Gardening with no limits

This Saturday morning, like millions of parents of school-aged children around the world, I woke up to another day in COVID mode, musing, “What are we going to do today?” My question is echoed several minutes later by the arrival of my buoyant nine-year-old, who chirpily asks, “What are we doing this weekend?” It’s a defeating kind of question, one for which there appears to be no fresh or enticing answer, given the sameness of our stay-at-home days.  Even as more and more businesses and activities are cautiously opening their doors as new case numbers dwindle, we are far from “back to normal,” and the onus is on parents and caregivers to find non-screen based forms of entertainment for and with their kids, something few of us have ever had to do before. 

A heartening discovery I’ve made this spring, though, is that even with so many limitations placed on our lives and regular activities during the pandemic, we always seem to be able to find new things to do. 

It’s a phenomenon noted in areas of human activity known for their creativity, such as cooking and the fine artsrestrictions breed creativity.

In his inspiring TEDtalk, “Embrace the Shake,” artist Phil Hanson tells the story of how he developed a tremor in his dominant hand that stopped him from doing the fine pointillist drawings he loved. As a result of this devastating limitation, Hanson found bold new ways to create art in ways that didn’t involve tightly gripping a pencil, such as the portrait of Bruce Lee he created using karate chops made by dipping the side of his hand in paint and revitalizing his artistic career.

Michelin chefs, too, are well known for restricting the number of ingredients they allow themselves to us in the process of creating amazing new dishes. 

It’s almost as if we modern humans have so many options that our brains get swamped with the sheer number of possibilities and our creative spark goes out.

We all know the expression, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Restrictions and obstacles, whether we choose them or whether they are chosen for us, can be applied to our creative thinking (and acting) in the garden as well.

In cleaning up my herb and vegetable beds at the end of March, I noticed how much my perennial lemon balm had spread—it has a lovely scent and makes a calming tea, but it’s highly invasive and I don’t have enough space for it to roam. I needed to dig it out, but didn’t want to throw away large amounts of the sweet-smelling, hardy herb which many people buy at garden centres. 

Using recycled plant pots, I carefully removed seven clumps of it and potted them. For fun, I made cards addressed in the voice of the lemon balm that began with the salutation, “HI! I’m a lemon balm love bomb!” Whenever I hear of a local friend or acquaintance who is having a rough time and might like a green friend in a pot who makes a fine cup of tea, I leave a plant and card on their doorstep. The delivery outing (done on foot or by bike) is part of my family’s daily exercise and solves several problems at once—most notably, answering the question, “What are we doing now?” with “Delivering a hug from the garden!”

What are some resource limitations that might come into play as we consider our gardening options this season?

  1. Limited space: Maybe you have a small yard, a shaded yard, or no yard at all. 
  2. Limited time: Maybe you are working from home, homeschooling kids, or helping elders and neighbours during COVID and are busier than ever. 
  3. Limited funds: Maybe you are facing financial losses as a result of the shutdown and have limited funds available for garden projects. 

Let’s consider these limitations in order. 

  1. Space: For those with limited space, container gardening may be a natural fit. Most vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers. If you live in an apartment with a balcony, containers can be a good solution—you can even bring vulnerable plants inside on cold nights. If containers aren’t your thing, consider sharing yard space with a non-gardening neighbour or friend. Yard-sharing is a popular practice in many large cities and can be a great way to connect with community and share the fruits of the harvest at the end of the growing season. Or you can look into renting space in a community garden nearby—most are low cost and provide you with soil and on-site water. Most provinces are allowing community gardening to continue during the shutdown, recognizing it as the essential service that it surely is.
  1. Time:  You can consider time spent in the garden as both a form of exercise and as a homeschooling opportunity for kids, if you have them; it lends itself to a variety of school subjects from biology, insect life, nutrition, and food history (think Victory Gardens!) as well as skill-building. When we are asked to “stay the blazes home” for an indefinite period of time, gardening can make the time pass more quickly. The steady changes we can observe in the garden over a growing season when we will likely not be taking vacation keeps us grounded in the present, and hopeful for the future. 
  1. Money: There are many ways to save money when growing our own food, from saving seeds from year to year, to sharing a seed order with a friend, participating in a seed swap (usually done in person, but check Facebook for an online version in your area), to asking gardening acquaintances for cuttings from their fruit bushes, or dividing herbs like chives, perennial onion, and mints that you can transplant rather than buying them at a garden centre. Do you have sprouting potatoes in a paper bag in your basement or in your fridge? Plant them! If you had a veggie garden last year, did you have extra peas and beans that you forgot to pick and the pods went brown and rattly? Those legumes can be planted this year. Ditto kale, mizunas, cilantro, tomatoes in a mild winter, and the list goes on… Look for signs of self-seeded “volunteer” veggies and herbs in the garden before you start digging around. Learn about edible weeds and their nutritional value: I never root out lambs’ quarters or dandelions because their young leaves are so delicious! YouTube videos on the topic abound: check them out on rainy days when you can’t get in the garden. Remember, too, that you will soon be saving money on fresh veggies when your garden begins to produce—this is the whole point of the exercise for many!

It’s useful to consider the current limitations in our lives as a chance to strengthen our creative, lateral thinking. This habit of mind is likely how our ancestors survived during tough times and how our brains evolved. We, their descendants, need all the resourcefulness we can possibly muster during our own challenging times—which thankfully don’t currently include being attacked by sabre-toothed cats, or an ice age spreading across the landscape!

Our gardens are the schools and workplaces that have remained open in 2020, and they will continue to inspire us to find creative solutions to our problems.