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The benefits of growing a garden during the COVID-19 crisis

The benefits of growing a garden during the COVID-19 crisis
WATCH ABOVE: Many Canadian families are planting a garden for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hobby can save money, keep the kids busy, and keep you away from the grocery store, and as Laurel Gregory explains, there are also countless health benefits as well.

Tia Harvey-White estimates her backyard garden saved her family about $20 a week on produce between July and October last year. That was just one of the many perks of honing her green thumb.

Caring for vegetables, herbs and flowers also taught her daughters Alexa and Briella an appreciation for insects, an understanding of where food comes from and a deep respect for nature.

This year, starting the season with a mini-greenhouse in their Winnipeg home has offered even more benefits. Five weeks into social isolation, Harvey-White says watching the seeds sprout is buoying the family’s spirits.

“It gives us joy. It gives us hope. It’s helped us quite a bit.”

Cheney Creamer is the chair of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association. She says gardening can offer families countless mental health benefits during the COVID-19 crisis. We spoke with Creamer via Skype from her home in Burnaby, B.C.

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Laurel Gregory: From a mental health perspective, which is so key right now, how could growing be helpful for people at this particular time?

Cheney Creamer: The interesting thing is we know that there are benefits of just being outside and being in contact with nature, and there’s all kinds of plant chemicals and phytochemicals that are being released when we touch different plants. But a lot of it is just even the how are we connecting with plants. We all know that there’s a difference between if we go out in the garden and we’re just stressed out and we just want some stress relief, we can go out there and just maybe pull a bunch of weeds, and get some cathartic release. Yet there’s also a difference between going out there and just getting release versus going out there and actually slowing down and observing, “Well, what plants need my care? What do I need today from the garden?” And when you do that and when you slow down a little bit, gardening really is all about observation. So when you slow down enough to then notice the plants in a different way, or notice, “Oh, I was going to pull that weed,” but maybe there’s a tiny lady bug larvae on the back of the leaf that you maybe want to leave for just a little while. So once you actually get out into the garden and start slowing down and observing it differently, not only do you start gardening differently, and you have different benefits for your mental health and your psychological well-being, but then you actually become a better gardener because the plants respond better when you’re slower and you’re more patient. So it’s that combination of finding what’s good for us is actually what’s good for the plants as well.

LG: How does the act of gardening help us?

CC: Part of it is the plant chemicals or the phytochemicals that are actually being released in forests or from things like lavender or basil when we are touching them and smelling them. But it’s also the act of what do we learn from nature? Nature becomes a very good teacher for us [and] that means we don’t have to use quite as much delving into our own personal psyche to figure out what are our challenges, what are our strengths. But if we actually go outside and just spend time in nature… and just start to notice the plants.
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What are some of the strengths that these plants have right now? How does that actually relate to me? How can I learn from that or what are some of the challenges that the plants in the garden, or growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk, are going through right now? And then, how does that relate to me?

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We can have a little conversation with or through a plant, and looking at a plant and observing a plant, and we can learn a lot more about ourselves from that process than if I was to say, “Well I’m going to journal what are my challenges, what are my limitations.” Well, that’s a difficult exercise to do. We can all do it and we can delve in and unlayer ourselves to get that kind of personal development, but it’s a lot easier and a lot simpler to just go outside and look at a little plant and go, “What are your challenges today?” And you and I might look at the exact same plant and get different messages about what its current challenges are, and what they mean to us will be very different.

LG: I know it’s the uncertainty that’s really hard for people right now. Is it helpful to see that progress of, “I planted that a week ago and look at it?”

CC: There’s this beautiful thing about nature: it shows us that there’s this constant change and growth and rebirth and renewal happening. Even if it’s just a little sunflower seed in a cup of dirt that you’re watching grow, that really does inspire hope in all of us and it gives us something to look forward to each day. We get up and check on it. How’s it growing today? What does it need? Does it need water?

It gives us something to care for and something for us to pour our energy and attention into.

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Whether your plants grow and thrive and give you lush bountiful harvest or they’re kind of sad and they kind of flop over and don’t make it because you maybe didn’t have enough sunlight or you forgot to water it one day, there’s lessons in that too. It’s really important that people see that that constant change that nature provides for us is a constant learning and a constant look at how do we actually see our world and seeing it through nature and its constant regenerative forces helps us to understand our own resilience as well.

LG: What difference does it make when children grow up planting seeds, getting their hands in dirt and being out in nature?

CC: I think my biggest purpose with getting kids connected with nature is if they learn how to take care of it, they will take care of it. If they learn to love nature, they will protect it. So for me, it’s very much about learning to protect our environment and care for it.