rules.
"Just to touch the earth, it's like reconnecting with something deep inside of us, it does our souls good, it lessens the chaos and I think we really need that," said Manon Labelle, a protective mask covering her mouth.
At 62 -- and having lost her father to COVID-19 just a week ago -- Labelle is relieved to return to her small plot in the De Lorimier garden.
In this 5,000-square-meter (1.2 acre) community garden in the Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal's most densely crowded neighborhood, urban gardeners cultivate some 180 small plots every summer on city-owned property.
On this highly anticipated day, brilliant sunshine and summer-like warmth combined to make people forget that only two weeks ago it was still snowing here.
- 'Essential service' -
Several of the garden's regulars were concerned that its reopening, already put off by a month, might again be delayed.
"We were afraid there might be no garden," and at a time when food self-sufficiency has become an ever more important topic, said Christine Lamothe, a 50-something local who arrived with a bundle of seeds.
"The city closed the gardens two months ago, and it caused an uproar," said Stephane Espinosa, who chairs the garden's oversight committee. "In fact, they were closed all over Canada."
As the pandemic spread in mid-March, gardens "were not considered as an essential service" despite their "nutritional and psychological value," said Espinosa, a native of the French city of Marseille.
But after garden enthusiasts bombarded officials with complaints and petitions, they finally earned "essential" status, added Espinosa, a Quebecer for 15 years.
- Safety and sanitary rules -
"For many people," said Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante, "community gardens are more than just for leisure. They allow them to better fill their needs and gain access to fresh products at low cost."
But officials quickly issued "safety and sanitary rules" for the 97 gardens created in Montreal 45 years ago.
Most restrictive is a new rule limiting to 35 the number of people allowed in a garden at any given time -- whereas in past years one might find as many as 400 people at work, including garden members and their families.
Further, everyone must respect social-distancing, and gardeners are encouraged to wear masks and gloves. People must wash their hands when entering the garden, while also disinfecting garden gates and water spigots.
And to limit crowds, gardeners will be allowed to come only every other day until June 1, Lamothe said.
"The biggest change is not having access to our own tools, which we normally share with each other. You have to bring your own things from home," said another gardener, Yan Poudrier.
"Usually we would come as a family, me and my three children. Unfortunately, with the restrictions this year on the number of individuals, it's hard to come with all three," said the 39-year-old.
- 'Less socializing' -
But everyone is eager to sow their seeds or to plant the sprouts they have started at home over the winter -- even if the garden has become "more a place for growing and less for socializing," said Lamothe.
"For my part," said Espinosa, "I'm ready to start planting as quickly as possible." He said he was planning out his plot "to the centimeter so I can put in as much as possible."
"Gardening," he added, "has become something really important for people this year, in this period of COVID, because they've come to rediscover their roots, to relearn bygone techniques, and to renew their bonds with their grandparents."