Gardening in times of corona
Hands up if you started gardening at the beginning of the pandemic? You’re not alone. Sales of seeds and gardening tools hit an all-time high last spring as more people ventured into our gardens - many of us for the first time.
Ruling over our gardens was one of the few ways we could take back control, reconnect with nature and do something useful. But out of those who began their journey down the garden path, how many of us continued?
I caught up with three pandemic gardeners, Neha Poddar, Dianne Powell and Matija Longar, to discuss the highs and lows of their progress so far.
Hailing from India, Neha Poddar’s purchased food directly from farmers every day for her family. When the pandemic hit, Poddar says taking her first step into gardening was underpinned by a desire to reconnect to her food. ‘‘I wanted to understand the value of the food I eat,’’ she says. ‘‘To grow it from scratch and see what was needed, what would happen.’’ As a vegetarian, having access to fresh fruit and vegetables was always a good idea, of course.
Tomatoes were Poddar’s first triumph in the garden. Particularly the cherry tomatoes which are an expensive luxury in India. She used seeds from store-bought fruit and was pleasantly surprised with the results. At one point she had so many tomato plants that she began to give some away and exchanged others such as peppers.
Keen to expand, balcony gardener Poddar knew she had little space to experiment. Community gardens were a possible solution, but when a local garden never replied to her, she began to lose heart. Then - in response to a post on social media - communal gardeners in Cents invited her to come visit. It was there that Poddar tasted chives for the first time and learnt about native plants such as kohlrabi and nettle. She is now one of the more regular visitors, offering her help in exchange for advice and surplus vegetables.
The community garden has also increased Poddar’s social circle. She has forged new friendships and members now attend activities like a pottery course. Grow your own plants to put in your own pots - makes perfect sense to me.
With roots in the Caribbean, Dianne Powell brings a vibrant energy to her garden - even more so because she spent time in probably the world’s most gardening-obsessed country: the United Kingdom. When the lockdown started in March last year, Powell began creating ‘‘an oasis’’, a piece of paradise that she and her family could escape to outside the house.
Many were keen to discourage Powell, a tenant. ‘’People thought I was mad to invest so much money and time in a space that will never be our own,’’ she says. ‘‘But we benefit from the garden. It is a source of enjoyment, of peace and tranquility.’’ And so, she ploughed ahead with her plans.
Coming from a family of farmers, you would expect Powell to have a good grasp of gardening. Yet gardening is not the same as farming and Luxembourg’s climate is different from that in the tropics. Past experiences resulted in the death of most of her plants. ‘‘This time around, research was a must’’, she says. Shunning social media, Powell took the traditional route - watching gardening programmes and reading gardening books.
She began by drawing a rough design, creating a series of connected ‘rooms’, heavily influenced by English cottage garden style. Wanting to get her family involved, she incorporated their ideas as much as possible, even encouraging her son to use Minecraft to design the shape of the stepping stones weaving a path through the centre of the garden.
For a space approximately 8 metres squared, Powell achieved a lot. A herb garden, a pond, a mini wildflower meadow and a cutting garden sit between fruit trees, seating area and hot tub. Unlike past experiences, Powell is now enjoying many of the plants she sowed this spring.
Slovenia to Luxembourg
Matija Longar left a small town in Slovenia to go and work in the big city, where he lived in apartments without a balcony. There was little space to grow his own food. Starting a family and buying a house in Luxembourg changed that. Factor in a worldwide pandemic and a ‘stay at home’ mandate and suddenly the time to pursue gardening seriously got real.
Losing his daily commute gave Longar time to tend to plants and make changes in his garden. Gone was the cafeteria break. Instead of staring at his phone, sipping a beverage indoors, he took it al fresco and stepped into the garden for a spot of manual labour.
Gardening was family time, but also ‘me-time’. It was liberating and productive, he says. The garden became a space of meditation. It gave him ‘’time to unplug and reconnect with nature.’’ A space to forget about work, family plans and even the pandemic itself.
Descending from a family who "grew everything but wheat’’, Longar remembers the sense of wonder when growing up - planting a seed and watching it grow into food. Yet the knowledge he gained as a child was all but forgotten and he had to learn most things anew.
Eager to share his experience, he got his own children involved early on. They took planted seeds from various fruits such as melon. With success, helped along by last year’s warmer weather. Longar also put them to work picking pests such as caterpillars and snails. The critters were then put into homemade bug houses, where they fed on compostable scraps to be observed before being released into the wild.
Did Longar save money? No, but the ‘‘most expensive thing you invest is your time.’’ It seems a sound investment, given how little time we have. Let's hope the pandemic leaves soon and gardening stays.