Pandemic Gardening | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Pandemic Gardening

Fear of leaving the house and a desire for reliable food sources is spurring backyard gardens in Bend and across the U.S.

With empty shelves at the grocery store and general anxiety around COVID-19, some Bendites are determined to grow their own vegetables this spring.

Pandemic Gardening
Growing your own vegetables means fewer trips to the grocery store plus more time outside.

“The number of people coming in and what they are buying is different than before the pandemic,” said Jennifer Curtis, the store manager at Moonfire and Sun Garden Center in Bend. “People are buying seeds, veggie starts and soils. Our numbers are up 300% over last year. We have to restock soil multiple times a day.”

Gardening is a chance to make a difference on a small patch of earth when the rest of the world feels out of control—at least, that's what some new customers have been telling Curtis as they try their hand at growing food for the first time.

Pandemic Gardening
Moonfire and Sun Garden Center
Moonfire and Sun Garden Center is selling out of vegetable seeds, starts and bulbs. It is considered an essential business and has been offering curbside pick-up and home deliveries since the pandemic lockdowns began.
Meanwhile, the store is running out of seeds,  now limiting sales of seeds to one packet of one variety per customer (50-200 seeds). An employee from Botanical Interests—one of the Moonfire and Sun's primary seed providers—told Curtis it is behind on 4,400 orders that it is no longer taking orders. Renee’s Garden, another seed wholesaler, told Curtis its own sales are up by 300%.

“Starting a vegetable garden will mean less trips to the grocery store; it will decrease the need to go out in public," Curtis said. "This is something to do when they can’t leave their house and it’s a great source of exercise.”

One of the challenges of the pandemic gardening trend is that many people who come in to the store are new gardeners, and they want to know “a to z about gardening,” Curtis said. The store's employees are committed to providing lots of one-on-one advice for their customers, and now that's happening over email, on the phone and with Zoom classes in the future, she said.

Free online gardening class goes viral

Gail Langellotto—a professor of horticulture and statewide coordinator of the Master Gardener program at Oregon State University—admits she doesn’t spend a ton of time on social media promoting her department’s programs. She’s busy delivering the OSU Extension’s gardening program to 27 Oregon counties, coordinating 4,000 volunteers and helping to answer 150,000 gardening questions a year from growers around the country.

But on March 20, she posted an announcement on Facebook that her department was offering an introduction to gardening course for free. It went viral. As of April 11, the on-demand, online course has had 26,000 sign-ups, and the post has had 25,000 shares and 1,800 comments from around the U.S. Langellotto said the class will remain free for the foreseeable future. She was inspired to do something to help other people during “this very difficult time,” she said.

Pandemic Gardening
OSU Master Gardener Program via Facebook
Novice gardeners across the U.S. signed up for OSU's free introduction to vegetable gardening course. The course is still open and free for new signups.

“I think people are looking to do something positive with newfound downtime,” Langellotto told the Source. “There is an extensive body of research that gardening has positive benefits to mental health. Not only does it relax you, but cortisol levels actually fall after you spend time in the garden. We look at the garden not only as a place to provide but to heal.”

Curtis from Moonfire and Sun, also a biologist, explained that there are compounds in the soil that have a physiological anti-depressant effect—yet another reason why the garden is an uplifting place to be during uncertain times.

Learn to grow your own vegetables in Central Oregon

The free introductory gardening course is part of the OSU Master Gardeners Short Course Series and covers basics including garden planning, soil, plant care and harvesting. But the course was filmed in Corvallis, where the climate and soil are much more forgiving; where plants and vegetables appear sprout up overnight without much meddling on the part of the gardener. In contrast, Bend’s high desert sandy soil and extreme temperature swings can be a frustrating climate for those new to growing.

“Gardening in Central Oregon is such a special challenge compared to many other parts of the country,” Langellotto said.

Still, she recommended novices take the free introductory course and then follow it up by reading, “Growing Vegetables in Central Oregon,” written by Amy Jo Detweiler, OSU Extension’s community horticulturist for Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.

Gardening is also a productive and healthy learning activity for the whole family, Langellotto said.

“For parents challenged with homeschooling, there’s so many things you can use the garden for to support education and active learning,” she said.

Now Langellotto is establishing multiple online channels to maintain a sense of community and information access among the program’s volunteers, students and instructors during the pandemic. Some county extension programs host gardening happy hours where volunteers gather on Zoom and take virtual tours of each other’s gardens, for example.

Moonfire and Sun Garden Center in Bend is transforming some of its programming to online offerings over Zoom, Curtis said, providing another Central Oregon specific learning opportunity.

“The first class they're going to teach is about getting seeds started, and germination and what to do once they start coming in,” Curtis said. “The second is about raised bends. One of the landscapers on staff is going to build one on camera.”

Victory gardens

Pandemic Gardening
WWI-era U.S. victory poster featuring Columbia (a female personification of the U.S.) sowing seeds.
Pandemic gardening shares some things in common with the victory garden movement in Europe and the U.S. during World Wars I and  II, when wartime governments actively encouraged planting food to supplement rations and to boost morale on the home front. Public parks, school yards and backyards transformed into vegetable gardens. By the end of WWII, 40% of the produce grown in the U.S. came from victory gardens, according to The New York Times.

As smog clears away in polluted cities because people aren’t commuting to work, perhaps some companies and cities will encourage the continuation of work-from-home policies to support a cleaner environment. In the same way, the pandemic gardening movement highlights the utility and sustainability of self-reliance. Instead of depending on food that has traveled thousands of miles to arrive on grocery store shelves, some people who have never gardened before may come to see food grown in the backyard as a safer, fresher and tastier alternative long after the pandemic is over.

Pandemic Gardening
American WWII-era poster promoting victory gardens
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