When the full story of the coronavirus pandemic is written down in the history books, the surge in home gardening will surely merit a prominent mention.

Over the past year people have planted seeds, plants, shrubs and trees like never before as they found themselves home much of the time. Often their children were out of school far more than usual, and gardening was a means to keep them busy and an educational opportunity.

Gardening businesses and educators received a bumper crop of inquiries from novices eager to launch their gardens, even as communication was limited to Zoom and telephone calls. The rush to buy seeds and plants in the first month or two of the pandemic triggered shortages in many places.

“It was kind of extreme, because people were planning for the end of the world,” said Aubrey Delone, who works for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Cuckoo. “Some people ordered literally one of everything that we had, to have their own seed bank.”

Richard Hinde, who serves as president of Louisa County’s Master Gardeners chapter, heard about the shortages from his members. He tried to help people find substitutes and did his best to assist new gardeners, though he couldn’t do it in person as in normal times.

Earlier this month the Master Gardeners reopened their help desk at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office in the town of Louisa for the first time in more than a year. The group will also be back at the Mineral Farmers Market in May, and the Agricultural Fair in July. 

“There’s been an uptick in home gardening … people are trying to be more healthy with what they’re eating,” Hinde observed. “A lot of them are doing organic gardening. Maybe they’ve made their garden a little bigger.”

At Hottinger’s on Louisa Road, owners Michelle and Eddie Hottinger noticed the increased interest in gardening as families found themselves “homebound.” They spend time explaining to people who come to the store about the different growing zones and other aspects of growing the right things in the right seasons.

“Some talked about becoming full-time gardeners,” Michelle said. “We want them to be successful and to continue doing it.”

Some of those gardeners donated part of their harvest to Louisa County Resource Council. The council coped during the height of the pandemic with a wave of new faces needing food assistance, as jobs were lost or furloughed. 

“We were blessed with that last fall. Our clients were very appreciative,” said Lloyd Runnett, council executive director.

He said the situation reminded him of how his grandfather had made it through the Great Depression, when having a home garden could be crucial to survival. Because he had been through that, his grandfather always kept a large garden, as did Runnett’s parents. 

Runnett remembers his grandfather swinging a hoe in his direction and giving him a tongue-lashing after he questioned why the family couldn’t just buy everything at the grocery store.

“The theme [of his grandfather’s lecture] was that you need to be self-sufficient,” Runnett said.

That’s part of the motivation for Jackie Robinson Brock and her family, who moved to Louisa County in April 2020, just as the pandemic hit full throttle. The Brocks’ moving plans meant they didn’t have time to plant as much as they wanted, but this spring is a different story. Both Jackie and her husband have shifted to working full-time from home, giving them much more time to focus on their 30-foot-by-80-foot garden. 

“It allowed us to do more outside, and our four-year-old son loves being out there, too,” Brock said. 

Since the Master Gardeners started holding evening classes online during the pandemic, Brock was able to participate. She said the classes have taught her a great deal about succession planting, garden placement and pollinators.

The Brocks aspire to grow food not just for themselves, but also to sell at area farmers’ markets.  

As Don Kinzler noted in a recent article in the online publication Ag Week, the turn toward growing more food and gardening generally isn’t just a matter of having enough to eat. For many people, it’s been a means of coping when the world seems to have turned upside down.

“People have frequently turned to the soil in times of trouble,” Kinzler wrote. “As COVID-19 caused a need for social distancing, gardening provided contact with something real. The smell of soil and flowers, the taste of herbs and fresh produce, and the feel of warm sunshine provided stability in an otherwise unreal world.”

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