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In An Anxious Winter, The Garden Still Offers Consolation

Joyce Rydstrom of Alta, Iowa, had to shut the doors to her hair salon in March last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. These days, she spend some of her free time gardening.
Joyce Rydstrom of Alta, Iowa, had to shut the doors to her hair salon in March last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. These days, she spend some of her free time gardening.

Deep into this pandemic winter, it can be hard to remember what a refuge gardens were last spring and summer.

In those frightening early days of COVID-19, victory gardens and household vegetable plots sprang up all over. Seed companies reported shortages. Hardware stores saw a run on garden tools. Millions found comfort, release and a sense of safety outdoors with their hands in the dirt.

That feels like a long time ago. We dreaded this winter, and we weren't wrong: January was the deadliest month yet from the virus. Political violence shook Americans' sense of security and shared purpose. Businesses and household incomes are struggling. And the human interactions that might help us process all this anxiety and grief are discouraged.

Yet the garden is still there, hunkering down too. And it can still help. Even in winter, it can provide solace, inspiration and perspective. Fresh air. And an assurance that spring is coming.

"From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens — the garden outdoors, the garden of pots and bowls in the house, and the garden of the mind's eye," Katherine S. White, an editor and writer at The New Yorker and an avid gardener, wrote several decades ago.

As we round the bend into February, and with the hope that vaccines will bring real change, all three of those gardens offer a promise of light.

The Garden Outdoors

To the eye, there's little in a winter garden that can compare to spring and summer's binge-worthy drama of growing, blooming and buzzing. Only the most serious gardeners (or those in warmer climates) can keep the growing going outside, using cold frames, fabric or plastic tunnels, and other techniques.

But there are smaller joys to be had. The trees' bare branches make for beautiful silhouettes, and better views of birds and sunsets. Landscape photographer Larry Lederman, author of the recent book "Garden Portraits," recommends getting to know your garden better in the winter, when "everything is bare and you can see the bones of the landscape."

More significantly, gardens remind us that winter is just one season in a cycle. Death is everywhere in a garden, all year round, but it makes rebirth possible. The species keep going.

``The return of spring each year can be endlessly relied on, and in (plants) not dying when we die, we have a sense of goodness going forward," Sue Stratis-Smith writes in her new book, ``The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature."

"This," she says, "is the garden's most enduring consolation.''

Of course, the constancy of the seasons these days can't be taken for granted as in the past. So winter is also a good time for reevaluating our own yard-size battles against climate change. We can start or continue composting. And we can research services, products and methods to help make next year's garden — and those beyond — more sustainable.

The Garden Indoors

Houseplants are hot now, and Instagram is full of plant influencers posting photos.
New technologies make it easier to grow plants anywhere indoors, with or without soil. The plants offer not only beauty, but the rewards of caring for living things and seeing them grow.

Indoor vegetable gardening, too, has become especially popular both as a food source and as a family activity. For instance, you can buy organic mini-farms in Mason jars, cans and boxes — all intended for the windowsill. You can grow mushrooms in their cardboard box with just a spritzer, or set up a large jar of tomatoes adding nothing but water.

Sales of backyard greenhouses and grow lights are up, and seed companies are already reporting another year of high demand. Johnny's Selected Seeds, a high-end, mail-order seller based in Winslow, Maine, recently suspended orders from home gardeners temporarily, saying that because of COVID, order volume "has exceeded our capacity to pack seed and to ship orders quickly."

Some gardeners have already started planting the seeds of cold-weather vegetables in flats indoors — seeing the sprouts of cabbage, onions, spinach and more. In just a couple months, perhaps, they can think about transplanting them outdoors if they have the space.

As the Vermont Bean Seed Company says in its 2021 spring catalog: "In each seed and seed-bearing fruit, there is a promise of a new beginning."

The Garden of The Mind's Eye

Which brings us to the third garden: the one we imagine and plan.

"I shall never have the garden I have in my mind, but that for me is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them,'' the author/gardener Jamaica Kincaid once said.

The new seed catalogs carry the promise that, this year, you can make your garden better. Maybe that means converting more lawn to flowers and vegetables, choosing more native plants, reducing water use, putting in paths and water features. A garden is never finished.

Planning it is creative and hopeful. And as our second pandemic spring approaches, those hopes are being buoyed by the rollout of vaccines, too.

As Amanda Gorman said in her inauguration poem last month, in a shoutout to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was quoting George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who were quoting the Bible: "Everyone shall sit under their own vine, and fig tree, And no one shall make them afraid."

The garden as metaphor for peace, safety, prosperity, calm. Not a bad place for the mind's eye to rest, particularly in this most unsettling of winters.