Previously unloved gardens, yards and allotments have been revitalised over the past year as more people have turned to growing their own food. Natalie Healey finds out how anyone can get started

Gardening bloomed in 2020. When coronavirus lockdowns were announced throughout the world, many people turned to plants to break up the monotony of stay-at-home orders. Google search queries for “how to grow vegetables” surged in April. While figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics in June showed that 42% of Brits took up gardening during the restrictions – with many attempting to coax seedlings into food for the very first time.

Lucy Hutchings from Suffolk UK already had a head start. In 2018, the former jewellery designer traded projects with A-list celebrities, such as Kylie Minogue and Rihanna, for soil, seeds, and spades. She can relate to the desire to connect with nature during a stressful period. “When life threw me a curveball, I turned to gardening as a distraction. It turned out to make me really happy,” she reveals. After years of dabbling with indoor herb gardens and ornamental house plants, Hutchings retrained in horticulture, soon finding a flair for growing rare heirloom tomatoes and other colourful, edible delights. She now provides inspiration to over 100,000 budding gardeners on Instagram as SheGrowsVeg.

Growing your own food can have enormous mental health benefits believes Hutchings. There is little more rewarding than nurturing plants that you can eventually put on your plate. Studies back this up. Regular gardening has been shown to reduce depression, stress, and anxiety and even combat high blood pressure – all useful attributes during a global pandemic. A survey from Australia’s food network Sustain found that nearly 20% of people said they could not have made it through the coronavirus lockdown without their garden.

Dig for victory

An appetite for distraction isn’t the only reason many people resolved to grow their own food during the restrictions. In the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis, panic buying surged and global supply chains were upended. Few will forget the barren supermarket shelves seen at the beginning of the pandemic. For the first time in many people’s living memory, their food security was threatened, says Hutchings. “People had always assumed they could just pop to the shop and pick up whatever they wanted.” Coronavirus turned that idea on its head.

But the current trend towards self-sufficiency is nothing new, says Andrea Gaynor, associate professor of history at the University of Western Australia. Vegetable gardening often gains popularity in times of trouble. “Home food production has increased during economic crises, such as the great depression of the late 1920s and 1930s and the oil shocks of the 1970s,” she says. “This is partly due to specific economic factors such as loss of purchasing power or high food prices, but also because people turn to home food production because it helps them feel more in control and less anxious.”

Vegetable gardening also thrived during the first and second world wars. Many nations such as the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Germany created initiatives to increase home food production as supplies became increasingly threatened. In 1939, the British Ministry of Agriculture created its ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. It was highly successful. UK allotments swelled to 1.7 million over three years and five million households learned to grow food in their gardens. Digging vegetable plots became associated with boosting morale, and communities banded together to feed and support each other. “In the second world war, the Australian Government was concerned that aspiring home food producers wouldn’t have sufficient knowledge to succeed, so they published advertisements encouraging experienced gardeners to help their neighbours,” reveals Gaynor.

Getting started

A Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada) survey found that about half of all respondents grew fruit or vegetables in 2020. And nearly a fifth of said it was the first time they’d attempted to produce their own food. But although many people like the idea of self-sufficiency, not everyone perseveres. It’s easy to get discouraged when you first start out, says ecologist Paul Manning from Dalhousie’s faculty of agriculture. The most common mistakes he’s seen this year include exposing seedlings to late frosts, neglecting weeding tasks and even failing to protect the crops with fencing to deter wild deer. But anyone can become an expert eventually. “We all begin with a blank slate of knowledge,” he reveals. “And in our internet-connected world, it’s easier than ever to learn from individuals who are practising food self-sufficiency. In my experience, gardeners are gracious with their time and expertise. I have learned a lot from casual conversations at the community garden, reading blog posts, attending workshops, and listening to radio programmes.”

Starting from scratch can feel intimidating. But learning to grow doesn’t have to be prescriptive. Hutchings believes social media has galvanised interest in vegetable gardening and encouraged a new audience to give it a try. “Instagram’s a great place to learn for new growers who like a more flexible approach. You get to see where people have broken the rules and it’s worked.” Making mistakes is all part of the process. When Hutchings first started cultivating edible plants she says she “had no idea” what to do – learning as she went along. Stay open-minded and don’t be disheartened if things don’t work out at first, she suggests.

Admittedly, some people will find it easier to get going than others. Not only has the coronavirus crisis exposed health inequalities, it has also highlighted unequal access to green spaces. One in eight households in the UK had no access to a garden at all during lockdown. Lack of outdoor space needn’t be a dealbreaker though, says Hutchings, whose book of edible gardening projects Get Up and Grow will be released in April. Although there are some obvious limitations, there are also benefits when growing indoors. “You’re not at the mercy of the elements anymore so you can actually grow year-round,” she says. It’s really just a case of determining how much light and what temperature the plants you’re nurturing will require. “Plus, it can be a really stunning feature of the home.” For novice gardeners, herbs grown on the windowsill are a good place to start. Parsley, thyme, and rosemary are pretty forgiving. You can even grow many plants from kitchen scraps. Simply pop the root ends of vegetables such as lettuce, spring onions and celery in a shallow cup of water. You’ll start to see new shoots in a matter of days.

When life threw me a curveball, I turned to gardening as a distraction. It turned out to make me really happy

Budding gardeners bring benefits

Ultimately, growing your own food should be a hobby not a chore, especially if you’re a beginner. The most successful gardeners are the ones that take pleasure from it. And there’s no point trying to grow fruit or vegetables you don’t enjoy eating, advises Hutchings. She’s often asked about the easiest foods to grow for beginners. “But I don’t personally think that’s the best way to start,” she reveals. “It’s better to spend a little more time learning how to grow the crops you actually eat rather than what is easy.” Radishes are famously simple to grow – and are ready to harvest a month after sowing – but not everyone is a fan of actually eating them. Chilli peppers and tomatoes aren’t that much more difficult but are far more popular. “The little bit of extra effort to learn how to grow these foods will be worth it,” says Hutchings.

It’s not yet clear whether the renewed enthusiasm for gardening will falter when the coronavirus pandemic is finally extinguished and normal life begins to resume. But home food production might become even more important as the world shifts its focus to another looming disaster: climate change. By relying on seasonal produce and growing food as close to home as possible, we can reduce our consumption of vegetables grown thousands of miles away and subsequently decrease our carbon footprint. So if you took up gardening during lockdown, it’s worth keeping it up. Sustain is calling for the establishment of a A$500million national Edible Gardening Fund to drive a mass expansion of urban food production across Australia. “For a tiny fraction of our current annual health expenditure, the return on investment would be enormous,” said Executive Director Nick Rose in a statement. Government schemes for establishing allotments and community gardens for those who don’t have outdoor space could be a wise investment for the future, while promoting public wellbeing in the meantime. “Food production requires a set of skills that anyone can benefit from honing,” says Manning. “It is rather humbling to see how much work and skill goes into producing the food that makes its way to our plate.”

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