People find solace in gardening during pandemic

The Medfield Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Betty and Neal Sanders

By Emily Leclerc
BU News Service

A Growing Opportunity

MEDFIELD – The Medfield Community Garden occupies a tree-lined field off Plain Street. The garden’s organized pathways and well kept plots sit in contrast to the messy woods surrounding it.

The 55 rectangular plots are arranged in neat rows, each cordoned off with mesh fences. Grid-like, mulch-covered pathways weave between the plots, allowing the gardeners to reach their designated growing areas. Some of the plots are divided in half to let more gardeners join the community, which brings the plot grand total to 70. Aerial shots of last year’s garden showcased the ordered plots and their hodge-podge collection of plants.

The gardeners are mostly unrestricted in the plants they’re allowed to grow. Each plot becomes uniquely suited to the gardener tending it. The organized garden retains a sense of wildness because of the jumbled assortment of plants grown.

This year, Betty and Neal Sanders, who are members of National Garden Clubs and in charge of the Medfield Community Garden, have a waiting list for plots. They have filled all 70 plots, and even more people are clamoring to get one.

“In any given year, I’ve got about 11 or 12 plots that I’ve got to find new people for,” Neal Sanders said. “We use social media. We have an article in the town paper. We do a garden lecture up at the library. Out of that we usually get enough people to fill out the garden just exactly. Every year, we have never had anyone left on the waiting list. This year, on March 1, it’s like the spigot opened.”

This year is an unusual one and the Sanderses are shocked at the effect it’s having on their community garden. In early January, reports started coming in from China about mysterious cases of pneumonia. By the end of January, China was in the midst of a full-blown outbreak of what is now named COVID-19.

Fast forward to April, and the United States is locked in the throes of a pandemic with the majority of states in lockdown and their citizens stuck at home. Uncertainty, fear and anxiety permeate everything, with the U.S. and much of the rest of the world facing hazy futures.

Aerial view of the Medfield Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Betty and Neal Sanders

In a strange silver lining, however, this pandemic created an environment ripe with the potential for gardening. The Sanderses see this in the surge of applications they received once registration for their garden opened. The applications all came with the same series of concerns: People are stuck at home and looking for something to do with their families. Grocery stores are emptying, and people want access to fresh produce. They’re worried about the future food supply.

And yet, the garden was almost shut down for the year. When Medfield’s COVID-19 Committee looked at which businesses and organizations to close in response to the outbreak, it considered closing the community garden. The committee ultimately decided to allow the garden to remain open with the understanding that the gardeners would act responsibly. Neal Sanders sent out an email explaining the committee’s decision. He received a flurry of responses expressing the gardeners’ relief.

“I got a response from one person who has been a gardener for four or five years,” Neal Sanders said. “She wrote to me and said, ‘So help me God, if they were to close the garden I would have a HUGE problem. That will be my only solace from homeschooling four [children] and my escape from the ‘office’. Thanks for all you do and see you soon.’”

This community garden is important to people for reasons beyond fresh veggies. The pandemic brought light to a pastime that many have enjoyed for decades and illustrates why it is such a long beloved hobby. Dave Whitinger, the executive director of the National Gardening Association, says that traffic to their website has almost doubled in the past few weeks. Gardening provides people with something important, and they are seeking out its benefits now more than ever.

Gardening is About More Than Just Fresh Food

Last year, my dad tore out our garden, took down the fences, demolished the beds and scooped all the dirt into one pile with our bright orange Kubota tractor. Throughout the winter that dirt pile marred our front yard. Now that it is a bit warmer, my four-year-old cousin Sophia enjoys covering herself in dirt as she rolls around in the pile.

Dad’s project for this spring is to rebuild the garden smaller, but better. The seed packets sit waiting on our kitchen island. But, for my dad, that unfinished mess sitting on our front yard represents more than just a future harvest.

My dad has a desk job. He works on projects, takes phone calls and sits through meetings. With the pandemic raging around us, he does all that work from home. That means long hours sitting in his desk chair. He’ll take occasional walks throughout the day, but he still often ends his days mentally tired and wanting to do nothing more than vegetate in front of the TV.

But those weekends when it’s nice enough to work outside, he dedicates his day to gardening. Even though there are no plants yet, the project gives him an escape from the humdrum of work and the anxieties he suffers from. It’s a space where he doesn’t have to think about anything but the beds-to-be and the dirt that Sophia keeps throwing around that will eventually fill those beds. He finds the physicality and distraction of it all soothing – a reset button before the week to come.

Gardening once had to be done to provide families with food. It wasn’t an optional or fun activity. Today, while no longer necessary, gardening remains a popular and cherished hobby for many.

Harriet Gross, a professor of psychology at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., said that while fresh fruits and vegetables are often a person’s reason for starting a garden, they are not what keep people coming back for more. Gross is a gardener herself, and she became curious as to why people, like my dad,  continue to gravitate toward the hobby.

