Sometime in late March, while others were baking their first loaves of sourdough, raiding supermarket shelves for yeast, and exploring the possibilities of beans, I had another thought: Should the world continue to be such a grim place, it might be nice to have some herbs. Actually, the idea to order seeds came from a friend, who’d built a raised bed in her Ridgewood backyard. As I started shopping for my own mint varieties and obscure chilies, I realized I wasn’t alone: There is a seed rush going on.
“For March, we were 300 percent over what we did last year,” says Hudson Valley Seed Company’s Jack Whettam.“There’ve been days where we’ve done five times what we did on Black Friday. It’s been like that every day.”
Every seed company I checked had shipping delays and shortages. Soon, my panic eating transitioned into panic shopping. It didn’t matter that I’d need to find a place to plant all this stuff on a single balcony in Bushwick, I definitely needed an entire herb garden, including two kinds of mint, and why not dandelion greens? How about onions? I could use some New Mexican chilies, and also a Peruvian pepper while we’re at it. Also, three varieties of tomatoes. (Just regenerating scallions and other vegetable scraps didn’t — no offense — feel like enough.)
My own seeds took nearly a month to arrive, and once they did, I planted as many as I felt was reasonable. Then I planted a few more, thinking about making Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with my crop, and snipping off herbs as needed for noodle soup and salsas.
The people buying the seeds — whether they’re first-time home gardeners or seasoned vets of the grow-your-own game — cited a number of factors for their own seed binges: wanting to nurture something during a time of isolation or to simply fill the void presented by a sudden surplus of time. Others were more concerned about food resilience.
“Now that we’re in this situation, and I’m seeing the food-security issues, it’s more of a protection measure for myself,” says Nia-Raquelle Smith, a food history and culture researcher. As a kid, she gardened with her grandmother during the summers in Richmond, Virginia, before starting her own garden in her Brooklyn neighborhood four years ago. “I’m getting the nutrients I need, but also giving someone else access to food they need because it’s scarce. I can share what I grow with other people in my community if they need it.”
For the Racines chef Diego Moya, gardening was a similar return to a lost skill. Moya had worked on farms before cooking, but hadn’t gardened in years. “I never really had the time,” he admits. Now, he’s got some 25 to 30 plants growing, both in his apartment and on the roof of his Upper East Side building, and has been doling out advice to friends and fellow cooks. Moya recently Instagrammed what can only be described as the quarantine singularity: homemade bread surrounded by several young plants and a bowl of cucumbers destined for pickling.
Hashtags like #quarantinegarden are bountiful on Instagram, and you’ll find plenty of new gardeners in the mix. Social media is filled with images of garden beds in Seattle, kitchen herbs in New York, seedlings in San Francisco, and in-depth analysis of UV-light setups. “I would never normally have the time off work to be able to (a) drill and hang all of these things, and then to (b) plant them,” says Billy McGee, a Philadelphia resident and the finance director for the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee.
Growing a handful of plants, even if what you get to eat from them is relatively meager, can feel like a balm during a time when we’re all stuck indoors and hearing constantly about death and economic collapse.
“I posted a photo of my chives growing the day after I found out my friend died of COVID-19 in Brooklyn, and I thought, What is the point of any of this?” says Soleil Ho, the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic. “But at the same time, to see something persistently alive, despite the fact that I probably abused the fuck out of these seeds, it’s something that just wants to live, and to me that was really touching.” (Along with chives, she’s growing fennel, shiso, parsley, and Thai hot peppers “because you always need those.”)
Others talk about this joy of watching something grow as well. Bon Appétit research director Joseph Hernandez keeps houseplants and volunteers at a nearby community garden in Bed-Stuy, but past efforts at growing vegetables and kitchen herbs didn’t pan out. After his landlord offered outdoor space to Hernandez and his husband, though, he set up a container garden. Food access isn’t an issue for him, so he’s not worried about how successful he is: “Just letting that go felt really good right now. I didn’t have to fret, and that felt like a small little victory.”
Even those who’ve gardened before say it’s taken on added meaning. Photographer Brad Ogbonna grew plants like kale, rosemary, and cucumbers for the first time last year, and planned to expand his crop this year. “Now that I’m not running to the bodega for all kinds of little things, it’s nice to be able to set enough where I’ll be able to just go to my backyard in a more functional way,” he says. He’s added some new plants to his roster, including cauliflower, zucchini, escarole, and more varieties of herbs. “My family is Nigerian, and where we come from is a very rural area, and we just had to grow our own crops out of necessity,” he says. “To be able to toss some kale into certain dishes we make back home, that feels like a full-circle moment.”
Ho describes something similar: “When you are an immigrant or refugee or not of the majority, you are already used to the idea that the grocery store won’t have what you need,” says Ho, whose grandparents lived in Illinois and grew herbs like Asian mint and rau rom. “Which is a new thing for a lot of people right now. It’s just part of what we do.”
Writer and illustrator Alex Testere started gardening after he moved to New York in 2011, figuring out what plants to grow and how to better maximize small spaces like fire escapes. For the first time this year, after visiting his partner’s family friends, he was motivated to build a trellis to grow beans himself. “Everything else was secondary to the fact that I wanted to grow these beans,” he says, laughing. But there’s also the added value of the garden bringing back some order into his life. “Feeling stuck and stagnant, you just can’t go anywhere; you feel tremendous loss of control,” Testere explains. “I think the thing I’ve always found with a plant is you can take care of it and watch it transform, and maybe it becomes something you can even eat — that’s just such a powerful force of positivity in a time when that’s hard to find.”
Blake MacKay, a publicist, has wanted to garden since moving up to Greene County, New York, and has finally gotten around to it this year. Gardening is helping with quarantine, even if she’s not the one handling the soil, but it’s also helping her with having a child during quarantine. “Not to go hard as the parallel, but being halfway through my pregnancy there’s definitely something to tending, growing, and developing life that helps a little bit in a moment like this,” she says.
My own garden feels like a way to eat better while also shopping less frequently, and to be less wasteful. I also thought of it as a way to ensure that I’d have things I might not be able to find at stores near me, herbs like Thai basil and chilies that weren’t just the standard-issue grocery-store varieties.
When I began to consider my own impulse to start gardening again, after several years, I wondered if the urge had to do with my maternal grandmother. She lived through the Dust Bowl in Nebraska, when her family maintained a garden, which meant they always had a little to eat. It separated her, my mom always tells me, from my grandfather’s even poorer family. My grandmother kept gardening her whole life, up until only a few years ago. By then, she was no longer doing it for food-security reasons, something we never talked about. We would sometimes garden together; when I confessed to her as a young kid raised on supermarket beefsteaks that I didn’t like raw tomatoes, she had us grow them together.
My gardening right now isn’t going to sustain me. Instead, it lets me focus on something that’s growing but isn’t optimized for efficiency. As Ho says, it doesn’t matter if she “gets something out of this,” the real benefit is that “it’s a thing that feels nonproductive.” Work can feel constant; these plants allow me to tune out the world for a few minutes, and also make better pesto. It’s hard to overstate how nice that is.