Why the Covid Gardening Boom is About More than Food

With the disappearance of so much intimate encounter, the prospect of plunging our hands in the soil has gained extraordinary appeal.

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EARLIER THIS SPRING as our nation went into lockdown, people rushed to plant gardens in unprecedented numbers. Fueled by fears of food insecurity and an economy brought to its knees, the Covid-gardening boom left suppliers depleted of inventory as seeds became the new toilet paper. While it’s too early to know the exact scale of this gardening surge, reports from some of the nation’s oldest seed companies offer an initial glimpse. Burpee Seeds, which was founded in 1876, said they sold more this March than at any time in their history.

photo of planting garden
Something far more complex than food lies beneath the garden’s appeal in hard times. Photo via Pikrepo.

All of this has created an irresistible temptation to compare today’s gardening movement to the victory gardens of World War II, when Americans grew food at home to support the war effort and feed their families. News outlets have continually evoked that analogy, running headlines like “Victory Gardens Making Comeback During Covid-19” and “Food Supply Anxiety Brings Back Victory Gardens.”

But is this impulse to garden in hard times really about food? Given the extraordinary investment of labor — and sometimes financial expense — involved, even skilled growers will admit that it can be far easier to just buy that onion at the supermarket. And without extensive outdoor space, dreams of feeding one’s family are fanciful.

Something far more complex than food lies beneath the garden’s appeal — a hidden network of desire for connection and belonging; for contact with nature; for a sense of purpose and creative expression; for work that yields tangible results.

After a dozen years researching American gardening history, I took up this question of why we garden in a 2018 book titled Gardenland. Aiming to evoke “Fantasyland” or “Neverland” in the title, my premise was that gardening is a way to indulge desires otherwise suspended in daily life. In short, gardening can be an unconscious act of seeking out what’s missing. Two years later, our pandemic gardening craze only reconfirms my point.

By the time Covid-19 hit our shores, Americans were already accustomed to virtual experience and the proliferation of smartphones: online dating and telework, meals procured through apps and eaten alone before a screen. But those trends have been dizzyingly accelerated with the overnight imposition of self-isolation and shelter in place directives. And now many remaining enclaves of flesh-and-blood presence — happy hour and yoga class, wedding vows and last rites — have likewise pixelated onto screens.

With the disappearance of so much intimate encounter, the prospect of plunging our hands in the soil has gained extraordinary appeal. Bee Elliott, a student at the University of Washington Bothell (which she referred to as “Zoom University”) said that gardening “feels like an intimate relationship that physical distancing can’t take away.”

That desire for connection emerges time and again when gardeners speak of what draws them to the soil. Leslie Bennett, founder of Black Sanctuary Gardens in Oakland, may have said it best: as she put it, gardens appeal to the “human impulse to be in relationship with land and with each other.”

WHILE THE BEWILDERING retreat of embodied experience puts a unique twist on our present moment, the overall pattern of crisis gardening is as old as dirt, as are the fantasies and frustrations that fuel it.

Industrialization set off a gardening boom among city-dwellers nostalgic for traditional farm life, while Jim Crow oppressions heightened the garden’s appeal for Black Americans seeking spaces of refuge and self-expression. Organic gardening and predominantly White back-to-the-land movements in the 1960s were fueled by anti-establishment sentiment and rising environmental concerns, particularly in the wake of Silent Spring‘s exposé on deadly agrochemicals and pesticides. Over the past thirty years, guerrilla gardening initiatives have sought to revitalize communities, enhance biodiversity, and provide access to green space in the city. Gardening in that period became especially popular among marginalized groups seeking belonging and a sense of control in the midst of instability and displacement: undocumented immigrants, prison inmates, homeless Americans, and inner-city communities.

While it’s too soon to write the story of gardening in 2020, there can be no doubt that a deadly pandemic, mass unemployment, and historic protests following the police killing of George Floyd will leave indelible marks on those who planted through a season of upheaval. At first glance, food insecurity would seem to be the obvious driver for gardening in such times. Yet history suggests that food will only be one piece in a much bigger story behind today’s gardening craze.

My conversations with gardeners have already surfaced these hidden motivations. Many say they’re overwhelmed by the increase in screen time from working remotely. Seattle resident Elizabeth Duffell noticed that she often feels “more drained after an hour-long call than I would in a typical day at the office in normal times.” Duffell has resorted to occasionally turning off the camera so she can garden while videoconferencing: “I find that gardening calms my squirrel mind, and I’m actually able to focus better on what other people are saying while my hands are busy in the dirt,” she said.

Brian Brigantti of Morrison, Tennessee also described gardening as a sanctuary from our addictive relation to technology, which “leaves us feeling emptier than when we log on.”

