The Quarantine Garden

Naomi Milthorpe, ed., The Poetics and Politics of Gardening in Hard Times (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019)

“What does it mean to garden in hard times and why might humans turn to the garden (as shelter, refuge, or productive space) under straitened conditions?” The essays in The Poetics and Politics of Gardening in Hard Times respond to this question by taking up different perspectives, both human and nonhuman, from within gardens of the twentieth and twenty-first century Anglophone world. Although the collection was published in 2019, its capacious thinking about austerity seemed to urge me to draw connections between the essays’ gardens and my own, and the hard time we are living through now as the world reels from the effects of COVID-19 and extended quarantining measures.

Many of the essays take the Dig for Victory campaign as the epitome of gardening in a hard time. Initiated by the English Ministry of Agriculture during World War II (a similar program existed in the United States), the campaign encouraged citizens across the nation to transform fallow yards and allotments into vegetable gardens (also called “victory gardens”) to offset rationing. Pamphlets and leaflets educated citizens on gardening techniques, and posters framed the garden as a space of nationalistic contribution to the war effort. But even without government sponsored campaigns, hard times do seem to turn people into gardeners. Naomi Milthorpe mentions in her introduction to the collection that the global financial crisis of 2008 precipitated an increased demand for DIY products in the following decade. And in March 2020 the Burpee seed company sold more than in any other month in its 144-year history.

One reason that people turn to gardening is for supplemental production of food. Due to global supply chain interruptions, delayed planting, and stockpiling, we are witnessing rationing measures in grocery stores for the first time in my lifetime. It is becoming clear that as millions of people remain unemployed for the duration of quarantine measures and potentially long beyond them, many families will face an extended period of austerity. Andrew and Carol Oldham’s contribution to the volume recounts their own attempts at transforming a quarter-acre garden into a sustainable food supply after job losses related to British austerity measures in 2012. Through their descriptions of both failed and successful efforts at efficient food production the garden becomes a “dynamic democratic space of self-sacrifice and toil”—a space where labor and time can, with some knowledge and luck, be transformed into life-sustaining value.

Victory Garden poster by Morley for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Reproduction by Wikimedia.

Of course, gardening requires more than just grit and determination. The gardener needs money, land, and, above all, time. Rebecca Nagel’s essay describes how, during World War II, Vita Sackville-West often promoted methods for the austere garden that saved money, but required enormous amounts of time and attention, such as growing bulbs from seeds (which takes three years). Nagel notes the time required for Sackville-West’s garden-hacks “is only cheap if one is rich enough to have no need for paid employment; conversely, time is cheap if one is too poor to have any opportunity for employment.” During a time when our labor is classed as “essential” or “non-essential,” many people must now weigh financial straits against a newly (and often unwillingly) acquired surfeit of time. The garden is a space in which one is easily exchanged for the other. In my own garden, where the Wisconsin growing season is short and the gardener exceedingly impatient, I have often traded money for time, sometimes opting to grow from plants rather than seed, and buying a quick-release fertilizer when my compost wasn’t quite composting quickly enough. As the collision between time and labor reminds us, gardening is both an environmental and economic proposition. Gardens are subject to the whims of landlords and uncertain job markets as well as changes in weather.

While acknowledging the real costs of a quarantine garden, there is a sense in which working in one’s garden, rather than for one’s wage, can be liberating. Judy Kendall contributes an essay on the transformation of her poetic practice while taking several gardening residencies during research leave from her university position. She writes about how gardening differs from the constraints of her neoliberal work week: “spending more time in the completion of everyday tasks, greater continuity in my physical environment, no formal work structure, few connections with authority or public opinion, and no expectation that I would garden meant that the borders were opened. I had to set the pattern for my days.” In quarantine, where the boundary between our work lives and personal lives become unclear, and the future of our work lives uncertain, the garden becomes a space to reclaim hours that cannot be held to account.

Rows of plants in a quarantine garden in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The author’s quarantine garden in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Photo by Andres Hernandez, May 2020.

In fact, at current food prices, food production likely comes second for many inexperienced growers in the U.S. (including myself) to the desire of getting out of the house and having something to do with those hours. And Milthorpe’s collection does not deny the less practical and more personal aspects of gardening during a hard time. The garden, after all, has been historically figured as a utopian site (Elysium, Eden, the Garden of the Gods, for example) where the gardener is able to construct a perfected, fertile space with little toil that both sustains them and envelops them in an aesthetically beautiful cocoon. But these utopic gardens are imagined, unattainable worlds projected into the future—the temporality of gardening is always “anticipatory,” as Milthorpe notes. The idealized quarantine garden, then, is a space from which to imagine a future in which human design can recapture control of runaway biology.

