At first glance, lugging around heavy water containers in a wheelbarrow or pulling weeds under the hot mid-day sun may not seem a rewarding pastime during the pandemic.
Surely weathering the COVID-19 crisis is tough enough? Why add to the burden?
But for Heather Kent, the returns from her Quadra Island, B.C., community garden plot are ample — and measured by more than just what she harvests for the table.
Growing your own fruit and vegetables obviously improves individual and communal food security during the pandemic, Kent said.
But community gardens can nurture people’s mental health as well.
“People are starved for social interaction,” said Kent, who is friendly and gregarious herself.
The communal outdoor space makes it an ideal location to practice proper physical distancing, but still cultivate or maintain social connections, she said.
“I’m very social,” Kent said, adding she could have opted to work her own garden this year and give up her space at the community garden.
“But, I find there’s a real eclectic group of people there. I enjoy being able to garden and talk across the plot to people.”
Kent finds she also learns a lot by interacting with more experienced or knowledgeable gardeners.
“I think some of the reasons a garden is restorative, is not just that it gives us food, but because it gives us meaning, and it helps us make sense of death and disease,” therapist Matthew Kelly on why gardening nurtures our psyche during Covid-19.
“I like that I can walk across the garden if I see somebody, and ask them a question. And you know 95 per cent of the people in the garden are totally happy to chat about that.”
As the pandemic lingers, its impacts on people’s mental health — especially on vulnerable populations — is significant.
More than half (52 per cent) of people reported their mental health declined as a result of physical distancing, a Statistics Canada survey found at the start of the pandemic.
As well, 43 per cent of people suffering financial impacts due to the pandemic reported symptoms consistent with moderate or severe anxiety.
During the pandemic, gardens — whether communal, private, or simply tomato plants on a balcony — can provide some respite from the stress of COVID-19, say a pair of Quadra Island mental health experts.
Besides demonstrated therapeutic effects, such as lowering the stress hormone cortisol, there are literal and symbolic benefits to getting your hands dirty, Matthew Kelly and Owen Williams said.
Many people are suffering a great deal of loss, stress, grief and a sense they have no control during the pandemic, said Kelly, a Jungian psychotherapist.
But digging in the dirt can get people out of their heads, provide a sense of accomplishment, and connect people to their subconscious, the couple noted.
“I’ve been out in the garden since 5:30 a.m.,” said Owen, an executive and relationship coach, adding that like many people, he feels saturated by the constant negative reports around COVID-19.
“It's a reprieve from the outside world, I can be out here and completely lose track of time. But, it's also a connectedness to the idea that life is ongoing.”
A garden’s cycle — a circle of decay, death, rebirth and growth — can remind us the living world continues, and it and society will come out the other side of COVID-19, Williams said.
“COVID is another cycle that invites us to experience life through,” he said. “We’re just so in it that we can't see the end of it right now.”
Seasonal fruits and veggies can also remind people to live in the now and enjoy the momentary pleasures offered to us, Williams said.
“I cannot wait to experience a ripe tomato," he said, laughing.
Kelly also noted people under duress, whether is external or internal, often want to control outcomes or their emotions.
But gardening is a good metaphor for recognizing that trying to exert control over the uncontrollable, or forcing results, can result in more suffering, he said.
You can’t make things grow faster or prevent failures in a garden, Kelly said.
And likewise, sometimes you just need to allow emotions to exist and unfold to make mental health gains, he said.
“We're always trying to control what happens in the psyche. We don't want to just let things happen or trust that things will resolve themselves,” Kelly said.
“If we're feeling anxious, or depressed, it’s best sometimes to just let that be. Give room for letting things sit and grow, and not being too eager for results.”
And paradoxically, growing something can also give people a greater sense influence over aspects of their lives during the pandemic, said Williams.
“Part of the movement (for food security) is people wanting to be more resilient and more in touch with their own agency,” he said.
“We often worry about things we can’t control, but pay little attention to the things we have influence over.”
Kent agreed, saying she appreciates the increased amount of fresh food her family has access to, something that seemed especially important in the early days of the pandemic, when the supply chain seemed so shaky.
She was thrilled B.C. was one of the first provinces to recognize community gardens as an essential service.
Importantly, the communal plots allowed folks who rent or don’t have land for gardens to improve their food security, she said.
But the garden also probably provided some people with a sense of purpose and somewhere to go, Kent said.
“Especially during the early days of COVID-19, there were a lot of people not working. A lot of people alone,” she said.
The garden keeps you busy, gives you something to do and a sense of accomplishment when you see it all coming together, she added.
“You can be in the garden, safely far away from people, but still be able to yell across and have a little hello or something,” Kent said.
“It’s been really nice.”
Gardens tend to help people in any variety of ways, consciously and subconsciously, concluded Kelly.
“I think some of the reasons a garden is restorative, is not just that it gives us food, but because it gives us meaning, and it helps us make sense of death and disease,” Kelly said.
“There are critters and pests in a garden and there’s room for all of that. Just like there’s room in our life for depression, melancholy and how to metabolize trauma.”
“All of that can be found in the garden.”
Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer