By Sabrina Liguori
VERMONT — Misse Axelrod fills bags with soil, seeds, empty egg cartons and written instructions on how to plant and care for the seeds. She’s sending them to local schoolchildren for their annual spring gardening initiative, which they’re starting from their homes due to COVID-19. In mid-May, these homegrown seedlings will be transplanted into school gardens across central Vermont.
“Kids are just so excited to have something hands-on to do and to keep their connection of farm and food going,” Axelrod said. “The downside to that is we’re not reaching as many classes as we normally would, because putting together thousands of seed kits would be costly and difficult to get them to everybody.”
As co-founder of the Vermont Farm & Forest School in Roxbury, Axelrod works with students of all ages across 12 schools to connect classrooms, cafeterias and communities through gardening and annual harvests. There are more than 500 community-based gardens in Vermont, according to the Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN), a non-profit garden resource organization. While the Vermont Farm & Forest School is sending seed kits to students’ homes, other gardening groups are navigating the pandemic by postponing their planting seasons, implementing safety precautions and limiting the number of people allowed in gardens at once.
The VCGN created a list of precautionary measures to advise community gardens across the state. These include setting up handwashing stations, limiting the sharing of gardening tools, wearing gloves and more.
“Some of this is based on our own experiences working in these gardens and ideas that we know will work well,” Libby Weiland, the network’s Statewide Coordinator, said. “But a lot of it is based on collections of ideas from people from across the country [and] CDC guidelines.”
Some Vermonters depend on community gardens for food, Weiland said, so these precautions will help them continue sustaining their communities in a socially responsible way.
One garden that’s already put the VCGN guidelines into action is The Garden at 485 Elm in Montpelier. Run by Sheryl Rapée-Adams and her husband Chris, the garden has a unique collective model that involves aggregate collaboration rather than individual plots. Rapée-Adams formed a committee for health and safety to create protocols for her garden that supplement VCGN guidelines.
“We want everybody to follow [the] basic health and safety protocols we’ve instituted,” she said. “And at the same time, there’s some people who are going to want even more, and we’re asking everyone to respect those who take extra steps.”
The food harvested supports gardeners and their families, neighbors and other community members, Rapée-Adams said.
Some of Vermont’s gardens have yet to participate in the growing season. Many government-run community gardens are postponing their openings until Governor Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order is lifted on May 15. Nicholas Nadeau, the Director of Waterbury Parks and Recreation, is determined to keep the town’s gardens open despite closing its parks due to poor social distancing practices.
“I had to recommend to our select board in town that we keep the community gardens open,” he said. “Because it’s a little bit [of a] different dynamic… but we will have certain stipulations.”
These include limiting the number of people allowed in the gardens at once and posting signage to remind planters of social distancing. Vermont State Police will also be making rounds to ensure that social distancing rules are being followed, Nadeau said.
The Waterbury gardens typically open earlier in May, as do the community gardens in the town of Essex, which will also postpone their openings until the stay-at-home order ends.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where [gardening] is going to be deemed essential,” Nihad Basic, the Customer Service Specialist at Essex Junction Parks and Recreation (EJRP), said. “It’ll have to go by the stay-at-home order… so if that does change, it is very possible we could push the date back even further for the plot holders, which is a huge inconvenience.”
Though Basic doesn’t want to see the gardens open later than the 15th, he said that EJRP will take whatever measures necessary to keep the community safe and healthy.
For some, gardening and health come hand-in-hand. Joann Darling, herbalist and Apothecary Garden Manager at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, uses herbs to bolster her immune system.
“There are some awesome herbs out there,” she said. “I’m actually taking them every day. They’re more of a preventative [measure] to maintain your lung [health]. Pleurisy root and elecampane – both of them will loosen up anything in your lungs and keep it out.”
Darling said that maintaining immune-health is important at a time when disease is easily spread, particularly for people with underlying conditions. Like many other goods, herbs have been flying off the shelves amid the pandemic, so there’s value in being able to grow them yourself, she said.
Seed varieties are also quickly selling out and increasingly difficult to come by, according to gardeners. “It’s definitely been harder to get seeds,” Cate Beebe, a home gardener living in Burlington, said. “Many seed companies are currently only selling to farmers.”
Despite dealing with a seed shortage, Beebe and other gardeners in Vermont have already begun planting this spring. Sally Burrell, a member of the Bristol Community Garden, said she’s managed to get a head start on the season even though the weather has been cold. “I’ve been to the garden a handful of times to apply compost, start early carrot seeds and water them,” she said.
Burrell describes the Bristol gardeners as a casual, friendly group whose members are respecting each other’s space in accordance with COVID-19 precautions. The Duxbury Community Garden, which usually prides itself on being open to everyone, is limiting the garden to members only in order to keep its plot holders safe, according to Garden Manager Jeanne Atchinson.
“Contracting this disease could be fatal,” Atchinson said. “Unfortunately, that means more rules, which is generally against the nature of most of us.” She mentioned that a few of the Duxbury gardeners are in the high-risk category, so limiting the garden’s coronavirus exposure risk is imperative.
Vermont’s vast community of gardeners has adapted to restrictions brought on by the pandemic in various ways. “The great thing about Vermont is that we’re just such a caring state,” Winooski’s Parks and Recreation Manager, Alicia Finley, said. “And there’s definitely silver linings that have occurred because of COVID – more resources, people learning to be more flexible, [and] things are becoming more convenient and accessible for everybody.”