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Athens residents find escape from pandemic stress through gardening

As the coronavirus’ impact increases, cities may seem as if they’re simply shutting down. Restaurants are locking their doors and most individuals are now forced to work from home in order to limit human contact and prevent the spread of the virus. However, Athens’ gardeners are coming together now more than ever, using isolation as a tool to motivate them to grow more produce to share.

Many gardeners have been able to turn their hobby of tending to plants into a daily, time-consuming activity, thanks to newfound free time as many jobs transition to virtual work. Natalie Kruse-Daniels, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Ohio University, has been gardening seriously for around 10 years. Social distancing and pressure to isolate has given Kruse-Daniels an opportunity to focus on her garden like never before.

“We have more time to get things started and really tend to plants and plan,” Kruse-Daniels said. “This year it feels weird, because you’re not sure what you’ll be able to get at the grocery store, if they’ll have certain fruits and vegetables. You want to make sure that you have good, wholesome food available, and so it kind of feels like there are higher stakes than an average year.”

Kruse-Daniels grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, ranging from kale, beets and spinach to peas, raspberries and rhubarb. She grows peach, apple, pear and plum trees in an orchard in her backyard; peppers, basil, eggplants and watermelons inside her home under protected lights; and utilizes both raised beds and high tunnels in her yard for the remaining fruits and vegetables.

Kruse-Daniels and her family eat most of the produce fresh, but also preserves and freezes it for future use or shares and trades with friends and family. Outside of the product she gets from gardening, Kruse-Daniels appreciates gardening amid the coronavirus because it allows her to get a break from the stress of juggling work and children.

“In not very large blocks of time, you can focus on something that’s productive, growing and creating something and really making something good,” Kruse-Daniels said, highlighting the fact that gardening is an opportunity to focus on something more creative. “I see a lot of people making music or art or putting their energy into making homemade face masks and… (isolation) gives you a little bit of freedom to have a creative outlet. But we also have to appreciate the fact that we have the space and ability and time and really the privilege to have a large garden. We need to support people who don’t have that privilege.”

Wenda Sheard, an Athens local who’s been gardening since elementary school, has found that she doesn’t have to regularly visit the grocery store because she has so much fresh produce at home. Sheard benefits from as a senior citizen because she is more susceptible to the coronavirus and therefore encouraged to isolate more than the average person.

“We bought some (groceries) lately because of the coronavirus,” Sheard admitted. “But yeah, we don’t have to go to the store. We’re very lucky that we have all (of the produce) in our freezer. We do sometimes get things we don’t have, but we don’t have to.”

Sheard has several orchards spanning about five acres, where she grows different types of fruit and nut trees and bushes. She and her husband also grows numerous other vegetables such as asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, beets and sweet potatoes. Sheard cans, freezes and dehydrates most of the food that she doesn’t eat fresh, allowing her to stock up.

Individuals with a lot of free time or those looking to grow their own produce to avoid a trip to the store can easily pick up gardening, according to Sheard. All it really takes is the right soil, some seeds and maybe some manure.

“You can do it for free if you live out in the country and pay attention to what’s around you and what grows well,” Sheard said. “It doesn’t cost hardly anything for the garden. You learn how to save seeds from year to year. We collect tomato seeds and I grew heirloom tomatoes last summer. It should be a very low cost, almost no cost venture, if you’re careful and know what to do. You can use cartons, you could recycle things. You don't need to buy the pot.”

Neighbors have donated money so that Sheard can expand her garden and donate fresh tomatoes to nonprofits. Most gardeners, including Sheard, encourage others to pick up gardening as well, either to donate produce or to experience the sheer joy of gardening. 

Marti Dolata, an Athens resident and 40-year gardener, is glad that isolation has given her time to focus back on gardening after a two-year hiatus.

“I’m feeling a really strong impetus to grow as much as I can this year, primarily because I won’t be running around and I’ll have the time,” Dolata said. 

Food is noticeably higher quality when freshly grown, she highlighted. When grown in gardens, produce is grown optimized for flavor rather than looks or shipping quality.

Dolata is more than eager to begin gardening again, even if it means that she has to start from scratch. In a time where a worldwide pandemic has made everything appear so unsure and hectic, gardening provides her and other gardeners with an opportunity to escape and, quite literally, get back to their roots. 

“I really think that it’s good for your spirit, and not just your health,” Dolata said. “Being out there, fingers in the dirt, you look around and see birds and critters. We live in boxes now, and we’re lucky here in Athens to live in one of the beautiful places of the earth. It’s a shame not to enjoy it.”


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