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Gardening: A micro-universe of meaning and joy

Ana Spataru & Pooja Mallya

The COVID-19 pandemic has had multiple devastating effects on health, people’s lives and the economy. Without a doubt, it has been the most significant disruption in 100 years. As restrictions on people’s movements and business activities took hold, so did the realisation that we as a society are enmeshed in a complex global system. The pandemic highlighted the weaknesses and inequities of that system, which marginalises the poor and vulnerable. As many respondents of the National Pandemic Gardening Survey commented, that system only ‘works’ if consumption is at or near a maximum, regardless of the ecological consequences. As we all adjusted to new means of working, studying, and connecting, new stories of connection, less pollution from cars and conviviality in homes and communities started to emerge.

The survey sought to explore Australians’ views on what gardening means to them during a time of severe disruption to ‘normal’ daily life. The survey reached 9,141 people across all states and territories, covering all age groups, household income and a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, including Indigenous Australians. Many messages came through strongly and clearly from the respondents.

An important one is that gardening is an activity where people lose themselves, where they reconnect with and learn from nature, and which for many is their space of creativity and solace. We can get a glimpse of how much gardening means from comments like this one:

It’s incredibly satisfying; it’s relaxing; It takes me away from my stresses and worries; it’s a welcome relief to be away from my computer screen and other devices and it’s a strong connection with nature.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent

Simply said, for many, gardening is a form of meditation.

Over half (54%) of respondents were long-time gardeners, having been gardening for over 10 years. With fewer distractions and more time spent at home, many respondents said that the COVID-19 lockdowns were a fantastic time to take on new projects, with 46% of respondents stating that they have increased their gardening activities since March 2020.

However, not everyone was fortunate to be minimally impacted by the pandemic. A small percentage saw their gardening activities reduced as a result of longer working hours, home-schooling, health aspects, travel ban or shortage of seedlings from local nurseries.

The vast majority of people grow a wide variety of foods. 74% grow between 4 and 8 different types of products and in different places. There were responses from the respondents praising community gardens and how they are ideal spaces for connecting with the community and sharing knowledge. However, there were also responses on how there is just not enough space with “long waiting lists” to be able to get access to community gardens alongside some being too expensive and a complicated process to start one. Verge gardens and edible streetscapes were mentioned over 70 times alongside suggestions for a diverse range of spaces and places for growing and supporting edible gardening activities. Typical suggestions were tool libraries, community compost hubs, gardening hubs and places like edible gardens near bbq areas in parks, playgrounds and community orchards.

More broadly, the survey gave Australians the opportunity to voice their concerns about the food system. Over 5000 people commented on a myriad of issues regarding localisation and food miles, fairness and resilience, as well as water issues, use of chemicals, genetically modified seeds, soil health, waste and recycling, labelling laws, lack of support for small-scale farming, foreign ownership, imports and exports and fossil fuel and mining.

Thousands of respondents agreed that the disruption caused by Covid-19 has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a whole-of-country and whole-0f-society mobilisation to embrace a necessary transition to a more equitable and sustainable future. These two comments reflect widely-held sentiments expressed by respondents:

The response to Covid-19 is like a trial run for mobilisation around the climate and ecological crises we face and has shown us what our governments could do to support our transition to a safe world. It’s made me realise at a deeper level how food insecure we are.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent
The pandemic appears to have brought out both the best and the worst of humanity and society. It certainly creates an opportunity for mankind to reassess, however it has also highlighted the dysfunctions in whole nations and the huge gaps in opportunity between different groups of people. Some people are responding with greater compassion and with great vision. Others have become more insular and less kind. We need to address the fear that has arisen, and its potential to divide society. Then we may have a chance to create a fairer, more sustainable future.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent

The overwhelmingly positive attitude towards gardening underscores the broader need for change. Thousands of respondents - and many tens if not hundreds of thousands more - are calling for an increase in productive food spaces across urban areas, more support for local producers, embracing higher levels of self-reliance for at least some immediate fresh produce needs, and much broader and deeper community engagement. In all these endeavours, the role of government is crucial, although more often than not supportive policy frameworks and funding have not been available. In the few places where local councils are supporting the diversification of food production through policies and programs for food system change, people have clearly benefited.