Pea plants in a quaratine garden

A pea plant begins its climb. Photo by Andres Hernandez, May 2020.

But while gardening is often figured as an escape from the everyday, there are few things that are so engrossed in the quotidian: the seasonal and daily rhythms of the sun, shifts in the weather, and the activities of birds and insects, which are vital for the health of the garden. While media outlets inundate us with visualizations of the COVID-19 virus sweeping across the globe with awe-inspiring speed, the garden, as Milthorpe notes, “can look and feel leisurely, intimate, and miniature. Its cares diminished in the face of greater passions and problems.”

This tension between the garden as a place of labor and of pleasure is taken up in Milthorpe’s essay on Beverley Nichols’s queer gardening practice as he records it in his fictionalized autobiographical gardening book Merry Hall. While others around him tear out flower beds to plant victory gardens, Nichols fashions an “anti-austerity” garden, replacing his productive kitchen garden with flowers. Merry Hall, in Milthorpe’s reading, produces a tension between the garden as mobilized by the state and the garden as a “pre-austerity paradise of pleasure, play, and visual consumption” in which individual subjecthood becomes written on the soil as an aesthetic, rather than economic, product.

Poster by James Montgomery for the U.S. government. Reproduction from Wikimedia.

But the idea of the garden as a socially-distanced enclosure for the individual remains illusory. In truth, gardens are liminal space—both an extension of the privacy of the home and a threshold to the economic, political, and social communities outside of it. As spaces of production and consumption, gardens are economic zones where we invest both time and money. As the Dig for Victory campaign shows, they can also be spaces of nationhood, “motivated by a spirit of collective solidarity and utopian futurity.” And, as the Oldhams note, they can become nodes in a network of growers (made larger through social media avenues, such as the Oldhams’ blog) that engage in barter or gift economies to extend local growing seasons, and share knowledge about planting, growing, and preserving food that might otherwise be forgotten.

When we quarantine ourselves in the garden we might distance ourselves from physical human companionship, but we also become nearer to the nonhuman community living around us. These encounters might become combative as the gardener tries to wrest control over the nonhuman agents that influence the garden’s productivity (the squirrels, for example, that dig up my strawberry plants and plant last year’s walnuts from my neighbor’s tree in their stead). “Nature in the garden is not quite the same thing as nature in the wild,” as Milthorpe writes, “in the fact of their visible cultivation, gardens are (more often than wilderness) troped as human.” But ideally, the garden becomes a space of co-creation between human and non-human agents—the plants, weather, soil, and pollinators—that inhabit it.

Chive plants in a quarantine garden

A row of chives threatens to blossom. Photo by author, May 2020.

Yet the garden’s intersection between the human and nonhuman is often to the detriment to the nonhuman. Charles Ryan’s essay situates the rise of nettle—at once a poverty food, cotton substitute, and “noxious weed”—within the rise of agro-capitalism and the techno industrial boom. The use of chemical fertilizers in both gardens and intensive post-war farming increased levels of nitrogen in soil around the world, and the nitrophilic nettle benefitted. Of course, when gardeners turn to herbicide to undo the damage of fertilizers they initiate a vicious cycle that benefits primarily chemical companies—not the long-term health of the garden.

Jessica White’s essay on returning victory gardens to a more natural or “wild” state, reveals the hidden reality of the Dig for Victory campaign, namely that it had devastating effects on wildlife in England. “The natural world had indeed become a part of a war,” White writes, “not as a recruit as 1940s propaganda suggested, but as a casualty.” The Dig for Victory campaign uprooted tens of thousands of acres of forest, effectively exterminating the wildlife that lived there. However, White also sees hope for wildlife ecosystems in urban domestic gardens which contain 25 percent of the total non-forest trees in England and are home to a density of birds that is six times that of the nation as a whole. Bees inhabit gardens in England at a rate of between four and 52 times that of other urban land uses.

Although the garden seems like a utopic hideaway during a hard time, gardening is also a practice of intervention in our political, social, and natural worlds. The Poetics and Politics of Gardening in Hard Times frames the garden as a space of contradictions. It is a space of work and leisure, of private and communal investments, and of human and nonhuman life. The boom of the quarantine garden gives us an opportunity to think through globalized food systems, neoliberal ideas of productivity, and our collaboration with the more-than-human world. “What is needed in the Anthropocene,” as White writes, “is a balance between control and wildness, austerity and profligacy, estates and allotments.” In a time of extremes, can we find balance in our gardens?

Featured image: Center panel from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. Painting held by Museo del Prado. Reproduction from Wikimedia.

Anna Muenchrath was most recently the Mendota Postdoctoral Fellow in the English department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She studies the institutions that circulate twentieth and twenty-first century Anglophone literature, and she gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Twitter. Contact.