British Columbia·First Person

How gardening gave me structure, purpose and a path out of depression during the pandemic

Raising plants provided a sense of calm, purpose and normalcy during the hardest days of the pandemic, Tim Ford writes.

Growing vegetables became a personal bastion for my mental health, Tim Ford writes

Tim Ford began gardening in the early days of the pandemic, thanks to a City of Victoria program for residents with low incomes or who had lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Tim Ford)

This First Person article is the experience of Tim Ford, who started gardening in earnest during the pandemic. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

When I was growing up, gardening was a chore.

Yard work was an expected chore during visits to the home of my 婆婆 and 公公 (Popo and Gonggong, my maternal Chinese grandparents) in Burnaby, B.C. 

At the time, I saw it as something to get out of the way as quickly as possible; a nuisance in between playing Nintendo with my cousins and trips to the Vancouver Aquarium.

Our chores included helping with watering and picking plums and peas. But in between those tasks, we loved to ride our tricycles through the stone slab and concrete pathways my grandparents had placed between the rows of towering plants out back of their house. It was a veritable jungle for our tiny bodies. 

We played among the greenery, but I don't think we really understood where it all had come from. It was simply there; a fixture of our childhood. I didn't give the work behind it much thought.

It's funny how time, distance, and a global pandemic can shift your perspective.

I moved to Victoria in the latter part of 2019 looking for a change and to pursue a new career path.

I couldn't have guessed that only months after I arrived, I'd be one of the thousands of Canadians left jobless after the pandemic was declared, locked in and struggling to make ends meet.

In the spring of B.C.'s pandemic response in 2020, people were asked to stay indoors save for exercise, occasional fresh air, or to walk pets. As a single person with few friendships in a city I was still just getting to know, I felt doubly isolated.

I was in the dark grip of depression. I was applying for jobs and getting nowhere and amassing ballooning debt on basic expenses.

That's when I heard about the City of Victoria's plan to provide free seedlings. The program is chiefly concerned with addressing food security, but for me, it was a chance for something — anything — to do. 

Seasonal plants provided by the city included tomatoes, lettuce, mustard greens and marigold flowers.

I was stunned by how quickly the tomatoes in particular grew. A quick and affordable solution for trellises came with wood from the scrap bin at my local hardware store. That tiny project was another goal, another chance to be creative. I felt my depression lift.

The positive effects of gardening have been the subject of several psychological studies. One 2016 paper from the Oxford Journal of Public Health found that people who used community gardens "had a significantly better self-esteem, total mood disturbance and general health, experiencing less depression and fatigue and more vigour."

A 2013 paper from the Mental Health Review Journal also analyzed gardening as a mental health intervention in several studies for people with depression and anxiety. It found consistent benefits, such as "reduced stress and improved mood ... improved sleep and physical health and spiritual benefits such as feeling more connected to nature and fascinated by plants."

Gardening offered Tim Ford structure, order, purpose and a window to the outside world during the pandemic. (Submitted by Tim Ford)

For me, gardening offered a reason to actually get out of bed and face another day.

There was structure. Order. A sense of purpose. 

Check the plants. Water. Move appropriately for sunlight. Repeat.

Beyond that, it was the simple, honest sensation of true joy and pride in taking ownership of the wellbeing of a garden. We hear about the need for safe spaces, and a garden is precisely that: space where you feel safe and empowered.

A few batches of cherry tomatoes, parsley and some green onions were added to a pasta sauce. Mustard greens, chard and lettuce made for a couple of salads. There was only enough for a handful of meals, but it was never about the quantity for me. It was about watching seedlings grow into leafy greens.

Everything I grow tastes all the sweeter for having been grown through my diligence. Amid the concrete jungle of closed stores, shuttered concert halls and urban isolation, my garden is still growing on my balcony as a personal bastion for my mental wellbeing.

I wasn't alone in my desire to garden. Almost one Canadian in five started a garden during the pandemic, according to a 2020 survey.

I was fortunate enough to avoid some of the more destructive impulses of a mind sick with anxiety and despair. Others are not so fortunate. I don't know if offering gardening as an outlet will be enough for most.

I do know, however, that at a time when there were paths of self-destruction ahead of me, another door was opened with the offer of a sack of soil, some pots and a handful of green sprouts. That recipe gave me space not just to survive, but to thrive. To sustain.

To grow.

As of this writing I have a cucumber plant veritably overflowing from its container, and the tomatoes are coming back with plants stretching over 15 inches each.

Here's to another harvest.

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Tim Ford is a mixed-race, Calgary-born writer and freelance journalist who currently resides in Victoria. His bylines include CBC News, The Tyee, and the National Observer, and he has published fiction with Tyche Books, EDGE Sci-Fi and Neo-Opsis Magazine.


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