In 2018, Jennifer Atkinson observed that “something touching on our desires for connectivity […]; for community, health, and home” (2) drives the fantasies that are sparked by gardening and putting one’s hands in the soil. Gardening and cultivating can inherently induce a feeling of community and “connectivity” in the gardener, even if it is exercised as solitary practice. Planting seeds and watching them grow is healthy (Thompson 2018) and an effective antidote to anxiety and stress; it soothes, fulfills, and distracts.
The desire for connectivity seems a plausible explanation for the sharp increase of urban gardening activity in 2020, a trend which shows no signs of stopping. While gardening is certainly as popular outside of urban environments, the confines of a city flat might seem like more of an enclosure than a spacious home in a rural or suburban area would, which probably adds to the increased urban desire for flowers, herbs, and vegetables. It is especially the vividly planted urban balconies, backyards, and sidewalks which bear witness to the growing trend of urban gardening in times of COVID-19.
In affluent neighbourhoods such as the ones pictured above, gardening might represent a welcome occupation to carry out at home; it can also provide a sense of security for at-risk groups. But more importantly, it could denote a general yearning for a sense of control during an uncontrollable global event, wherein cities are among the hardest-hit areas. It could also disclose a desire for liveliness, as news of death and disease constantly infiltrate already confined spaces. However, in areas that suffer from social and environmental injustice, such as the (often urban) food deserts across the U.S., growing vegetables has been a crucial tool of self-subsistence long before the pandemic. Where people lack the financial means to feed themselves, they turn to gardening’s essential purpose: to provide sustenance to the gardener.
Gardening, with or without a pandemic, can embody a distraction, a form of escapism, or a quest for mental well-being. At the same time, it can also be a survival strategy and a form of self-empowerment – depending on the specific urban and individual context.
Atkinson, Jennifer Wren. Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy, and Everyday Practice. University of Georgia Press, 2018.
Thompson, Richard. “Gardening for Health: A Regular Dose of Gardening.” Clinical Medicine 18.3 (2018): 201–205.