Soil Solace: Gardening During COVID-19

Digital Web Services
July 22, 2020

three tomatoes on the vine

If you started a pandemic garden this past spring (lots of people did), you have probably already enjoyed some of the fruits of your labor. Perhaps some fresh squash, peppers, or cucumber? Maybe you’ve made fresh pesto from a basil plant and your tomatoes are ripening – sparking dreams of a summer staple, the tomato sandwich. By now, you might be thinking about what you want to plant this fall or making plans to expand your little Eden next spring. A garden isn’t limited to a single season, after all.

What is it about gardening that is so enduring and beneficial to our health beyond the harvest and healthy food? We spoke to farm director, Susan L. Johnson, Ph.D. and Carmen Ketron, farm educator with the MUSC Urban Farm, and asked this and other questions about the benefits of getting a little dirt under your nails. Excuse me: while you read this, I have some weeding to do.

Being stuck at home, I find that I really look forward to spending time in my garden even in the heat and with the mosquitos. Why is that?

Ketron: There is a lot of literature that says subconsciously we are at our most calm state in nature. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm coined the term Biophilia for the passion and love of nature as the starting point of how we connect with higher energy. I would say reaching peace and happiness is done best through nature and nature can be reached when you are in your garden.

Johnson: Nurturing a garden or plants provides the satisfaction of completing tasks, sense of accomplishment and a stronger connection with the natural environment which can help elevate some of the feelings we are experiencing related to loss of control during the pandemic. As we go through these stressful times, it’s important to give ourselves respite and allow ourselves the simple joy of being outdoors. As John Muir stated, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

Can you really consider weeding a form of exercise? What physical benefits come from gardening?

Ketron: Yes, at the farm we call it crop fit. Moderate extended exercise is a great way to burn calories. Thirty minutes of moderate gardening activities such as weeding, turning over a bed, or raking leaves can burn about 120 calories according to the Mayo Clinic. Working in a garden activates all the body parts so in terms of whole-body exercise, it can’t be beat.

Johnson: Not only that, but there is actually quite a bit of evidence, most anecdotal, some scientific, about how gardeners can live up to 14 years longer than non-gardeners. National Geographic author Dan Buettner has studied this in depth by visiting what he called “blue zones” around the world- places where life expectancy is significantly longer. “If you garden, you’re getting some low-intensity physical activity most days, and you tend to work routinely,” says Buettner. He says there is evidence that gardeners live longer and are less stressed. A variety of studies confirm this, pointing to both the physical and mental health benefits of gardening.

My family has been really interested in gardening with me. In fact, they have taught me a few things about plants that I didn’t know. What is it about gardening that can be so 1) communal and 2) educational?

Ketron: Gardening is an interactive way to learn and practice subjects you learn in school. Some of our favorite subjects we integrate into garden time is practicing memorization and spellings of what is being planted, earth science aspects such as insect identification, using math and geometry to plan out the garden or construct a trellis. The communal aspect is also very understandable, at the urban farm we work with people to practice building social skills through garden projects as a way to create a shared goal and celebrate the achievement whether it be planting or harvesting or pulling weeds.

Johnson: One of the most valued but not surprising outcomes we’ve noted from the Urban Farm is that each person experiences it in a different and very personal way. For example, a letter written to former MUSC President, Dr. Ray Greenberg by a visiting post-doc fellow from Iran describes the value that the Urban Farm brought to her and her husband during their stay:

“Although there are many notable initiatives at MUSC, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the unique MUSC Urban Farm project. The educators and staff demonstrated such great compassion and made us feel very welcome and somehow intimately connected to the community. As newcomers, we never had the feeling of being excluded or marginalized because helping at the farm provided us a sense of belonging to the MUSC community. As our time at MUSC passed, we felt more and more responsible for the farm; it’s plants and so on. In other words, the farm became part of our lives. We found it a great opportunity to learn about people, culture and the community. This farm, as well as the people who devotedly work there, linked us to other members of the community whom we would not have been able to meet otherwise. Most importantly, participating in the farm’s activities has added value and made our lives more joyous here in Charleston. My husband and I spent a lot of time doing healthy physical work through gardening. Moreover, nutritious, local food was always accessible to us.”

Some folks claim they aren’t able to garden because they don’t have a green thumb. Is it true that some people have an innate ability to garden or is it something else, like experience maybe?

Ketron: It’s practice, practice, and some reading up on what you are trying to grow and care for. There are so many other factors that affect a plant from thriving it is rarely the person. It is often more the needs of the plant and understanding each type of plant is different.

I have personally experienced anxiety over how my tomato plants are doing. What are some ways to mitigate anxiety and fear of failure when you are growing something?

Ketron: I have similar attachment issues at the end of each season when I have to pull the plants or when something didn’t grow as well as I would have hoped. I find solace in the practice of grounding my thinking in the concept of the cyclical nature of plants as opposed to a linear lifespan. It is important to understand that some things need to be let go (i.e. if you keep a sick plant in the garden it can attract insects or spread disease if not removed) or finding ways to honor the plant and the effort you put into it (such as composting the plant material, taking cuttings to re grow the plant, or saving the seeds to enjoy next season). This is a really good practice that you can attach many metaphors in your personal life for such as cleansing rituals and new starts. Transforming negative thoughts about failure or the end of the season into positive thinking as a celebration is often seen throughout history with harvest celebrations or rituals for a better crop next season.

There’s no question that gardening has been beneficial for many people during this difficult time. What are some of the best ways to maintain that energy and enthusiasm when we exit the growing season?

Ketron: My best advice is to encourage people to keep growing. In the Lowcountry there is no end to the growing season. I actually believe the best time to grow food and flowers is September through May. A lot of people call it second spring, where you can grow everything you grew in spring in September with less insect pressure and less watering. I want to use this space to encourage people to start planning a fall and winter garden that can include fall tomatoes and eggplants, winter squash, carrots, kale, broccoli, beets, salad greens and a lot more.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the benefits of gardening? Any further resources on the benefits of gardening?

Ketron: Our favorite resources are the Clemson Extension and you can follow our social media for more specific planting dates @muscurbanfarm on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Johnson: For those research-minded folks, Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis provides a great synthesis of evidence to support the health benefits of gardening.

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The MUSC Urban Farm is located in downtown Charleston on the Main MUSC campus. Its mission is to build a healthier community by growing crops and social connections while educating and inspiring people with local, nutritious, and delicious food. Learn more about the MUSC Urban Farm.


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Keywords: COVID-19, Wellness