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Gardening in the era of Covid-19 Urban and home gardeners face challenges and supply shortages under COVID-19 restrictions

By Alex Scheinberg

Growing up in cities and urban centers all her life, Renata Kersus never imagined herself to be a gardener. She always considered herself a city person.

Born in Ukraine, she immigrated with her parents to Brooklyn, New York, when she was 8 years old, and remained there until settling into the Boston area for college.

When states across New England began issuing stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she, like many others in the region, started pulling up weeds in the yard of her Framingham home that she shares with her husband and two children.

“I have always been a city person,” she said. “This was my foray into suburban life, and my first foray into gardening.”
Basil plants take in some sun.

Kersus, an alumni of Boston University’s College of Communication, is one of many first-time gardeners who took advantage of the stay-at-home orders to start a vegetable garden, but store closures presented some early obstacles for getting essential supplies like planters and soil.

“You couldn’t get soil delivered in small quantities,” she said, “and I didn’t want Cubic tons of soil delivered to my house."

She scoured the internet and sought out local community gardens and exchange groups on Facebook for advice from her neighbors.

To her surprise, she was not alone in this new endeavor. Many of the groups she found, such as Boston Area Gardeners (BAG) and Framingham Natick Wayland Perennial and Plants Exchange had people collaborating, offering trades, and posting notices for free seedlings.

"Last year I got Irises from someone, and she had a huge gorgeous garden. she had three wheelbarrows of irises just to give away."

Kersus relished in the fact that this newfound activity brought her and her family closer together.

It hearkened back to her family's Eastern European roots and traditions, she said. It was the first time she had made her grandmother's traditional pickled onions from her own garden harvest, and despite her grandmother's comments that they "didn't taste the same," she found the experience fun and satisfying.

“It gave us a regular hobby; a thing to do, and to take care of, and it was also something to do with my daughter.”
“I have always been a city person,” This was my foray into suburban life, and my first foray into gardening.”
Renata Kersus's garden in 2020. Kersus remarked that she had not started seedlings "as early as you're supposed to." Photo courtesy of Renata Kersus.
“It gave us a regular hobby; a thing to do, and to take care of, and it was also something to do with my daughter.”
While the family managed to gather many cucumbers, the only tomato that grew in their garden was snatched away by some creature in the night. Photo courtesy of Renata Kersus
"Last year I got Irises form someone, and she had a huge gorgeous garden. she had three wheelbarrows of irises just to give away."
A day lily growing in Renata Kersus's garden in 2020. Photo courtesy of Renata Kersus.

An unprecedented surge in the demand for garden seeds took many distributors by surprise, and according to a 2020 industry survey conducted by Tewksbury, Massachusetts-based seed distributor Griffin Greenhouse Supplies, Inc, 77.9% of new gardeners in the Northeast indicated that they intend to continue gardening beyond 2020.

Google searches for “garden seeds” and “vegetable seeds” spiked in volume starting from March 15, 2020, and peaked between April 5 and 11. According to search trends in 2021, searches are going up again. Data source: Google Trends

This trend was echoed in the community gardens and urban farms in Greater Boston area. Todd Sandstrum, farm manager at ReVision Urban Farm in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood says that seedling sales for the group in 2020 nearly doubled the numbers from the previous year, and that three weeks into their current seedling sales they are already close to surpassing their pre-order numbers from last year.

“The need for seedlings has increased and that is because there are more people who see the importance of the food system,” Sandstrum said.

Sandstrum, of Norton, has worked with ReVision Urban Farm for the past two years, and was recently promoted to farm manager going into his third year with the group. ReVision Urban Farm is one of 18 initiatives sponsored by the non-profit Victory Programs, Inc.

Todd Sandstrum, Farm Manager of Revision Urban Farm in Dorchester, works in the greenhouse office. He manages the farm's activities and 3-person staff, in addition to coordinating the volunteer groups and projects. After the pandemic lock-downs were enacted, the volunteer hours were drastically reduced, and the three farm staff took on many of the tasks typically performed by community volunteers.

ReVision Urban Farm serves as an access point to healthy food for people who need it, says Sandstrum, and is directly connected to ReVision House, a shelter that serves about twenty homeless women with and without children.

A brassica seedling shows in front of a row of propagation trays in the winter poly tunnel. ReVision Urban Farm expects a high volume of seedling pre-orders to surprass the previous year's records.

The urban farm is also a source of seedlings and provides seedlings to many of the community gardens in the Greater Boston area, including Eastie Farm and Milton Community Gardens, among others. Every year the group sets up booths at local farmer’s markets to sell seedlings, including DotHouse Health Farmers' Market in the Dorchester neighborhood, where 98% of their sales have been to recipients of WIC, SNAP, and other supplemental food programs, and the other 2% from cash sales to local staff.

The root ball of a Seedling at Revision Urban farm. The farm provides a significant proportion of seedling stock for many of the community and urban farms in the area, Says Sandstrum.

