Gardening in a Pandemic
If there is an upside to the pandemic that upended our lives this spring, it is gardening. And, the garden surrounding our home flourished as I finally had time to slow down, appreciate its beauty and tackle some long overdue chores.
In the garden, I could go without a mask to escape health fears and financial worries surrounding the March 16 shutdown. My husband Brian closed his dental practice. Two of our adult children announced plans to return home from college. Our third child awaited news of a pending job transfer to COVID hotspot Chicago. And, as Spain reported record COVID cases my mom and stepdad crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a cruise ship headed there. During the following days, I dove into work assignments and fretted about the nonstop COVID news—until our garden’s multitude of daffodils started blooming and lured me outdoors.
There, I lingered and returned daily to vent frustrations. I ripped overgrown English ivy, pruned hydrangeas, mended a vegetable garden fence, weeded neglected beds for hours and cut invasive honeysuckle from a wooded hillside. I also embraced the hope spring brings, planting early crops of peas and kale, filling jars of daffodils to share with neighbors, successfully growing tomato plants from seed and experimenting with a DIY organic lawn care program. With my husband and kids at home, I fell into a schedule working at my desk early in the day then heading to the garden later in afternoon.
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Thanks to the stay-home order, my garden is now looking better than ever. I’ve always wished for gardening perfection—neatly edged, weed-free borders with an abundance of flowers synchronized to bloom all season long. But, the busyness of life, rearing three children, while my husband and I kept up with our busy careers, always seemed to get in the way. When Brian and I decided to build our dream house for our family of five in 1999, we found a large lot in a conservation community along the Little Darby Creek in Madison County. We naively filled our 2-acre property with thousands of plants with which we had little experience. We foolishly thought we knew what we were getting into. After all, we both boasted summer lawn-mowing jobs as teens. Now reflecting, we humbly recognize that we’ve learned plenty since then such as the value of a garden plan, the importance of garden mentors and the experiential garden work of trial and error.
In those early years, we called on David Voyles, a landscape designer we admired from Bexley, and worked with him to create a French Country style landscape. Looking back, we realized we were asking David for the moon—Monet-inspired gardens, a vegetable patch and fruit orchard, wildflower meadows, sweet-smelling shrubs and hardwood trees. Plus, we wanted plenty of lawn for Brian to mow with his prized John Deere tractor.
David helped us make sense of our wishes, designing more formal gardens around the house, a kitchen garden outside the back door, a mixed hedge of flowering shrubs along the wood line and swaths of meadow along each side of our corner lot.
The installation was the easy part. It was watering, weeding and fertilizing the new plants that was challenging. At first, we leaned on David and his crew to assist and teach us how to care for the property. He even brought me a pair of fancy Okatsune hedge shears—the kind used by professional gardeners in Japan. He demonstrated how to artfully hand prune the 150-foot double boxwood hedge— cloud-like in the back row and squared in the front. He taught us how to distinguish weeds like thistle among the newly emerging prairie plants in the meadow. And he taught us what plants needed trimming and when, plus how to feed yellowing trees or acid-loving azaleas.
Gardening became my passion. I continued to learn through trial and error, volunteering at Chadwick Arboretum, completing Ohio’s master gardener program and seeking advice from mentors and local, expert gardeners Debra Knapke and Michael Leach. The deeper I dove into horticulture topics such as nomenclature and pest management, the more I saw how naively I had initially stepped into the gardening world.
My journalism career took me further down the garden path as I began writing features for Columbus Monthly, then Ohio Magazine, Ohio Gardener and the Heartland Gardening blog which I started with Deb and Michael eight years ago. Today, much of my freelance work is as a garden writer and field editor, as well as being a garden scout and producer for many regional and national publications including Midwest Living, Country Gardens and Better Homes & Gardens. (The work is more challenging than glamorous, requiring at times that I arrive at photo shoots before dawn, wait out unexpected rainfalls, breathe on buds to coax them to bloom and style potting sheds for potential magazine covers.) I am grateful to combine deadline work with my pastime, returning home from many assignments with fresh gardening ideas.
From interviewing expert gardeners to volunteering as a judge with America in Bloom’s national beautification awards program, I continually meet talented and knowledgeable gardeners around the country who inspire me to try their techniques. This summer, as I work in the garden, I’m bolstered by memories from many of these gardeners.
Our meadow’s golden stands of prairie coneflowers take me back to the 17-acre prairie at the home of Guy Denny, the retired chief of the Ohio division of natural areas and preserves. A water lily in my patio container garden triggers memories of wading among the giant water lilies at the Naples Botanic Garden on a water gardening assignment in Florida. And racing to finish trimming my own boxwood hedge before sunset reminds me of noted South Carolina topiary artist Pearl Fryar, who shared how he would return home from his factory job to work under floodlights until midnight to trim his modest shrubs into world-renown fantastical living sculptures.
Back at home, my garden still pales when compared to the grand landscape stories I write. Until recent years, my weekends had long been filled with our kids’ horse shows and baseball games. Garden chores were frequently overlooked. To catch up, I’d wield a weed whacker and garden torch, and too frequently use chemical solutions.
Still, the gardens offer our family plenty of joy. The backyard has hosted grand events such as graduation parties and pre-prom picture sessions. It also includes the simple pleasures of strolling the yard and picking vases full of flowers. One memorable garden surprise was finding bean vines growing throughout the landscape after our then 3-year-old son, unbeknownst to us, planted the bean seeds throughout the flower beds. Occasionally, there was natural world drama in the garden when the dog ran off with a baby bunny, and when a pair of rat snakes wrestled outside the kitchen window for a whole afternoon. Our now-adult children often recall these memories, while they grow their own plants, ranging from pots of succulents along their apartment windowsills to potted tomatoes on a fire escape, and summer months spent running their own landscaping business. (Insert Mom smiley face here.)
Through the years, I eventually found more gardening time by trading off gym workouts for functional chores such as mulch bag dead lifts, wheelbarrow pushes, power tool curls and weed pulling squats. The workouts are also good mental therapy as I have discovered the meditative time necessary to sort through personal challenges, vent frustrations, grieve losses and practice gratitude.
All of this experience was helpful in mid-March as COVID-19 took over the world. With my hands in the dirt, I could wrestle thoughts from sleepless nights, contemplate a tearful goodbye with our now Chicago-based daughter, reflect on a prayerful walk with my mom, who is safe at home, and embrace the bonus time with my husband and our boomerang kids. I welcomed the promise of spring as I heard a red-winged blackbird’s song, buried my nose in fragrant viburnum blooms, marveled at fern fronds unfurling and photographed a fleeting rainbow after a storm.
Perhaps, the most rewarding garden moments I spent this spring were at Highland Youth Garden, where I joined other volunteers, staff, neighbors and the garden’s Green Teens—all working six feet apart—to plant early food crops for the Hilltop community. Despite COVID-19, spring marched on at this garden and others around the city, emphasizing the importance of teaching new generations so that they, too, can help bring sustenance and hope for brighter days ahead.