At the same time, many respondents expressed varying levels of cynicism about the federal government addressing the systemic inequalities clearly revealed by the pandemic.

If it were up to the ordinary populace I would strongly agree [that Covid-19 has created possibilities for a better, fairer and more sustainable society], but we are in the hands of politicians and their supportive media and the interests of big business and politicians sadly don't seem to coincide with [the realisation of those possibilities].
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent
On a personal level in my 'social media bubble' the discussion has been positive. The reality is different: the rich are getting richer and the numbers and level of hardship of the poor/ needy have increased. Our diminishing native forests continue getting logged and the federal government is planning a fossil fuel ('clean' gas) led economic recovery. Meanwhile the climate emergency continues and human rights are getting smashed, both here and worldwide.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent

The possibility for a food system - and a society - that is more inclusive, fair and sustainable is upon us, with many sensing a new direction already taking shape. This sentiment was a strong motivator for us volunteering to analyse the survey data. This was an opportunity to learn first hand how Australians from all walks of life would start to rebuild a largely unfair global and national food system: through community connections, hard work, love for nature and a celebration of what makes Australia unique. At this time, such inspiration is invaluable and it will represent a foundation for future research.

Love that this work is being done. Thank you. I work in community health and will encourage others to complete the survey and look forward to utilising the data at a local level.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent
Far more support is needed for building up local food producers. Any given area should be able to raise the percentage of food used in that area that is local, seasonal & organic. This raises the local resilience and food security at a regional level. Thanks for doing this survey...this gives me hope that we can make changes that count.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent
More respect should be given to the space and resources needed for Community Gardens, and yards in new homes - all for edible planting, for dietary health and for mental well-being. We need hands on gathering spaces, not just open spaces as unused after thoughts. I'd love to see more World Garden plots, that you see on TV shows, where people from around the world, have garden allotments, and all have a happy community space, and share food. Put home gardening on the table, so we can put more home grown food on the table. It will never take over large scale industrial farming, but it will help us learn more about food, and feed those that can't access food, reliably, when in hardship...I would like to see a Food Regions approach to growing food on verges - as we have to be aware of pest and disease risks to local farmers. So if they grow apples and pears, we can grow lemons and oranges, etc. Do this as a co-design with Rural and Urban Ag, and within a broader Food System lens. Thanks for creating and sharing this survey, and I look forward to the results, and useful on-ground community action and more public growing spaces for all ages, abilities and identities.
National Pandemic Gardening Survey Respondent

Transition & Recovery Webinar Series

Pandemic Gardening: "A Wish for Tomorrow." Findings from the National Survey.

In Sustain's upcoming webinar, we are excited to present our findings from the recently-completed Pandemic Gardening Survey. The national survey was conducted in the hopes of understanding how COVID-19 and its restrictions have impacted people's attitudes and actions towards growing their own food.

With generous responses from over 9,000 Australians, the results will now be put toward advocating government and the philanthropic sector for greater resourcing and support for edible food growing, as well as elevating the prominence of urban agriculture in Australia.

Join us to learn more about what the future of edible food growing could look like.

Get your tickets here

About The Authors

Ana Spataru is a PhD student at Deakin University focused on developing a framework for engaging both farmers and policy-makers to redefine the value of peri-urban agriculture. Ana has a background in environmental engineering and a masters in environmental science from Ghent University, Belgium. She is passionate about working in the space of localised food systems in peri-urban areas and contribute to research, initiatives and events that address the future of peri-urban agriculture.

Regarding her work on the National Pandemic Gardening Survey, she says, "It gives me hope that many people find food production to be a connection to the land and higher aspirations about sustainability and prosperity. This validates other assumptions I held, that agriculture can be valued beyond simple free-market logic, and gardening might as well be the activity that will make more people engage with local food production."

Pooja Mallya is a permaculture enthusiast with an academic foundation in architecture, building services and illumination design. Her experience covers spatial, way-finding and perceptual aspects of lighting design, having worked on projects across the globe since 2002 with multi-disciplinary teams. She is currently studying the Australian landscape through case studies and user research in areas of permaculture, urban horticulture, edible landscapes, spatial design and housing property development design for communities; to potentially take on PhD studies.