Yet with so many other options for “unplugging” — many of them far easier than manual labor in the dirt — why has gardening itself become so popular in this moment? Why not knitting, or baking, or building model trains?

I think the answer comes down to two things: the desire to reengage our bodies, and our longing for nature in a time of ecological loss.

OUR ERA OF SCREENS has heightened the importance of physical spaces and activities where we can touch down from the internet’s ghostly realm and reestablish contact with terra firma: restaurants and barbershops, ballparks, coffee shops, gyms, or places of worship.

As the coronavirus lockdowns shutter these spaces, gardening holds open the possibility of immersing our bodies in the physical world. Indeed, it requires us to use our muscles and hands and backs, and activates senses left dormant by screens: smell, touch, and taste.

“human impulse to be in relationship with land and with each other.”
As Black Sanctuary Gardens founder Leslie Bennett says, gardening appeals to the “human impulse to be in relationship with land and with each other.” (Bennett, left, pictured with Seven Asefaha and Elizabeth Foggie). Photo by Fox Nakai

These intensely physical qualities have always been central to gardening’s appeal. As the Czech author Karel Čapek once wrote, gardeners trapped indoors during the frozen months of winter don’t fantasize about the visual elements of a completed garden so much as the desire to once again plunge their hands into the soil: “to hoe, manure, trench, dig, loosen, rake, order, water, multiply,” to “smell the soil, poke out shoots with the finger,” to “wipe off sweat, ease [one’s] back,” “to feel hard buds, develop the first spring blisters, and altogether live, broadly and vigorously, after the gardener’s fashion.”

Nearly a century after Čapek penned these words, a society in quarantine can surely relate to this portrait of the gardener in suspended animation, and the explicitly sensual language used to depict his longing for the return to physical life.

Yet beyond the opportunity to experience ourselves as embodied beings, gardening also connects us to the larger body of our organic world: to elements of sun, rain, seeds and soil. It reaffirms our membership in the larger community of life, and allows us to act in ways that help it flourish. As Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1870, “We all have something in our nature that requires contact with the earth. In the solitude of garden-labor, one gets into a sort of communion with the vegetable life, which makes the old mythology possible.”

Today, gardeners like Elizabeth Foggie, an Oakland artist and collaborator with Black Sanctuary Gardens, see that connection as the root of their practice, a way of resisting the ideologies of “a society that wishes us all to forget that we are nature, part of a larger collective unit.” In fact, Foggie prefers not to use the word “gardening,” explaining that it is “steeped in a history of classism, colonization, and leisure.” Instead, she uses the phrase “working with the earth,” which “points to the mutual benefit and cooperative relationship between the land and humans. It directly opposes the values of dominion over the earth,” she said.

Such reflections go a long way, I think, in explaining why this current moment has awakened such extraordinary interest in gardening. Before Covid-19, the biggest news story was the wildfires raging across Australia, and prior to that, the Amazon was burning. Our generation has seen oceans and rivers die, watched glaciers disappear, read headlines warning of a million species threatened with extinction. We’ve adopted terms like “nature deficit disorder,” “ecological grief,” “climate anxiety,” and “biological annihilation.” In some fundamental sense, our addiction to virtual experience may be a symptom of this loss, a way of seeking substitute pleasures as contact with wildness disappears.

Surely this loss is also connected to the popularity of stories about nature’s resurgence during the pandemic. In a time of death and accelerating climate disruption, we long for signs of nature’s resilience. We want to believe that, if given a moment to breathe, nature will spring to its feet once again. We cheer at images of peacocks in Wales, coyotes crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, mountains suddenly visible from densely-populated cities — even tiny seeds sprouting in the backyard.

Those looking for resurgence may be richly rewarded in their gardens. Sandra Powell of Claremore, Oklahoma was one of dozens in the “Victory Gardens Revival” Facebook group to express relief that the spring planting window arrived shortly after the pandemic: “The bees in my hives are still bringing in pollen, the blue birds are raising their first nest of babies and my dirt is coming alive with new growth,” she wrote. “My world may seem like it’s turned upside down but out in my garden, nothing changed. I needed that.”

Similarly, Foggie linked this life force in the soil to her ability to thrive in a time of protest, pandemic, and police violence. “Working with the earth is the most pressing concern I have,” she said, “because without it, I cannot exist and I forget who I am in the world.”

North Carolina resident Sophia Kotil also emphasized the inner faculties strengthened in her garden. “Gardening is more than just sowing seeds and watching things grow,” she explained. “It has taught me that patience has its rewards and has given me hope for a better tomorrow.”

Such reflections surely highlight the resilience we will all need as we face a long, uncertain summer ahead.

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