The value of gardens and gardening in trying times

This is truly an unprecedented period in the history of our country and our world. The sudden development and rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is upending lives around the planet, and our normal lives and customary routines have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.

This column is supposed to be garden-related, but before I delve into that topic, it’s important to acknowledge my fellow human beings’ stress and grief. To anyone struggling with isolation, loss of job or income, disrupted school schedules, or other difficult circumstances, I wish you strength and the hope that your needs will be soon be met. To those who are ill with the novel coronavirus, I wish you a quick and complete recovery. To all the medical professionals who are providing virus testing and caring for infected patients, and to others whose important and ongoing work puts them in harm’s way, I send wishes for your good health and a message of profound gratitude. And to anyone who has lost a loved one as a result of this pandemic, my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies.

Whatever your circumstances are in this moment, my hope is that gardens and gardening can help in some way.

Elephant sculptures amid beautiful blooms at the Clovis Botanical Garden, February 2020. Their raised trunks are symbols of good fortune, a timely wish for all. (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

Gardens and natural environments are very therapeutic. Simply being outdoors amidst fresh air, sunshine, and greenery can reduce stress, alleviate depression, lower blood pressure, and increase our bodies’ production of vitamin D. Caring for plants is a wonderful source of physical activity, and it also stimulates the mind. Self-care is particularly important now, and gardening is one cheap and easy way to fulfill part of that need.

Rather than thinking of “yard work” as a necessary drudgery, try focusing on its health-giving benefits. Any stay-at-home time spent pruning, weeding, or planting is helping keep you fit and strong. And, if your time and energy level allows, why not try a fun and rewarding mini-project? If you have some favorite perennial plants, try propagating them by taking stem cuttings, treating them with rooting hormone, and planting them in moist, sterilized potting mix. If you have an unused/underutilized area or an unwanted patch of grass, start planning now to replace it in fall with California natives; this will help support local pollinators and restore a bit of natural habitat. Or, plant a tree or shrub to honor a loved one.

Vegetable gardening is yet another rewarding and productive pursuit during this time of recommended “cocooning.” You might recall that residents of the U.S. and other countries were encouraged to plant their own Victory Gardens during World Wars I and II and other periods of national crisis and solidarity. Now—as then—vegetable gardens can provide healthy physical activity, a morale boost, and an inexpensive source of nourishment in the days and weeks to come. March and April are ideal months to plant seeds of summer crops such as beans, carrots, corn, eggplant, melons, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. For those with school-age children, this is an opportunity to teach them where their plant-based food comes from and how to grow it. Consider sharing share seeds and harvests with your loved ones and neighbors while developing a healthy, long-term habit of growing your own food. You can find locally appropriate vegetable gardening resources at http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/Home_Vegetable_Gardening/.

While spending time inside your home, houseplants can be a source of joy. Their greenery beautifies rooms, and in some circumstances they help purify and oxygenate indoor air. Ornamental plants are truly a form of horticultural therapy; they’ve been proven to aid in recovery from sickness, and having plants nearby helps improve human memory, concentration, and productivity. This is an excellent time to learn more about caring for each of your indoor plants; to repot them with fresh planting mix; to give them a spring feeding with worm castings, compost, or fertilizer; or to gently bathe them and clean their leaves of accumulated dust.

Outdoor exercise is another great coping strategy, and it’s still allowed under current statewide COVID-19 guidelines. If you live near a public park or garden, plan a short visit for some physical activity and relaxation. However, do so cautiously, and remember to keep a safe distance from others so that you don’t expose yourself or them to unnecessary risk. Stay close to home, and be sure to check ahead of time about open hours and restrictions. Two small and close-at-hand public gardens are the native plant garden at the Oak Grove Nature Center and the Learning Landscape outside the San Joaquin Master Gardener office.

I hope that you can use gardens and gardening to help maintain your health in the coming days and weeks, within the limitations of prudent social distancing. Please be sure to follow any current and developing state and federal COVID-19 recommendations and orders, to ensure the safety of your family, friends, and the community at large. We’re all in this together.

As an additional public service, please refer to these reputable sources of information regarding COVID-19:

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website:http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/.

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