Nature, Nurture: students sow benefits of gardening during pandemic

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Matt Troher

Sunflowers bloom in sophomore Lily Dolan's backyard garden.

By Matt Troher, Contributing Writer

There came a time in the development of the COVID-19 pandemic when people began to realize that they would be indoors for longer than the two weeks they were originally told. To cope with this, people picked up hobbies, both old and new. Some baked, some watched countless hours of Netflix and others took up a skill right in their backyard: gardening.

Estella Santillan, a sophomore in LAS, has been gardening for the past two years after getting involved with her community garden in her hometown of Cicero, Illinois. She noticed that, during the uncertainty of the pandemic, people turned to the outdoors to alleviate some of that uncertainty. 

“I’ve noticed that people are planting more than usual,” Santillan said.  “I think it’s since they can’t go outside, they try to find a way to make the outdoors into the indoors, another way to connect to the environment without necessarily being outside.”

Santillan began gardening as a way to help her community. In Cicero, a southwest suburb of Chicago, Santillan works with the Cicero Community Farm, a community garden started by residents of the town. All the food grown at the Cicero Community Farm goes right back into the community to establish a way to combat food insecurity.

For Santillan, the benefits of gardening come not just from being outdoors but from helping her community as well.

“It feels like a way to provide my community and also provide myself,” Santillan said. “Gardening has helped me not to be stressed. Every time I’m surrounded by a green environment with other people that are trying to provide their community for the same reasons, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m doing something that’s nurturing.”

Daisy Patino, a sophomore in ACES, gardens not just as a hobby but academically as well. She works in a greenhouse on campus, maintaining plants that will later be taken to a laboratory for testing and analysis. Patino works both in the field and in the lab, but she prefers the act of gardening for the benefits it brings. 

“I enjoy the process of gardening; it sounds a little corny but I enjoy seeing the plants grow. With the plants we planted at the beginning of the school year, I’ll come back a week later and they’re already sprouting,” Patino said. “I also enjoy the sense of fulfillment and being a little more calm when we’re able to go out and breathe fresh air, that’s really helpful to me.”

The sense of fulfillment Pantino receives from gardening isn’t just a personal situation. Recent studies have shown that gardening is beneficial both physically and mentally. A literature review titled “Gardening is beneficial for health: a meta-analysis”, conducted by the Natural Environment Research Council, surveyed 22 case studies and discovered trends that “suggest that participating in gardening activities has a significant positive impact on health.” 

The survey of case studies found results that indicate gardening can lead to reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, stress, mood disturbance and BMI. The survey also found that gardening can lead to increases in quality of life, sense of community, physical activity levels and cognitive function.

Lily Dolan, a sophomore in business, has been gardening almost her entire life. Dolan’s mother works in landscaping, so she’s been around gardens since a young age. However, with the added workload of high school and college, she found gardening took the backseat to her studies.

During the first few weeks of the nationwide lockdown, however, Dolan realized that stores were quickly running out of their produce supply. To alleviate some of the stress brought on by the nationwide food shortage, she turned towards her old hobby of gardening and reinvigorated her old vegetable garden.

“I really like the sustainability of it, how you can make your own food from it,” Dolan said about her vegetable garden. “Suddenly grocery stores were running out of food. I was thinking about it and I thought, ‘well I should keep working on my garden to keep my mind off it, and maybe if things get worse and worse and we don’t have a way to rely on the stores for our fresh food,’ so I was almost trying to create some sort of sustenance with my garden.”

Although Dolan is studying from home, she plans to continue gardening once she’s back on campus. She believes that anyone can garden, no matter how limited their outdoor or indoor space may be. For students living in apartments who want to pick up gardening, she offers this advice: start small.

“Don’t take up your entire balcony space with a garden,” Dolan said. “Buy one or two big containers — 10 to 12 inches wide — and put in your favorite vegetables or plants instead of doing what’s popular. Plant something that you’re actually going to enjoy taking from the vine and eating. Or if you’re doing flowers, start with something you know you can take care of.”

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