29 Jul Gardening through the Pandemic
This past June, I worked full-time at a garden centre in the heart of Toronto. Despite the Ontario government’s approval of the public opening of garden centres at the beginning of May, the one I worked at prioritized safety by restricting all shopping to online orders. Without a constant flow of customers and regulations, a sanctuary was created within its gates. I didn’t shake my boss’s hand when meeting them and had to squeeze against the aisles of carts to keep an acceptable distance from my coworkers, but the effects of COVID-19 were otherwise unrecognizable. With the hose in hand and a new podcast episode in my ears, I could almost forget about the pandemic beyond the stacked, floral barriers.
This near tranquility directly contrasted with my experience working at the back gate, the spot for curbside pickups and questions. There, I encountered a range of reactions to the pandemic and our new online ordering system put in place to address it. Many people sported masks–some of which were worn below their noses or were lowered when they spoke–while others avoided the item altogether. I met those who got a little too close when giving me their order number, and ones who took deliberate steps backward when I approached them at a distance. I was met with anger from people who wanted to select their own flowers, confusion from elderly folks without access to the Internet, and impatience from those who didn’t want to wait the projected two-day fulfillment period.
Although my coworkers expressed their irritation with this repetitive stream of questions and complaints, I understood the confusion and frustration. Customers were upset with altering their habits, especially those who have cherished their annual garden centre trips for years. It is easy to see how, in a time of uncertainty in all areas of our lives, change would be especially undesired and unwelcome. During my time at the garden centre, it became clear that gardening allowed customers to maintain a sense of normalcy. Gardening traditions symbolize so much more than the actual plants, particularly in the midst of this pandemic. Beyond the personal significance that gardening has to avid planters, the accompanied benefits which arise subconsciously through the practice have surprised me. Flowers are so much more significant than I could have initially imagined.
Restrictions to stay home have allowed people to spend more time on activities for which they are usually too busy, bringing both returning and first-time customers to the store. Gardening is an ideal quarantine activity, as it allows people to follow government guidelines to stay on personal property while optimizing outdoor and physical activities. According to a 2016 study, the practice has actually been proven to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, alleviate stress, and increase one’s quality of life.* Additionally, gardening fosters a sense of accomplishment in day-to-day activities and provides people with the opportunity to become more self-sufficient by growing their own food. Especially with recent instability in the economy, growing fresh foods in one’s personal garden eliminates the impact of external forces on the cost and supply of produce. This urge for individual food cultivation was certainly evident with the popularity of herbs and vegetable plants at the garden centre, encouraging me to start my own collection. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that gardening provides a sense of control over one’s own life. In a time of vast change and unpredictability, even the smallest garden becomes an outlet to exercise responsibility for other living things.
Through watering hundreds of plants over my month at the garden centre, from colourful petunias to unique succulents to massive cedar trees, I definitely gained a sense of achievement and of self-importance through both watching them grow and taking on the responsibility of keeping them alive. Despite the various negative emotions I encountered at the back gate, the most memorable people were the ones who were understanding of the garden centre regulations and grateful in providing for their gardens. These encounters helped me comprehend the extent to which plants are able to encourage optimism within others. I especially believe this to be true for those who approached the gate with an unfavourable attitude, as gardening perhaps provided a therapeutic release of their negative sentiments. As each person responds to uncertainty differently, it becomes increasingly important to find individual healing practices to maintain a personal sense of ‘normal.’ Whether this is through planting, running, baking, reading, or elsewhere, identifying one’s source–or variety of sources–of stability and accomplishment are essential to satisfaction and self-assurance, especially during this pause on typical routines. If gardening can offer support in a time of struggle, I am happy to take part in the solution. I hope for each person to find their equivalent.
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Resources: *Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., Yamaura, Y. (2016). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5(1), 92-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.007