The difficulty of meeting those increased demands was compounded by the restrictions and CDC guidelines on public gatherings. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the farm had been clocking an average of 5,000 volunteer hours per year, but following the restrictions placed on public gatherings, only 450 hours of volunteerism were recorded in 2020, and many of those shifts were absorbed by the farm team.

“If you have a farm team of 3 and you have a COVID outbreak, there’s no one there to manage the farm,” said Sandstrum.
A staff member at ReVision Urban Farm poses outside the seedling poly tunnel with a sign reading "You Are Amazing" as an encouragement to passers-by. In the post-COVID-19 era, in-person volunteer hours were reduced from 5,000 to 450, and the farm's 3-person staff bore the burden of keeping it on-track.

Despite these challenges and personnel shortages, he and his staff were able to manage all their responsibilities during 2020, with the help of volunteers who came on an individual basis, instead of the groups that they typically bring in.

“I’m glad to have a farm team that stepped up,” says Sandstrum. “We kept our heads down and kept the mission on track.”

Todd Sandstrum, who was recently promoted to farm manager of ReVision Urban Farm, explains the farm's activities in a 2019 video from the organization's YouTube channel.

Katie Shields, coordinator of the Milton community garden, said that they have ordered seedlings from ReVision Urban Farm for a long time, and noted a definite growing interest in garden space as she spoke over the phone.

“We’ve always had a wait list, and it has increased in the last few years. There are definitely people who aren’t getting off the wait list as often.”

The "victory garden," as people in the town call it, has stood in Cunningham Park since the 1940s, following the Second World War, and currently has 40 plots divided between 50 families. Shields has coordinated the garden for the past eight years.

The Trustees of Cunningham Park allowed for the town to install a water line to bring water to the garden, and despite the growing demand for garden space, Shields said that expanding gardens throughout Milton could be difficult.

“There would definitely be space available, but getting the water to new spaces is a real challenge. It’s a very generous situation we have with the park.”

When asked about difficulties faced by families who maintained plots over the past year, Shields said that the community navigated the pandemic guidelines smoothly.

“We don’t really gather much as a group, and in that way we have been lucky. People wore masks when they were there, and there was plenty of distance between plots so we could socially distance.”

In other parts of the Greater Boston area, however, where yard space and access to resources is limited, gardeners have had to be a little more strategic.

Nicole Burkart, of Haverhill, runs the organization The Tomato Fairy, which she said aims to solve some of those problems.

“If you’re poor you cannot even go down to Home Depot and get the things to start, so the project is meant to help bridge that gap.”

The Tomato Fairy project started four years ago, when Burkart grew so many tomatoes that even her neighbors refused to take anymore.

Burkart started taking her extra tomatoes around to cashiers at local stores and gave out plants to SNAP recipients at local farmers markets.

“It got me to think, it wasn’t just about the amount of food, but the quality of food. I realized that I could address that problem by working with food pantries and that kind of stuff.”

With the stay-at-home orders issued at the beginning of last spring, Burkart saw that it was obviously time to ramp up local production.

“Last year, I planted all of my seeds, because I’m a seed hoarder,” Burkart said as she chuckled over the phone.

She started out by delivering seedlings to doors, since many people did not want to leave their houses.

Cambridge City Growers, a project that spawned out of the pandemic lock-downs, took 72 seedlings from Burkart and used them as part of their Food For Free project.

Burkart went to the Trinity Baptist Church in Arlington, which she said usually grew tomatoes, and gave them 150 of her tomato plants. Upon receiving the tomato plants, the church began plowing their field and putting the plants in the ground.

“Arlington has a lot of hidden poverty, and they don’t qualify for some subsidized programs,” Burkart said. “The overwhelming wealth in the community means they cannot get resources to those who need them the most.”

Some food pantries did not want to take fresh produce because of concerns around spreading COVID-contaminated produce, said Burkart, but she cited the recently passed Good Samaritan Act, which absolves donors of food of any liability if the donations were made with good intentions.

She also noted the efforts of groups like Boston Area Gleaners, who enter farms to pick any produce that does not meet market-quality standards, and send their pickings to local food pantries in the region.

“There are all sorts of great projects, but they are small and isolated. I had been working with these organizations before to see how we could expand.”

As gardeners across the state prepare for the spring, Burkart too has been preparing. This year, having had some time to plan, as opposed to last year’s frenzy, Burkart plans to take the funds from selling her produce to buy seeds wholesale to help expand the operation she started four years ago.

“I stocked up. I have tons of seeds ready to go. I can sell them to anyone who can afford them, and give them to everyone who can’t.” - Nicole Burkart, The Tomato fairy

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 98% of seedling sales from ReVision Urban Farm are to recipients of WIC, SNAP, and other supplemental food programs, and only 2% are from cash from wholesales. The article has been updated to clarify that these numbers were from one specific market, DotHouse Health Farmers' Market, and do not reflect the entirety of the farm's sales.

Credits:

Cover photo by Alex Scheinberg. Some photos courtesy of Todd Sandstrum at ReVision Urban Farm, and Renata Kersus.