Mary Kleinschafer wandered around her backyard on a crisp Saturday morning in May, examining the burgeoning bounty of her vegetable garden in Morpeth, a historical river port town in the Hunter Valley, NSW. Surveying the previous night’s botanical activity had quickly become an essential part of her morning routine, admiring the infant sprouts of kale, arugula and edible herbs.
This particular morning, still garbed in her pyjamas, she found herself howling at her partner to come outside.
“Nicole! The corn has appeared!” She squealed. “Come outside and bring my phone so I can take a photo!”
Rushing outside, Mary’s partner Nicole Sutton found Mary crouched down peering closely at a tiny green spike of a baby corn plant surfacing in the raised garden bed. For the first-time gardener, Mary was overwhelmed by a kind of glee that she had never felt before.
Mary and Nicole are just two of the thousands of people across Australia who turned their focus inwards—to their own backyard in fact—as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world changing all aspects of reality in its wake.
Shelves of nurseries and garden centres were stripped bare of seeds and seedlings, with reports of unprecedented demand for garden supplies in many countries around the world. The panic buying that began with toilet paper, flowed onto pasta, mince, trampolines and gym equipment, lastly hit the nursery industry in mid-March.
“I just can’t believe how it makes you feel,” said Mary. “I’ve always loved fresh food but I would never have believed how it makes you feel inside to grow your own things. We’ve got so much joy out of our garden.”
Two years ago Mary sold her Maitland grocery store and retired. Having spent the majority of her life building her business, working seven days a week, she was apprehensive about what her future looked like.
“I was really worried because I wasn’t really sure what I was passionate about. I’m now just so passionate about this and it makes me feel so happy to have found something that I love.”
As the gardening boom emerged, garden centres observed that a major portion of this interest was coming from greenhorn gardeners. Experts are now hopeful that this growth in greenthumbs—which may have spiked from something as banal as boredom—could actually play an integral role in ensuring food security in Australia.
The Diggers Club—Australia’s largest garden club—observed an unprecedented surge in memberships when the lockdown began and, while they discouraged any panic buying of seeds, the club was optimistic that the spike in interest could have long term benefits to our food system.
“Food security is ensured by every backyard in Australia growing open pollinated seeds, saving their seeds, sharing their seeds, and those seeds not being beholden to corporate interests,” said Diggers spokesperson Donna Morabito.
Donna says the global pandemic has been a “wakeup call” for food security in Australia and has reaffirmed the organisation’s commitment to seed diversity, which is a founding principle of the club. It stores over 300 heirloom varieties of edible seeds in a seed bank located in its Mornington Peninsula, VIC headquarters.
“The pandemic demonstrates why we’ve always been so focused on open-pollinated heirloom seeds and making sure that seed supplies stay in public hands,” she said.
When lockdown restrictions were implemented and panic-buying mayhem wrought havoc on supermarkets, farmers and supermarket chains rushed to reassure people there were no risks to food security and Australia would not face any food shortages.
Anxiety was so widespread that on 21 March the National Farm Lobby launched a public campaign to tell Australians “Aussie farmers have your back” in an attempt to quash fears that supermarkets could run out of food.
But for many, watching the chaos unfold in the aisles of their local supermarkets was enough to germinate the seed of their future. For Maitland City Council Senior Librarian Peter Woodley, the coronavirus pandemic led him to launch a local seed sharing initiative after learning about the fragility of food systems dependent on mass-industrial agriculture.
In collaboration with Slow Food Hunter Valley, he started the Maitland City Council Seed Library, an initiative where members could borrow seeds as well as contribute their own seeds after growing food in their backyard.
“At this stage we’ve got over 300 people who have registered their interest through our website as well as 100 requests for seeds to be distributed,” said Peter. “We have the expertise from Slow Food Hunter Valley to provide information about growing conditions, soil types and seasonality so it will be a lifelong learning experience for our members as well.”
Slow Food Hunter Valley is a local branch of an international movement driven by the principle of re-connecting people to where their food comes from. Team Leader Anne Kelly says that while the initiative is in its infancy, they believe the seed library will inspire community connection and encourage younger generations to learn growing skills which have been lost over time.
“It’s about community and it’s also about self-sufficiency. We want people to learn that you can grow a few things in our backyard, and not have everything come from the supermarket,” she said.
The compulsion to garden in troubled times has deep roots, as history reveals people have often been drawn to the earth during periods of social, cultural and economic distress.
The gardening boom is reminiscent of the ‘Victory Gardens’ that were established during World War II, when people planted fruit and vegetables to reduce pressure on the food supply while also boosting national morale. Experts believe the surge of growing food in the 1940s is a good example of how we are able to reduce modern-day pressures on food systems by ramping up small-scale food production in cities.
For market gardeners Dan and Caity Atkinson growing food has been an essential part of their livelihoods in the last two years. They established their organic market garden Gunyulgup Farm in Yallingup, WA as a way to contribute to their local food economy, and are hopeful that the pandemic could spur a shift to greener and more community-based living.
“We’ve had a huge increase in interest for food and vegetable boxes as people become more aware of where their food comes from and the vulnerability in relying on centralised food distribution,” she said. “Coronavirus has strengthened our resolve to participate in our local food economy and we have committed to this venture full-time.”
While their lives have been uprooted and her children’s routines disturbed during the restrictions, Caity says their garden has been able to provide them with a sense of normalcy and control.
“For a lot of people at the moment there’s a scary sense of an unknown other that is out there, potentially taking away the normalcy of our lives. If you come back to food, it re-grounds you and helps you to reconnect to things that are real.”
While most of us know that spending even just a small amount of time in our backyards can help us de-stress, there is a growing body of research which shows a myriad of mental and physical health benefits associated with gardening.
University of Melbourne horticulturalist John Rayner says research has found that both passive and active engagement with green space leads to reduced rates of mortality and morbidity, as well as improved mindfulness, task achievement and attention restoration.
An expert in therapeutic horticulture, he has been pleased to see people experiencing the restorative benefits from immersion in natural environments, particularly in urban settings as lockdown persists.
“As it’s gone on the more people have seen that there are real and genuine benefits in getting some sort of engagement and exposure to green space, whether that’s through house plants, balcony gardening or starting a vegetable garden,” he said.
For Mary and Nicole, starting their garden has been so transformative that they changed their renovation plans (including scrapping a pool) to have more space to grow veggies. But it has not been without its challenges.
A couple of weeks after Mary found that first, luscious corn sprout, she learned the hard truth that corn is in fact a summer vegetable, and her winter crop would likely not be as bumper as she had hoped.
Another curveball came when Mary’s uncle informed them that the beautiful, lime coloured butterflies that she had been happily photographing and posting on Facebook were actually cabbage moths that were destroying all the crops!
“We couldn’t bring ourselves to kill anything like that so we just spent our time chasing them away!” Mary said, laughing.
For the new gardener, she has come to realise that these mistakes and failed attempts are all part of the learning process, but remains excited about what’s to come.
Originally written for The Citizen as part of coursework for my Master of Journalism