Finding Solace and Hope in My Garden

Posted on March 25, 2020

By Joan McIntyre, EcoAction Arlington Board Chair

Working in my garden provides comfort in these trying times, with normal life turned upside down. Spring in the garden is always an uplifting time as I can observe the garden awakening and never more so than this year. As I work down on my knees on cleaning up and weeding, I can see chickweed has exploded throughout my yard this year. But, I can also see signs of regeneration that are not apparent when I am standing.

  • The Coreopsis, New England Asters, Peonies, Butterfly Weed and other perennials are putting up new growth with the promise of color from spring to fall.
  • The smell of bergamot (the additive that makes Earl Grey tea) wafts up as I work around the Scarlet Beebalm, planted over the last two years and continuing to spread.
  • Common violets—often seen as a weed but for me, a free gift from nature filling blank spots in the garden—are starting to bloom and fritillary butterflies will follow come summer.
  • There’s the Grape Hyacinth planted by Uncle Charlie years ago during an earlier phase of my gardening.
  • Strawberries are starting to flower, creating anticipation of tasty fruit in May or early June.
  • And the raspberries canes are leafing out and new canes, on which next year’s harvest will fruit, are emerging.

I enjoy seeing what fruits and vegetables I can grow in my garden, and even though I’m far from self-sufficient, I get satisfaction from my harvest. Having some, albeit small, control over where my food comes from and how it is grown is empowering. It is especially important now when so much is out of my control. Spinach, kale, and garlic planted last fall are thriving; there’s some lettuce that self-seeded from last year, and my chard has survived the mild winter. Seeds for peas, carrots, scallions, and beets have just recently been sown. And, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and perhaps squash and cucumbers to be planted as warmer weather settles in. Perennial herbs as oregano, thyme, rosemary, and lavender are low maintenance. And, other than harvesting asparagus, strawberries and raspberries require little care and come back year after year. Even with only limited space, pots and the odd open space in a garden offer opportunities for growing something for your table.

My yard is a work in progress (aren’t all yards) as I continually strive to make a positive contribution to the local ecosystem and counter climate change.  Continuing and even stepping up my efforts this spring keeps me focused on the future. There are many ways my yard—and yours too—can contribute:

  • There can be no better way to express hope in the future than investing in a tree, especially a canopy tree that will eventually soar 70 feet or more. A typical hardwood tree can absorb almost 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and over 40 years will sequester one ton of carbon dioxide. Trees also absorb pollution, reduce the urban heat island effect, shade your home and yard, slow stormwater runoff, and provide habitat for wildlife.
  • A home landscape rich in a biodiverse plant palette of trees, shrubs and herbaceous layer consisting primarily of native plants will provide the habitat for insects, birds, and mammals and help counter the increased fragmentation and diversity loss.  Insects, in particular, have co-evolved with local plants, for instance, Monarchs need milkweed and fritillaries need violets. Without these plants, there are no insects, and without insects, the web of life collapses. 
  • Building healthy soil by adding organic matter—first with mulch and over time leaf litter and plant debris—will feed the microbic life in the soil. And, the soil, in turn, feeds the plants, creating a self-sustaining system with no need for added fertilizers, capturing water for later use while reducing water runoff, and sequestering carbon.

As we hunker down and maintain social distancing, we can find an antidote to the stress and boredom and spark hope for the future. If you’re in an apartment building or condo, try pots with herbs or native flowers on a balcony or windowsill. You can also check with your property manager to inquire if you and other residents can adopt a spot for a vegetable or pollinator gardens, building community in solitude. For helpful information on gardening and plant selections, check the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia website (mgnv.org) and the Plant NOVA Natives website. For inspiration, read Doug Tallamy’s latest book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.

Stay safe.