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Pandemic Gardens Satisfy A Hunger For More Than Just Good Tomatoes

My brand-new back yard garden bed — I can't control the news, but I can plant some radishes.
My brand-new back yard garden bed — I can't control the news, but I can plant some radishes.

In this time of fear and uncertainty, people are going back to the land — more or less. Gardening might just be overtaking sourdough baking, TV binging and playing Animal Crossing as our favorite pandemic coping mechanism

So here I am in my back yard, where I've got this lovely four foot by eight food raised garden bed — brand new this year, because yes, I'm one of those people who are trying their hand at gardening. I've got tomatoes, I've got cucumbers, I've got radishes, I've got beets sprouting up, I've got what I think might be a zucchini and a spaghetti squash, but the markers washed away in a storm.

And I had some watermelon seedlings, but they died in the last cold snap. So that's why I'm out here today — driving in stakes and draping plastic wrap for the next cold snap.

I have to be extra careful now, because I couldn't actually replace my watermelon seedlings — garden centers and hardware stores have been picked clean.

Jennifer Atkinson is a senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Washington, and the author of Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice. She says she'd get a flurry of responses to her blog posts about pandemic gardening, but she really got interested when she started seeing it in the headlines. "Seed suppliers were saying they were completely cleaned out in the early days of lockdown, that seed sales were going through the roof. And that a lot of those customers were first-time growers."

Like me. Now when you've discovered a new obssession, you want to share it, right? So I put out a call in the company newsletter. And it turns out that a lot of my colleagues here at NPR love to garden — some are brand new pandemic gardeners, and some have well-established green thumbs. Some don't have back yards, like NPR One's Tamar Charney, who reported in from Ann Arbor, Mich: "My garden's basically just my kitchen windowsill, and it's full of little glasses, half full of water," she says. "Each one has a stub of an old head of lettuce in it, and slowly but surely, they're regrowing."

Here in D.C., business correspondent Alina Selyukh has just taken delivery of a load of seedlings for her balcony. "Some chives, some Swiss chard, some watercress, lots of herbs." Morning Edition production assistant Nina Kravinsky says she decided to try her hand at sprouting seeds — and now she has "WAY TOO MANY TOMATO PLANTS."

An aloe blooms on Andrea Gutierrez's patio.
Andrea Gutierrez / NPR
An aloe blooms on Andrea Gutierrez's patio.

From Los Angeles, It's Been a Minute producer Andrea Gutierrez described what sounds like an amazing setup, full of jasmine, white sage, succulents, vegetables and spices: "I have a flat of strawberries I need to plant, there's plumeria ... We've got jalapenos, serrano peppers, Thai hot peppers that my partner likes to dry and grind, agave, I have a couple of aloe plants."

And back here in DC, All Things Considered editor Sarah Handel says she's planting more since the pandemic hit. "This year in our garden we've got three different kinds of tomatoes, we've got swiss chard, lettuce, sugar snap peas, hot peppers, an onion we replanted from an onion top," and all kinds of herbs. "More mint than we could ever use," she jokes. And a fig tree.

But let's be honest — you're not going to be able to feed your family from a backyard vegetable patch. So why do we love to grub around in the dirt so much?"

"People have always gardened in hard times, but food is only one part of that story," says Jennifer Atkinson. "They're also motivated by the desire for beauty or contact with nature. Maybe they're looking for a creative outlet or a sense of community. And there's immense gratification that comes from work that gives you tangible results."

What people are starved for right now isn't food, but contact with something real.

Today's pandemic gardens are often referred to as "victory gardens," after the patriotic plots of World War II. And Atkinson says there's some merit to that comparison. But, she says, what's going on now is much more complex than just an attempt to shore up the food supply during wartime.

"What people are starved for right now isn't food, but contact with something real," she says. "We spend all day on screens. We can't be around each other at restaurants or ballparks. We can't even give hugs or shake hands. So all of a sudden, the appeal of sinking your hands in the dirt and using your body in ways that matter, that becomes irresistible."

I might not be able to control the news, or the weather, or whatever it is my sourdough starter is doing in that jar — but I can press a tiny radish seed into the dirt, give it food and water, and watch it grow.

This story was edited for radio by Ted Robbins, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.