My personal experience of the Covid-19 pandemic would have been largely unremarkable; had it not been for my garden.
Like many people, I lost my income; my husband lost his income too. As a self-employed couple in the events and tourism industry we spent three months waiting for financial aid, wondering how on Earth we would get by with two children aged 2 and under, but finding help and generosity in loyal friends and customers that watched weekend ‘living room gigs’ on Facebook Live.
We discovered a new role for ourselves as ‘quiz masters’, seeking donations from spectators and players who felt inclined to help out a little, and once my husband had made an album of songs in record-quick time, we turned our dining table into a production line of homemade CDs, using our once-weekly grocery shopping trips to stop by the Post Office to send off the next batch of orders.
Like many, we worked out how to soothe toddler tantrums without the usual distracting activities and breaks from the home; I continued to attend regular medical appointments to treat chronic illnesses, getting to know the sanitation drill like the back of my thoroughly scrubbed hand; and we celebrated our son’s first birthday at home, with all the party props in place but none of the guests.
We even got sick in the beginning; really sick – all four of us at once. No outside help and no round-trips to family members’ houses – we buckled down, and somehow parented sick children between shivers, sweats, coughs and god knows what.
Our neighbours from two-doors down – both in their 80s – posted us information on local delivery services for self-isolating families.
I barely remember how we managed during those two-weeks immediately preceding lockdown, but I know at the time we greatly suspected it to be Covid-19 and I cried a lot for my children. Of course, we weren’t tested.
Blowing on the breeze
Prior to that, back when the seeds of a hidden virus had first taken root, lockdown only applied to a now notorious place called Wuhan. At that time I attended a meeting at the House of Lords to call for an international agreement to see the end of the illegal wildlife trade.
In the Westminster setting I spoke at length to my conservation peers about what the encroaching Covid-19 virus might mean for Britain, as it prepared to permeate our society — and how that might influence the illegal sale of endangered animals and animal parts. As was the order of the day.
As I reported at the time, we discussed the possible source of the virus – the much-trafficked pangolins – and the fact that coronavirus’ economic disruption might rally politicians to act upon our calls for this agreement. Little did we imagine the full scale of the impact we were about to feel.
“Coronavirus could be the tipping point in meeting the next biodiversity targets”, Mark Jones, Head of Policy at Born Free explained. It’s an optimism I’m still holding on to.
I suspect it was spending an afternoon in London following that very meeting that I contracted the virus that I took home with me to wreak havoc on our family life for a fortnight.
Unremarkably, within the four walls of our home we quietly recovered and cautiously caught-up with the ‘new normal’ that had swept across the country while we were out of action. Every single one of my first ever freelance contracts toppled like dominoes – months of planning and building the confidence to strike out alone at the end of 2019 amounted to crosses in the diary and more scratching my head at how we would cover the bills.
Like many people, we adapted. Between the weekly ‘Clap for Keyworkers’ and new regular frontlawn picnics – during which my hyperactive 2 and half year-old would wave to nearly every passerby and run along the fence with the joggers and cyclists as they passed – we began to meet our neighbours.
So between my husband’s album recording sessions, and my time spent taking an online Conservation Careers course: back-up for the very real eventuality that my freelance career days are over before they have begun; I started to sow the seeds of an idea.
Sowing the seeds of hope
I put a sign up outside our gate and left a handful planting pots on the ground. I had this crazy idea that we could make a ‘neighbourhood lockdown garden’ outside the front of our house, as another way to keep my daughter busy and connect with our neighbours while we had to stay at home.
Over the next few days the planting pots vanished one by one as people collected them on their daily walks or exercise allowance.
Throughout April and into May the pots returned with flowers and seedlings inside. Additional pots arrived too, teeming with greenery; alongside garden tools; children’s gardening equipment; books and toys; heartwarming messages and letters; bird guides and gardening magazines; and an abundance of packets of seeds.
Strawberries, sunflowers, courgettes, radishes, a tomato plant, Geraniums, French Marigolds, Yellow Daisies, a Lily of the Valley shrub and a Buddleia bush — to name but a few.
Week after week we cleared ground, planted and nurtured seeds, watered seedlings and hung signs of thanks and positivity on our fence posts.
Life is change. Growth is optional.
We dreamed of brighter, busier days as we sowed countless seeds for pollinators and butterflies, hoping to see a diverse mix of species filling the small new world we now found ourselves inhabiting. With binoculars and a bugs list as our guide, we checked our progress and learnt that happy new habitats can form in the most unlikely of places.
Stepping outside every day to make the next move on our garden project gave my daughter the chance to ask endless questions about plants and gardening (most of which I’ve had to Google the answers to; or ring my mum!).
Clearing the space to make flower beds led to intriguing finds and even more interesting conversations with my daughter – bones, birds’ eggs and a rusty old can with a couple of slugs and a multitude of slug eggs inside have raised the most interesting queries so far.
We’ve become accustomed to some of our more charismatic garden wildlife too; from squirrels to wood pigeons, mice to hedgehogs and bumble bees to the mighty may bug. We’ve even made a hedgehog hole for the little garden visitors.
No rain, no flowers
Realising the sense of community where I live made the world feel a little bigger and brighter during the hardest days of lockdown.
Every single person that’s walked past our house while we’ve been gardening with the children has spoken to us: giving us tips and advice on what to plant and where; checking in with how the children are getting on, and how us adults have been coping — asking how the seeds are growing; whether the plants they dropped off have been flowering .
I know it will be a while until life fully returns to normal, but as the country starts gradually re-opening, I’m pleased that we have made something beautiful in this time that will keep growing and giving .
This time next year, I plan to take cuttings of my own and hand them out to all the neighbours who’ve made life so much better during this time — so that they can take something different back to their own gardens, too. Passing on something positive instead.
Although we’ve lost a lot during lockdown, we’ve gained a supportive community and a mini wildlife hub.
When life gives you lemons, plant a lemon tree.