Two years ago, our front yard looked like most others in most neighbourhoods — plenty of grass surrounded by a hedge of tall non-native shrubs and a token garden pocket of shorter non-native shrubs and ground covers. Neat and tidy. Ornamental.
This February, after a considerable investment in time, and a moderate monetary investment, our front yard is a beautiful, productive, regenerative food oasis and natural habitat restoration project, and my home office doubles as a seed starting and soil quality research station.
The pandemic was not my inspiration, nor my motivation, but the timing of it allowed me more time at home to work in the new gardens, and a platform upon which to speak and write about food gardening and urban permaculture, to a greater audience.
After the dust settles around the rise and fall of pandemic-related popularity of home gardening, the newly converted and the re-energized remain to sow seeds for the future.
Acres of anecdotal evidence imply that North Americans have seen the green light and that, we could be home-growing our way to food security.
According to Alabama-based plant nursery giant Bonnie Plants, the number of Americans who dug into gardening grew by almost 50-percent during year one of the pandemic, adding 20 million new gardeners to the mix. An impressive 63 million people were growing, hoeing and sowing during 2020.
As an urban permaculture designer committed to helping people regenerate urban landscapes, grow organic food, and reduce their dependence on non-renewable resources, I am keen to understand this trend and what it means for the future — so I dug deeper.
In a recent, very well designed research study titled ‘Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Gardening in the United States: Postpandemic Expectations’, that appeared in HortTechnology (journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science), a large representative sample of Americans was surveyed with respect to gardening attitudes, actions and intentions before, during, and post pandemic.
The study explored, among many other trends, the causes and potential implications of the 8% annual increase in plant and landscape revenues experienced by the green industry during the six month period of lockdown from January 2020 to July 2020.
To better understand trend motivations, respondents were provided meaningful multiple choice answers to questions about disposable income, food security, gardening habits, purchasing behaviour, demographics, etc.
The report concluded, among many other things that 34% of respondents planted a garden solely because they had more time at home because of the pandemic. However, only 11% indicated they would plant a garden in 2021 if they had more time at home.
The reasons for the relatively low rate of returning to gardening were various and somewhat unclear, but I am focussing instead on the magnitude of the national trend overall and its implications for the future.
My own anecdotal experience leads me to believe that many people panicked when faced with the potential of food shortages, and because time was suddenly and uncommonly in abundance, the so-called luxury of gardening was available. This perfect storm scenario will undoubtedly repeat itself in the not so distant future, so we cannot ignore the implications (and opportunity).
I believe too that, stress and anxiety caused by job uncertainty and isolation seduced novices into gardening which in turn provided a beautiful, productive, non-narcotic coping mechanism. The real and measurable ’high’ that gardening provides should be considered in economic terms, as a weapon of mass destruction against society’s ills.
I am hopeful that the powers that be, and also influencers — governments, employers, society as a whole — recognize the benefits of gardening, and food gardening in particular, and take meaningful and lasting steps to create time, space and funding for continuity across all socio-economic groups.
I cannot imagine a more holistic, lower barrier to entry, or higher return on investment antidote to terminal illness, mental ill health, or catastrophic climate change than gardening in all of its incarnations.
At a micro level, growing food at home, and regenerating urban landscapes have the potential to slowly, slowly repair the broken food supply chain and the wholly inequitable healthcare system from the inside out, independent of industrial agriculture, big Pharma and big government.
At the macro level, recovered and recovering urban, suburban and rural ecosystems could slowly stitch themselves back together, restoring desertified oases and complex ecosystems, repairing weather systems, purifying the atmosphere and water systems, and re-building localized economies.
It absolutely can be done, but only if we recreate, in a post COVID-19 pandemic world, the motivation, time and opportunity for time-starved, cash-strapped, consumer-oriented populations to keep their hands in the soils of hope long enough to realize benefits.
The time and space that the pandemic afforded millions or ordinary and extraordinary people to get their hands dirty, shone green and glamorous light on food gardening, albeit fleetingly, in a way that I have not experienced in my lifetime.
And therein lies the gift.
Long-simmering voices and grassroots initiatives dedicated to regenerative agriculture, soil health and restoration, forest farming, organic gardening, community gardening, and victory gardening were propelled into the spotlight.
Entertainment and tech icons like Woody Harrelson, Harrison Ford, and Kimbal Musk joined the ranks of eco-heroes Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, and stuck their celebrity feet fast and true, in the doors of change.
I am hopeful that one day in the not too distant future I will see a Super Bowl, Olympic or World Cup of Soccer halftime show or opening ceremony dedicated to the environment — a star-studded, spectacular, green-powered, super slick and sexy performance — singing, dancing, and celebrating nature in all her (expletive) majesty.
I can imagine it, it could happen. If beautiful, energy efficient, open-source technology electric vehicles could grow from the black and sooty ashes of a Super PAC and fossil fuel-powered world, then why not this?
Imagine the legacy. Imagine the influence and planet healing potential of one billion people from every country on earth watching the same 12-minute uncensored celebration of hope and opportunity, in real time, together.
Hope springs eternal.
In the interim, let’s keep planting seeds, growing food, and making change one home garden at a time. Not sure where to start? Just Dive In.