Social gardening in the current conditions means personal safety needs to be at the forefront of every gardeners' mind. Gardening provides many benefits at the best of times, but during a pandemic, it becomes a lifeline of stability for many people. 

Learn more about why gardening is so important now more than ever and how to stay safe when sharing your gardening space and while preparing your produce. 

The Benefits of Gardening During a Pandemic

Fortunately, the government views nurseries and greenhouses as essential services, so as far as getting stock for your gardening needs, it's business as usual. However, veteran gardeners don't need government to tell them that gardening is essential for a healthy society.

Gardening has been central to getting people through many of the world's crises, including World Wars I and II, the Great Recession of 2008, the Cuban economic collapse, and the Great Depression of 1929 to 1938.

Gardening as a food source is just one tangible and substantial benefit, but the list of advantages goes much deeper than that. 

Mental Health Benefits of Gardening

The Journal of Health Psychology conducted a study relating gardening in the field to mental health. The research team randomly assigned thirty gardeners to outdoor gardening or indoor reading on their assigned plot. 

They then gathered data using self-reported mood states and measuring salivary cortisol levels. Both activities recorded a decrease in stress levels, but reductions were more significant with the gardeners. 

Experienced gardeners are already well aware of the stress-relieving benefits of connecting with nature. If you've been cooped up inside for the last few weeks and feel a bit stir crazy, the evidence suggests that there is no better excuse for getting outside in the sunshine and fresh air than doing a bit of gardening. 

Supplement Your Groceries

Financial stress is an inevitable outcome for many families during a pandemic, and everywhere you can save money will help the family budget. Gardens are an excellent way to shave money off of your food bill. 

Depending on how much room you have, it could be possible to supplement your groceries with quite a bit of fresh, organic produce. Homes that lack horizontal space don't have to miss out because you can always go up. 

A vertical garden that scales walls and fences can add some much-needed greenery and make productive use of otherwise neglected space. 

Now that you've tidied, re-organized, re-decorated, or worked through your video game backlog, it's time to get your garden growing. Fruits and vegetables you grow yourself will cost much less than their grocery store counterparts and will allow you to receive all the benefits of physical activity and sunshine. 

Gardening During a Pandemic Safety FAQ

Many new gardeners around Arizona will be wondering about the safety issues when sharing a gardening space with a neighbor or joining the community garden project. Use this list of commonly asked questions to protect yourself and those around you. 

Q: What safety precautions should I use when social gardening?

The usual safety distancing rules apply, which is maintaining a distance of 6 feet (1.5 meters). Community gardens are required to limit the number of people on the site at any one time using the prescribed guidelines. 

Sharing tools is a common practice in a community garden, and these should be thoroughly washed with soap and water and treated with disinfectant between uses. Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face. Of course, if you are feeling unwell, then you should stay at home. 

Q: How long can the virus live on surfaces such as tool handles and hoses?

Some studies have revealed that COVID-19 can survive on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours. It's very short lived on other surfaces like copper, but it can survive for around 24 hours on cardboard. This research were all conducted under laboratory conditions, so you should use soap and water to clean all surfaces after use. 

Q: Do I need to wear gloves while gardening?

You should wear gloves at all times while gardening, but they are not a substitute for disinfecting or good hygiene habits. They will protect your hands from cuts and bacteria in the soil, but the outside of your gloves can still harbor the coronavirus, so you should never share your gloves with other community gardeners. Make sure you wash your hands before and after using gloves.

Q: Can I breathe in the virus while I am working in a community garden?

There is a lot of research showing that the coronavirus can remain airborne as small particles. However, the chance of you coming into contact during this state is unlikely. The virus can also settle onto clothing, but this is also an unlikely scenario for catching the disease. 

Q: Can the virus live on harvested vegetables?

It's relatively easy to sanitize tools and the cartons for storing produce, but fruits and vegetables are another matter. Fortunately, the FDA guidelines already in place are sufficient enough safeguards to make spreading the coronavirus through harvested produce extremely unlikely. Just be sure to follow all other COVID-19 safety guidelines while operating in the garden.

Q: What do I need to do to store produce from a community garden safely?

Wash and disinfect the surfaces where you will be preparing the produce.  Wash vegetables like zucchini, lettuce, and cucumbers with cold, running tap water. Be sure to dry them thoroughly before storage to prevent mold growth and spoilage. 

Scrub firm skinned produce like potatoes and other root crops with a soft brush to remove dirt. Don't use a hard-bristled brush, as you could transfer bacteria and other viruses to the soft interior. Berries don't need preparation, but you should wash them with cold running water before eating. 

Q: How do I prepare my countertops?

You can use plain soap and water to clean the bench and finish off with a commercial detergent. Some people use a mix of 1/3-cup of bleach added to a gallon of water to soak the area for one minute before thoroughly drying it off. Make sure you always wear gloves and eye protection when working with bleach or commercial cleaning products.

Q: Can I use bleach to clean produce?

There is no reason to use bleach to disinfect your fruits and vegetables. Clean, running tap water is enough. 

Q: How do I safely store fruits and vegetables during the pandemic?

The process for storing produce from your garden is no different from how you usually do it to ensure freshness. Place greens like lettuce in plastic bags or lidded containers. Keep all garden produce away from meats to avoid cross-contamination and set your refrigerator to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Vegetables like onions and potatoes don't need refrigeration but do need a cool, dry place. 

Q: Can I catch the coronavirus from composting?

So far, there is no evidence to suggest that handling food scraps can transmit the disease, so it's improbable. However, to be safe, you should stick with using gloves if you are processing compost in a community garden environment. A well-maintained compost pile will have an internal temperature sufficient to destroy any disease present, including COVID-19.

Advice for New Gardeners

With the COVID-19 pandemic inspiring people to take up gardening, many new gardeners will need help, education, and resources. Practicing safe social distancing can make it difficult to obtain expert advice, but it's not impossible. 

Learning Gardening During a Pandemic

During a pandemic, social media can be useful for learning new skills. Novice gardeners can gain access to experts with years of experience by joining a Facebook group. 

Join up and participate, and don't be afraid to ask lots of questions. Members of online gardening groups are there for that very reason - to teach, inspire, and spread their love of gardening. 

Expert gardeners also emphasize the value of starting small. Developing a large plot when you don't have much experience can be overwhelming, even if you have done substantial research.

If you start with a small garden and have some success, you will be more inclined to expand and stick with it over the long-term. You always hear about people with a supposed green thumb or a natural talent for gardening. The fact of the matter remains that green thumbs aren't born; they are made with education, experience, and practice doing what they enjoy every day. 

Get to know your soil. In Arizona, most locations have poor soil with lots of minerals but lacking in nutrients. Fortunately, it's nothing you can't fix with compost or a few bags of garden mix from your local nursery. 

Another great piece of advice that seems logical but is often ignored is to grow only what you will eat. Attractive images on seed packets can sway new gardeners into growing what they don't need, so plan your garden around the food you put on the table every week and avoid the waste. 

If the pandemic has been cramping your style, and you are looking for an excuse to get outside, why not give gardening a try? You will benefit from the exercise, sunshine, and companionship in the case of a community garden (while staying safe, of course). Gardening is a great way to relieve stress and improve your mental health, but it can also save money when you grow the food you can eat.