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Health, Science, Environment

St. Louisans Are Gardening To Manage Stress, Find Purpose Amid Coronavirus Isolation

Virginia O'Brien transplanted her peas in mid-April, after the last anticipated frost. She's among many in St. Louis growing a garden for the first time this year. 04/15/20
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Virginia O'Brien transplanted her peas in mid-April, after the last anticipated frost. She's among many in St. Louis growing produce from seeds for the first time this year.

Virginia O’Brien has a new morning routine. 

She used to wake up and check news headlines. “Now I check my little green ones. I can’t wait to see how they did overnight,” she said. 

O’Brien is among scores of St. Louisans finding peace and purpose in gardening while the pandemic sows upheaval into daily life outside their yards. 

New members have poured into local Facebook gardening groups, seeking advice on growing produce from seeds. A manager at a south city Lowe’s said the garden center is running out of seed starter kits that normally languish on the shelves for years. 

It’s not just happening in St. Louis. Online gardening classes have taken off. A representative of the American Seed Trade Association said many of their members have reported spikes in home garden seed sales, even as other types of orders decrease.

O’Brien has myeloma — a blood cancer — and a weakened immune system, so it’s risky for her to leave the house right now. She said it’s harder to schedule delivery or curbside grocery pickup as those services increasingly see high demand. 

She’s looking forward to harvesting fresh food from her gardens, even if they won’t produce enough for her to survive. “But maybe there's some survival in the interest in the process of it," she said, "just giving myself something really pleasant and nurturing to do every single day.” 

More than anything, O’Brien said, it just feels good to see her peas thriving. She’s looking forward to sharing the results of her labor with friends. 

O'Brien holds her pea shoots, which she began growing at the beginning of March. She has grown ornamental plants before, but never food.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
O'Brien holds her pea shoots, which she began growing at the beginning of March. She has grown ornamental plants before but never food.

A sense of control

St. Louis-area therapist Michelle Salois said it isn’t surprising that so many people are turning to the soil in these times of social distancing and stay-at home orders. 

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Salois, who designs self-sustaining gardens in her free time, said a lot of people are looking for positive coping mechanisms right now. It’s good for people to pursue activities that encourage regular sleep, healthy diets, exercise and socialization — and gardening hits a lot of those buttons, Salois said. It also gives people a sense of control and a reason to get up in the morning. 

In most crises, Salois said, people aren’t confined to their homes. They would have jobs or ways to chip in that make them feel useful. 

“If you have a typhoon or a tornado, you're out and about. You’re trying to clear brush or rescue your neighbors — you’ve got things you can do. Having something you can do really does help when there's trouble,” Salois said. She thinks gardening could help fill that desire to do something productive. 

Gardening also has social benefits, even at a distance, said Washington University social work professor Lindsay Stark, who researches the psychological consequences of natural disasters, epidemics and other humanitarian crises. 

Stark said that in times of crisis, it’s important for people to feel a sense of power over their own lives. Especially when so much of the surrounding world is beyond their control, such as layoffs and closures. Through that lens, people seeking that control through gardening makes a lot of sense, she said. 

“There's something a little bit more meaningful of not only [knowing], ‘I have tomatoes should I need them,’ but, ‘I grew these tomatoes; this is something productive that I created,’” she said.

Darren Owens in his garden on April 15, 2020.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Darren Owens shows the seedlings in his cold frame, which keeps young plants warm and moist until they can be moved outside.

A communal response

Stark said gardening also offers opportunities to connect with community, such as seeing a neighbor over the fence or sharing a harvest with friends. 

“In a time when our normal patterns of socializing have been so dramatically disrupted, it is very, very important — and it is really human nature — that people are finding other ways to connect with each other,” she said.

That’s exactly what Darren Owens has been trying to do for years with the Southside Green Thumbs gardening group. He started the group because he wanted to bring his neighbors together to talk about something positive instead of crime and other problems. 

Normally in April, the group would start planning garden tours for later in the summer. The tours explore the members’ yards throughout south St. Louis, where Owens tends his eight-year-old garden in the Carondelet neighborhood. 

But this year is different. 

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Owens said: “I was really just geeked about my apple trees possibly fruiting and making apples this year. Now I'm sort of like, 'How much could I grow and give away?'"

Darren Owens pauses for a portrait in his backyard garden on April 15, 2020.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Owens started the Southside Green Thumbs gardening group several years ago. He says he wanted to build a community of people interested in making their city yards greener.

Owens said he’s not alone in rethinking about how his garden could provide for his community. Other longtime members of the gardening group are also trying to figure out how to produce more from their gardens.

He’s seen friends online saying: “You know what, I grow six tomato plants, but I’ve got space — I could grow 20. So if I grow 20 tomato plants, I can give them away or give them to a pantry or give them to my neighbors.”

Owens doesn’t think he’ll be able to share his first June harvest with friends in person, based on the current social distancing guidance. He just hopes that he’ll have enough extra to boost a local food pantry. 

“One of the only truly American values that I deeply believe in is: ‘What I can do for my neighbor, I will do for my neighbor,’” he said. “I think people aren't even thinking about whether that's going to have any impact. They just want to do something.”

Darren Owens points out the first blossoms he's ever seen on one of his three apple trees.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Darren Owens points out the first blossoms he's seen on one of his three apple trees.

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