“Being out in the garden, in the soil, and working with plants tends to reduce the level of the stress hormone,” Gross said. Cortisol, the hormone responsible for the human body’s reactions to stress, causes changes that allow people to respond to stressful stimuli. Stressors, like a global pandemic, can easily raise a person’s cortisol levels, creating feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.

“Physiologically, [gardening] changes your response so that you feel more relaxed and less stressed,” Gross said. “That allows them to be less hassled and therefore find it easier to cope, so their mental well-being is greater.”

Gardening distracts the mind from causes of stress and provides something else to focus on, Gross said.

“People talk about how [gardening] is a bit like mindfulness, where you enter into a slightly different kind of world, because the pace of it slows down,” Gross said. “You have to change your way of thinking and not become so anxious about things happening quickly.”

The sense of control that accompanies gardening may provide relief during the pandemic. Gross said that this pandemic has wrenched away a sense of certainty and control in the world. Gardening provides a way for someone to take back some of that control.

“People say, who are gardeners at any time, that for them their garden is a way of managing, a way of coping with difficult things in their lives or stressful things happening at work,” Gross said. “It is something else to think about that’s productive.”

Attention restoration theory in psychology states that exposure to nature can have restorative effects on somebody’s ability to focus. In today’s world, people are constantly focused on something: phones, work or the people around them. The brain is a muscle, and it can be overworked just like any other muscle.

“Physical activity… can help with [mental fatigue] because you are focusing on your body and what you’re doing. [In] gardening, you’re also focusing on something else and what’s going to happen to that other thing and how you can make a difference,” Gross said. “So all that time [gardening] you can be thinking about a different future … and not the thing that is giving you lots of headaches.”

David Robson, a long time horticulturist and member of National Garden Clubs, can attest to the benefits he reaps from the small botanical garden he grows in his front yard. He said he takes great satisfaction in having something none of his neighbors have and being that “weird” gardener.

“In the summer, at 6 a.m. with a glass of iced tea in my hands, I like to just look out at the hostas, hellebores, Japanese maples, hydrangeas,” Robson said. “I’ve got a lot of ‘H’ plants, I just realized.”

Robson said he appreciates his flowers, trees and shrubs just as much as his vegetable plants — some days even more so. During the pandemic, he continues to seek out his garden for the comfort it gives during this time of uncertainty.

“It gives me something to do,” Robson said. “I look out at it, and I’d say, ‘okay, they say I have to stay home, but they never said I have to stay indoors.’ I can go outside and garden, and it’s mentally therapeutic.”

Everyone Can Do It

My family owns a lot of land — five acres, to be exact. So, we have ample amounts of space to set aside for a garden. My dad hijacked a large swath of our front yard for the garden, but we still have plenty of space left to park three cars and have a normal lawn.

But that is not true for everyone. Those living in apartments or on small properties may feel they do not have the space for a garden, and not everyone has access to community gardens.

Whitinger, in his role at the National Gardening Association, is also a big proponent of incorporating fruits and vegetables into existing landscape gardening.

“A lot of people are growing right in their landscaping. They’re not going and getting a rototiller and tilling up the whole backyard,” Whitinger said. “They’re just putting plants right in among their shrubs.”

Vegetable plants don’t need a dedicated garden bed to flourish. They would be just as happy stuck in the same soil as someone’s decorative shrubs as they would in a fancy garden bed.

Swiss chard is a particular favorite of Whitinger’s for landscape gardening, because it’s a nutritious plant that’s also quite beautiful. It comes in a rainbow of colors, from reds to greens to blues.

“[Planting] in the landscape works just fine as long as it gets enough sun,” Whitinger said. “That’s really your only requirement.”

A garden under construction in Charlton, Massachusetts. Emily Leclerc / BU News Service

For those with no landscape to plant in, they can grow plants indoors in containers. Robson recommended beginner gardeners start small, potentially with a few indoor containers.

 “I love container gardening and people putting in cherry tomatoes, peppers and leaf lettuce that they can grow early in the spring,” Robson said. “Then taking them out and putting something else in for the summer.”

Robson said growing a few small plants in some pots helps create confidence. For him, the reward is worth the dirt under his fingernails.

Gross said that having one small plant to take care of goes a long way. One can harvest the benefits of large scale gardening from that one little green plant sitting on your windowsill, even if it doesn’t survive that long.

“You don’t have to be the world’s best gardener to get the benefits. That’s the real thing,” Gross said. “You can just do it in your own space and in your own time.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has pitched the world into an unprecedented realm of uncertainty, but one thing does remain certain: plants will continue to grow and thrive. Luckily, this pandemic decided to hit just as spring is coming into full bloom.

For Robson, it isn’t the sense of rebirth most people attach to spring that makes it so magical. He enjoys his plants starting to come up again and seeing how they’ve changed since last year. Each new spring brings new surprises with it.

“I’m looking out my front windows, and I’m looking at the hellebores that I planted last year and wow,” Robson said. “They just took off this year. They’re just fantastic.”

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