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Covid Gardeners - Fifty Shades of Green

(First published 21.09.20 in Berliner Oracle - image c. creative commons)

It is said that gardening not only feeds the body but nourishes the soul. I need look no further than my own parents, who have spent countless hours over the last 30 years cultivating that patch of land behind our family home, to realise that there is something more going on than just the production of edible roots, fruits and berries. Long before Covid rooted people at home and restricted movements, they would happily spend a whole day weeding and watering in the garden over anything else, and perhaps this horticultural contentment is one reason the strains of the pandemic have burdened them a little less than most.

Most obviously, gardening is a way to keep oneself busy. If the devil makes work for idle hands, then having green fingers pushes that work in a benign direction, and green thumbs are harder to twiddle when the garden requires constant attention. In spring my mother will be keenly attentive to the weather forecasts, looking out for the last nightly frost of the year so that planting can begin. My father trawls Youtube for gardening tips, and, following the advice of one prominent American “master gardener”, like some demented chemist mixes the most unlikely of concoctions for use on the lawn. For the greenest of grass he swears by beer, malt vinegar and anti-bacterial mouthwash, though it sounds to me more like the liquid chronology of a drunken night out. Once during lockdown a neighbour offered to collect some shopping from the supermarket that my parents had pre-ordered online. Aside from being confused by the inordinate amount of vinegar, he was apparently most concerned with the 72 cans of 17p home-brand lager included on his friend’s weekly shop, and was of half a mind to upgrade my father to something premium like a Stella or Grolsch out of his own pocket. Upon later hearing the agricultural explanation for such vast quantities of cheap beer the neighbour chuckled, but in these trying times perhaps the devil might have found other uses for this boozy haul for hands idler and less green than my father’s.

Gardening is then a constant and never-ending project, but this labour does also produce actual fruit along the way. I am constantly updated upon the progress of the tomatoes, and the first yield of strawberries is always cause for celebration. This tangible result of cultivating something yourself which began as a seed and ends on your plate has something of an almost magical quality in the age of supermarkets. Of course my parents are far from being self-sufficient, and gardening is as distinct from farming as blogging is to novel writing, yet just using your own knowledge to produce food outside of the consumer-capitalist supply chain must be immensely rewarding.

Faintly excited by this prospect, as with many others during lockdown, I have become something of a gardener of late, though the term is perhaps only very loosely appropriate. In lieu of a patch of land I have placed various receptacles of earth on the windowsills around my flat in which I have buried various seeds. My first attempt was at coriander, which after sprouting magnificently to a dizzying height of 2 centimetres promptly keeled over and wilted. Next I tried some salad greens, which were similarly reticent to be consumed and after a promising start turned the colour and consistency of soggy cardboard. I had more luck with the basil, which after 9 months is still alive, but has yet to yield leaves larger than the diameter of a penny piece. It is fair to say that these fingers are distinctly less green than my father’s, and if this apple didn’t exactly fall far from the tree, it did perhaps roll quite some way off out of the orchard and end up in a roadside ditch.

If I dabble, then my parents do commit, and this perhaps is in part down to both generational and environmental changes and the relative levels of knowledge they entail. As a fast living city-dweller I am about as removed as one can get from nature. The shops sell mangoes in December, I can’t remember the last time I saw the stars, and the only concern I have with the seasons is whether ice and snow might stop the S-bahn running. Yet my parents, living on the edge of town with the rolling hills and farmland visible from the back window, must feel closer to nature, and might just about remember a time in post-war Britain when a banana was still an exotic luxury. My father still tells tales of brewing his own beer and my mother of making preserves, and as the world has gotten smaller the gap between what we consume and our knowledge of how it was produced has gotten larger, and this is nowhere more evident than with the food that we eat. This is why despite my own personal failings, I am glad to see many young people taking lockdown as an opportunity to re-connect with cycles of growth and re-learn some basic knowledge which has mostly been lost on a generation. I have since bought some potassium-heavy fertiliser, my basil is looking perkier, and I even have a couple of chillis turning red from a seedling planted last year. Yet even if such micro-gardening is not a solution to the systemic problems of over-production and over-consumption which blight our planet, it is better for a time to be happily led down the garden path than to never set foot on it in the first place.

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