It is not only seasoned gardeners who have been blooming and blossoming. Occasional gardeners have picked up fork and shovel again, and people who have never stooped to garden have found a creative and stimulating outlet.
This focus on gardening as a constructive outlet amid the disruption wrought by the Covid-19 lockdown is not unique to South Africa. It’s a global phenomenon, says the international news service Reuters: “People around the world are turning to gardening as a soothing, family-friendly hobby that also eases concerns over food security.”
The coronavirus pandemic has set off a global gardening boom. In the early days of the lockdown, seed suppliers were depleted of inventory and reported unprecedented demand. Within the US, the trend has been compared to World War II victory gardening, when Americans grew food at home to support the war effort and feed their families.”
You have heard many people lamenting the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, but not gardeners. For them, the lockdown has been a heaven-sent opportunity for more time to get down and dirty, to plan, plot and produce, and to enjoy the fruits of their labours in harmony with mother nature.
In South Africa, Candide, the free community gardening app that connects green fingers across the country, has noted a major spike in visitors and found in a survey that 96% of people said they felt happier when spending downtime in their gardens. The findings revealed the most popular garden activities are spending time in a favourite spot admiring plants, listening to birdsong and watching wildlife, breathing in the fresh air and garden scents, enjoying a cuppa and a chat, taking me-time with a bite to eat, playing with the children, reading a book, or lazing on the grass.
South Africa’s annual Garden Day, being held this year on Sunday 11 October, will be especially poignant, according to its organisers. “Over the past few months, South Africans have turned to their green spaces to find solace and balance. Gardening has been proven to boost both mental and physical well-being and create a sense of belonging and connection.”
Gardeners have many reasons for doing what they do. The health benefits – physical, mental and emotional – emerge as a primary reason, but for many, gardening also touches their lives in deeply personal ways.
Another thing about gardeners is that they do not live in a little world of their own. Most gardeners seem to be community-minded, sharing their produce with family and friends and, especially during the lockdown, donating generously to food kitchens. Gardeners who grow surplus produce also help to meet a growing desire among many people to buy locally grown and naturally produced food sourced from people in their own community, thus nurturing community connectedness and a sense of camaraderie and belonging.
Cape Town gardener Sisi Beauty Kume is among those who love sharing the food she grows in her garden. Whenever she has a surplus of spinach in her vegetable garden, she gets on her Facebook page and tells her friends that they are welcome to pop around and pick-up some for themselves.
She can’t supply to all her friends because, she says, she has some 5,000 followers on her SIS B KUME page, but those who can’t pick up her spinach still benefit from the encouragement and advice she offers to grow their own vegetables and herbs, even if they have the most limited space.
“I took a decision to stop buying vegetables from the supermarkets because I wanted to cook my food using my own naturally grown vegetables and herbs,” she explains. “Urban life is very stressful, and gardening can help people to relax and get closer to nature while also helping them to save money by not buying in the shops. This is even more important now because the lockdown has caused tough times for many people.”
Beauty and her husband grow the richest variety of vegetables. “We grow almost everything – spinach, pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, celery, coriander, onions,” she says. They make their own compost and control pests by making their own spray consisting of a mixture of water and strong-smelling herbs such as garlic and chilli.
In Johannesburg, Mama Refiloe Molefe not only makes a living from gardening but shares her fresh produce on a grand scale. Since 2007, she has developed an expansive food garden on abandoned bowling greens, built a loyal customer base, won numerous accolades and cash prizes which have funded infrastructure such as green houses, and given free fresh produce to needy people, especially children.
She has overcome numerous obstacles, and even the Covid-19 lockdown has left her undaunted. “I couldn’t sell produce and my vegetable juices on the markets and to restaurants because they were closed, but we still managed to run a soup kitchen and deliver food parcels for underprivileged people,” she said, adding, “My garden means everything to me. I am passionate about farming and I love sharing with people, especially with underprivileged people like me. Even if we do not have much money, we at least have some food, and that makes me very happy.” She estimates she provides food to at least 250 children every week.
Gardeners like Mama Refiloe also fulfil a deep desire among many restaurant chefs to buy food grown locally by people they know, and to help to create more sustainable local economies. A good example of this desire to buy local is Johannesburg-based Chef Mokgadi Itsweng who is committed to The Chef’s Manifesto, a global movement of chefs championing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end world hunger, achieve food security, improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.
In her youth, she had developed a keen appreciation of the value of gardening by helping her father in his commercial market garden and then by establishing her own food garden. As a chef and businessperson, she has engaged with urban farmers and committed to sourcing from them as much as possible for fresh produce she needs in her restaurant and condiment and catering businesses. “I really impress on the urban farmers that I want top quality fresh produce and they try really hard,” she says.
In the small garden of the townhouse where she lives with her 17-year-old son, she grows vegetables, especially indigenous greens, and herbs and cannabis which she uses to make healing and soothing teas. “I’m usually up early in the morning to tend to the garden and see my son off to school, then it’s a full business day and often a bit more gardening when I get home in the evening.”
The more you chat with gardeners, the more you will realise how much gardening means to them and what it could do for you. Try it sometime.
And for those who do not have outdoor space for a garden, there is also plenty of encouragement to grow things indoors. Get yourself a couple of oxygen pumping plants to help circulate air in your home and bring a sense of peace and calm. Think ferns, cacti, orchids and hanging plants.