A new literature review led by Jonathan Kingsley and 25 other authors from 10 countries provides evidence that gardening activities increased significantly worldwide as a way for people to cope with lockdowns and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Published in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, this review brought together an international team to explore how gardening helped address food insecurity, supported mental health, and enabled social connections during a time of isolation.
While compiled during the pandemic, the research remains relevant for future crises and disruptions, given that gardening has historically increased during times of upheaval as an accessible coping mechanism. The authors suggest their findings demonstrate how gardening could be better integrated into urban planning, public health policies, and education systems to make the benefits more equitable, even without another pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic that started in early 2020 led to lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and disruptions worldwide. With many services closed, supply chains interrupted, and people confined to their homes, daily life was upended for a significant portion of the global population. This led to increased stress, anxiety, and worries about food access. However, lockdowns also meant people spent more time at home with additional time for non-work activities.
The authors explain that “during economic, environmental, public health, and political crises, gardening becomes an important activity to alleviate the challenges that come with abrupt and disruptive change.” They point to examples of how gardening surged during the World Wars, the Great Depression, the 1970s recession, and other tumultuous events as both a grassroots and governmental response. As the paper states, “Myriad examples draw attention to gardening as both a top-down and grassroots response to the devastations of war or natural disasters and as a defiant expression of hope, empowerment, and resilience in the face of adversity.” Much research shows gardening can provide food security, mental health benefits, and social connections during difficult times.
To explore pandemic gardening, the authors conducted a narrative review of existing academic studies and grey literature, like government reports, on this topic published between March 2020 and August 2022. The studies were drawn from different countries and contexts, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Europe.
From these sources, the authors identified three key themes:
- Food security – How gardening helped address disruptions in food systems and anxieties about food access during the pandemic.
- Health benefits – The ways gardening supported mental health for many during lockdowns.
- Social connections – How gardening enabled social interactions despite isolation.
The review also highlighted differences in gardening experiences based on location, socioeconomic status, and access to gardening spaces.
Kingsley and colleagues found that gardening took on increased importance for food security as the pandemic disrupted food systems worldwide. As the authors write, “an increase in worldwide hunger and concerns about food security on a global scale” led many to turn to gardening to “mitigate the impacts of the crisis.” Examples from Canada, Sri Lanka, the UK and other locations showed people expanding local food production in response to supermarket shortages and supply chain issues.
The paper states that “with food security under threat, many turned to their gardens or gardening to mitigate the impacts of the crisis and associated inequalities as has been the case in many crises that preceded the pandemic.” Urban food growers, in particular, increased local yields to address food access issues in their communities.
The review also found extensive evidence that gardening provided mental health benefits as people faced lockdown restrictions and pandemic anxieties. Studies showed gardening became “more valuable for individuals than in pre-pandemic times because it reduced or moderated mental distress.” Other research found gardening “enhanced mental resilience”, leading to “decreased stress and improving mood and mental health.”
As the authors summarise, “Some scholars described how the garden became a refuge for people from the physical and mental challenges of the pandemic.” Specific benefits included reduced anxiety, stress relief, and improved emotional well-being from gardening. The paper states gardening practices emerged as “a largely self-organized psychosocial intervention within the broader context of an existential crisis.
Despite physical distancing requirements in many areas, studies showed that gardening enabled social interactions to persist during lockdowns. The literature revealed gardeners benefited from exchanging skills, seeds, conversations, and other interactions in COVID-safe ways. As the paper summarises, “Many gardeners preferred or missed the direct interaction with gardening companions and fellow gardeners. However, gardeners connected socially with others through more flexible or informal methods of interaction according to their pandemic situation.”
Some examples included gardeners shifting conversations online or planting in their front yards to engage safely with neighbours. The authors write, “Some studies report that gardeners began gardening in their front yard as a means of cultivating social connection with neighbors.” Overall, gardening provided opportunities for community building and reducing isolation even within pandemic constraints.
Despite physical distancing requirements in many areas during the pandemic, the literature review found that gardening still enabled social interactions to persist during lockdowns. Studies showed gardeners benefited from exchanging skills, seeds, conversations, and other interactions, just in COVID-safe ways. For example, some gardeners shifted conversations online or planted in their front yards to engage safely with neighbours. Many gardeners adapted how they interacted socially while gardening based on pandemic circumstances in their area. Overall, the review found that gardening provided opportunities for community building and reducing isolation even within pandemic constraints.
One vignette in the paper looks specifically at an online international survey of pandemic gardening conducted from June to August 2020. This survey of over 3,700 participants from countries like the US, Germany and Australia helps illustrate how the key themes played out across different cultural contexts.
For food security, the international data showed some gardeners took on food cultivation with more urgency in response to supply chain disruptions and income loss. Regarding health, participants emphasised gardening as reducing anxiety, empowering them, and enhancing mental health during lockdown restrictions. Socially, international gardeners described gardening as enabling intergenerational connections and leading to more engaged, equitable communities.
While not a universal experience, this global snapshot aligns with the overall themes that gardening provided food security, health benefits, and social connections during an extremely challenging time.
The authors argue the evidence from this review demonstrates gardening could be embedded more fully into urban planning, public health policies, and education systems. Doing so could make the benefits of gardening more equitable and available to all.
Specific recommendations include:
- Incorporating gardening into public health interventions.
- Improving housing policies to allow gardening spaces for renters.
- Ensuring marginalised populations can access community gardens.
The research also shows gardening should be part of resilience planning for future crises. Finally, increased training and resources for school and community gardens could spread gardening knowledge.
While not a cure-all, better integration of gardening into policies could promote it as a preventative health measure and sustainable coping mechanism for current and future generations.
The authors also highlight the need for more coordination across different jurisdictions to fully embed gardening into health policies. Gardening could be a preventative health measure, but currently policies are fragmented. The authors write that “targeted programs to support more equitable access to gardening as a public health measure would benefit from a stronger and more explicit strategic policy integration between urban planning, affordable housing, open space and food security initiatives.”
For gardening to reach its potential, aligned policies are needed across housing, urban planning, public health, and other sectors. This requires collaboration, given the complex interplay between gardening spaces, health outcomes, and socioeconomic factors. More coordinated efforts could lead to gardening programs with widespread and lasting community benefits.
Kingsley and colleagues provide robust evidence that gardening increased worldwide as an accessible way for people to cope with COVID-19 lockdowns and disruptions. The research demonstrates gardening helped address food security issues, provided mental health benefits, and enabled social connections during a time of isolation for many. While not a panacea, the study shows gardening could be better integrated into urban planning, public health policies, and education to make these documented benefits more equitable across societies. As the authors emphasize, gardening has historically offered a coping mechanism during diverse crises and upheavals. Their research reinforces gardening as a grassroots psychosocial intervention that, with the right policies, could promote resilience for current and future generations.
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Kingsley, J., Donati, K., Litt, J., Shimpo, N., Blythe, C., Vávra, J., Caputo, S., Milbourne, P., Diekmann, L.O., Rose, N., Fox-Kämper, R., van den Berg, A., Metson, G.S., Ossola, A., Feng, X., Astell-Burt, T., Baker, A., Lin, B.B., Egerer, M., Marsh, P., Pettitt, P., Scott, T.L., Alaimo, K., Neale, K., Glover, T. and Byrne, J. (2023) “Pandemic gardening: A narrative review, vignettes and implications for future research,” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 87(128062), p. 128062. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2023.128062.