Carissa Halton: Experienced Job Loss and Turned to Gardening

Carissa Halton, her husband Matt, and their three children live near Kinnaird Ravine, which is located in Cromdale. They have lived there for three years after moving from Alberta Avenue.

Halton is a writer and a consultant. After publishing her book, Little Yellow House, she began working from home. 

The mid March to mid May lockdown and the subsequent months of school closures created a whole new set of dynamics in domestic life. From having a time and desire to cook to an explosion of interest in gardening to new work arrangements and lack of access to childcare, the pandemic has been a significant catalyst in household life. 

When lockdown was first announced, people started panic buying and stocking up on essentials. Rumors of food shortages began. Farmers dumped milk down the drains because the take-out coffee market and school lunch requirements had disappeared. Onions rotted in fields, as no one was eating onion rings and hamburgers. 

These events showed us the precariousness of the food supply. Whether it was conscious or a deep unconscious need for food security in uncertain times, there was an explosion of interest in gardening. People spending more time at home had more time to garden. 

Halton gardened in her previous home when she was a stay-at-home mom to her three children, and had even written a column about it for the local paper, The Rat Creek Press. But gardening is labour-intensive, and when her youngest was three years old, Halton returned to work, and grocery shopping became far easier than gardening. 

When the family moved to their current home, Halton said, “The whole backyard was a paved deck. The first two-and-a-half years, there was nothing to put seeds into unless I planted among the rosebushes.”

“The ability to plant a garden was a privilege in itself. Keeping my mind busy but remaining present. It was less an activity for food security, but more a mental health break and focus on something life-giving.”

She continued, “But then with the pandemic, facing the kids being home and not being able to focus on my work, I thought, ‘I couldn’t work on projects that required focus, but I can plant some seeds.’ In March, I was wanting to plant inside.” She used all the pans in the house to sprout seeds she purchased from T&T Seeds, an online Canadian company.

Between the increased interest in gardening (T&T Seeds had four times their normal demand) and staff limitations due to public health restrictions on spacing of workers, Halton considered herself lucky to have been able to buy seeds. “I ordered before the run,” she laughed. “The only money we spent in March and April on eating out was $3, compared to $300-400 in January and February. Our fast food money became our garden money.” 

When the weather warmed up in May, Matt built garden boxes to cover the backyard. 

“We planted currants, honeyberries (haskops, which are from Siberia and frost safe to -10 degrees Celsius), raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, grapes. We filled spaces with potatoes in pots, zucchini, tomatoes, catmint (it’s pretty in bouquets), and nasturtiums.” She also started mushrooms, using a spore-treated dowel set into a hole drilled in a log. The brick-covered backyard became an oasis of green.

 “It changes through the season. We need two more boxes. We ate through the lettuce and chard quickly. With a new season, we will experiment.”

Halton’s gardening coincided with the difficulty she had with her work life. 

“As a woman, working from home I have flexibility. I was the halftime person on duty for post-school activities. [During the lockdown], I felt the feelings I felt when I was on maternity leave. Needing to manage and control. My threshold and tolerance for mess was lower. I resented that this was my life now and I had no ability to input. It was thrust upon me,” she explained.

“By week eight, I was feeling out of control. Business that had picked up is now stalled. All near-future is gone. It feels like there is no opportunity to build the future. If I had no children, I would have time. I couldn’t even make time, couldn’t get in my own zone. This is what school does for women and families (or whichever parent stays home). Thank goodness they’re not little kids. My role becomes Chief Nagger, which is better than Chief Food Prep/Cleaner. I feel like I follow [my children] around cleaning up messes.” 

The pandemic changed the way a lot of people work. For many self-employed people, it was a challenge to work without the support of an institution or larger structure. 

Halton explained, “As a consultant, all my client work dried up: professional development days, conferences, writing camps.”

She continued with her writing work. After the lockdown, but still supervising her children’s online learning, Halton started doing research at the Crowsnest Museum & Archives. She was looking to find real life characters and plot a new novel set in Blairmore, Alberta. She searched through thousands of photographs and personal memoirs, and said the self-published memoirs were rich in details. At the time of the interview, she was finishing her novel, So the People Say, and was looking for a publisher.

She shared what she learned from her research. “The garden is a nice connection to that time. The gratitude I feel for pulling out one pound of potatoes would reduce me to tears (knowing that was not the only thing I had to feed my family). [It] forced me to be reflective of our modern technologies. Despite the pressures of being inside . . . I’m not diminishing the pressures of isolation [that we’re experiencing through Covid]. Even that I have friends to be with,” she explained. “Women then had no time for relationships. I feel like it’s been a good thing from stopping me from wallowing in self pity. Every time I turn on my hot water, I feel grateful I don’t have to carry in water and fuel. Women like me had no space in their minds or for having adventures in the forest.” 

The parent who does the majority of the childcare has been the most impacted by school and daycare closures. “My neighbour had to quit her job. Women are set back 60 years. Men have had to take on extra pressure, but women are doing the straddle shift. Those like mine are most impacted by Covid,” Halton said, explaining how women were both working their regular jobs, taking full responsibility for both child care and supervising their children’s online schooling.  (The lockdown began in mid March and continued to mid May. Children completed the school year at home).

One of Halton’s friends is an accountant. “She sounded so stressed. She’s working 60-80 hours a week as a single parent with kids. She cannot say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do your taxes this year.'” 

Halton clarified her feelings. “The ability to plant a garden was a privilege in itself. Keeping my mind busy but remaining present. It was less an activity for food security, but more a mental health break and focus on something life-giving.”

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2 thoughts on “Carissa Halton: Experienced Job Loss and Turned to Gardening”

  1. Gardening has always brought me peace and comfort, too (at least, while things are alive 🙂 I became aware of what a privilege it is to have a yard during these pandemic months and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for those who were isolated to highrise apartments.


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