• Penny Neef

Back to the Soil in the Time of Covid

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Penny Neef (and her daughters).



What is it about a pandemic that makes you want to dig in the dirt, plant some seeds, and eat things that are grown in your own backyard?


The not-going-to-the-grocery-store-because-there-are-germs-everywhere is part of it. The excessive amount of time you suddenly have at home helps. There is a feeling that maybe you should learn to live off the land, just in case. The satisfaction, and taste, of a perfectly ripe tomato is a big bonus.


I have always gardened in one form or another. I come from gardeners and farmers. I’ve had a huge vegetable garden, shared with a neighbor. I’ve had a hillside of day lilies that the deer and I fought over. I’ve had one patio tomato in a pot.

These days, I am content with the perennials that the deer won’t eat, like daisies, hydrangeas, and iris. I’m still fighting with the deer over the roses, asters, and hosta. I have two, raised-bed vegetable gardens where I grow spinach and lettuce in the early spring and tomato, peppers and eggplant in the summer.

I have two daughters who have never had much of an interest in gardening. The appeal of digging in the dirt in the spring was lost on them. Maybe I should have gotten them more involved, but the garden was often my escape. I relished the time alone.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic, and guess which two smart, capable daughters are growing things? To be fair, my daughter, the doctor, started her first garden last year, when she finally had a house with enough land (3 acres) to grow a proper garden. This year, even though she is still hard at work at the hospital, she has expanded both her vegetable and flower gardens. She has discovered that she likes digging in the dirt. She is far away, in Michigan, but she Facetimes me regularly with questions about flowers, vegetables, soil and garden maintenance. I wish I was there to dig in the dirt with her. Maybe someday.

My other daughter, the lawyer, suddenly found herself working from home in mid-March. Before I could even offer my advice, she had ordered two raised beds from Amazon, filled them with good dirt, and planted tomatoes and corn. I strongly advised against the corn. I’ve tried growing corn many times without much success, but you should see her corn. It was way higher than an elephant’s eye by the 4th of July. It looks like she’s going to have a good crop. She’s already harvesting some beautiful tomatoes.


Why this sudden interest? My daughter, the lawyer, says being at home gave her a chance to track the sun in her (mostly) shady yard and finally figure out where she could put a garden. She says “My garden makes me feel like a ‘40s housewife doing my part at home while the men go off to war. Tomatoes for victory!” Note – her husband is also working from home during this time. I think she’s excited that she has proved me wrong, because her corn is thriving. It’s corn for popping, not eating. She can’t wait to pop her own corn.

My daughter, the doctor, says she is more than happy to share the household chores like cooking and cleaning with her family. “Gardening surprised me because it doesn’t feel like a chore. I can get outside, get my hands in the soil, learn, and create something new. It lets my hands be productive while my mind becomes quieter. There is literally nothing that tastes better than home grown tomatoes and basil with fresh goat cheese from the farm down the road.”


My friend, the author, Desiree Cooper has always gardened, but this year she “dove deep” into the soil in her backyard. Desiree is isolated at home, taking care of her elderly parents who both have Alzheimer’s. “Leaving the house is not only inconvenient for me, it’s now dangerous.”


She “wondered about the food supply chain and how much disruption we might experience in our everyday lives.” Her garden has provided food, joy and hope. “I can’t tell you how amazing the smell of herbs can be. The aromatherapy fills my lungs and my soul. I’m growing lemon balm, lavender, rosemary, basil, sage, and cilantro. Sometimes, I cut off sprigs and put them in my face mask when I take a walk.”


“I’ve also planted a little patch of hope. I planted watermelons. I have a vision of this being over soon so that my grandchildren can come over and pick them when they’re ripe.”


Use some of your extra time these days to read Desiree’s stunning book of flash fiction, Know the Mother. It is a book of short stories about being a mother, a wife, a sister, and a black woman, that will touch your soul.

If you’ve decided now is the time to sow those seeds and you have no idea how to start, your friendly neighborhood cooperative extension agent is here (virtually) to help. Mike Andruczyk, VCE-Horticulture Agent for Chesapeake, used to do many in-person presentations about gardening. Now he is answering questions on the phone and via email. His office has implemented a virtual Help Desk, manned by Master Gardeners.

Andruczyk’s number one tip for beginners? “Plant a small number of plants but give them enough room. If you plant too much, oftentimes the weeds and watering gets overwhelming and/or you plant too close and the plants are unproductive. Less is more!”


He continues, “There are no Green or Brown Thumbs, only Thumbs that are more or less experienced, committed or willing to try new things. Talk to neighbors, relatives, or call us for help. There are lots of gardeners out there that love to share their successes and failures.”


Click here to find your local Virginia Cooperative Extension for help with your garden, your lawn, your trees or your grass. 

This is a great time to garden, to learn how to garden, or to expand your gardening skills. Gardening is something good that can come from something bad.


“When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.” – Minnie Aumonier

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