By JOSE GERMAN
For Montclair Local
Jose German is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.
High summer is here! Gardens are full of color despite the scarcity of rain, and the first monarch butterflies are floating gracefully through town.
But this summer feels different. In the summer’s heat, a social uprising and a frightening pandemic are causing us to rethink our actions in search of better ways to deal with these challenging times.
With COVID-19 a continuing threat, preserving our lives and the lives of our loved ones is a constant concern, but we are also called upon to care about the most vulnerable. In such stressful times, preserving our mental and physical health must be a top priority.
People have always seen their homes as their castles. However, in these times of isolation and social distancing, a home can be a refuge for contact with nature, with gardening and other outdoor activities serving as an effective therapy to keep us both physically and mentally strong. Gardening is a proven way to reduce stress and depression. Appreciating the colors and fragrances of flowers is calming, while watching the activities of birds, insects and other wildlife is not only fun but a soothing distraction from the constant barrage of often disturbing news. Using your yard as a primary source for vegetables is rewarding in itself, enhancing both physical health and mental well-being.
Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, summed it up well, saying, “The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.”
Put your hands in the dirt, and feel its healing effects. Plant and tend a garden and you will experience the pride of growing your own food. Discover nature in the micro-universe of your yard. Watch and learn the interconnections of wildlife. Pay attention to your flowering bushes and get close to watch the diversity of pollinators on a single plant. Install a birdbath and bird feeder, and you will see an immediate surge in winged visitors.
As social distancing continues, maximize the use of your yard. Have breakfast, lunch and dinner outside. Put out a table and tablecloth and experience the new way of “eating out.” Don’t forget the candles! It is, of course, BYOB.
With gyms still closed, your yard or local park can be your workout space. Do your exercise routine early in the morning before the heat of the day makes things difficult.
Grab a book and make a shady area of the yard your open reading room this summer. Enjoy the sound of the birds and be prepared to stop reading and switch to bird watching.
If you are part of the urban farming movement, this is the perfect time to harvest and enjoy the crops that you planted in spring. By this time, peppers, onions, broccoli, collard greens, carrots, Swiss chard and cucumbers are thriving. Put some of them together for a healthy lunch or dinner and even roast some in your barbecue for a delicious outdoor meal.
Interested in pollinators? It’s time to start checking your milkweed plants for monarch eggs and caterpillars. If you are growing fennel, parsley, dill, rue or golden Alexander, look for black swallowtail caterpillars — these carrot family plants are their host plants. The thrill of finding these beautiful green- and black-striped caterpillars and watching the stunning adult butterfly visit your flowers is more than worth some minor parsley damage.
Bees are very active this time of year; don’t be afraid to observe them closely as they visit your flowerbeds or pollinate your vegetables — foraging bees don’t sting.
Internalize the phrase “gardening for life” and make it yours, for you, your family, your neighborhood and the environment.
Relax and enjoy lazy days of the summer. It is never too late to start a new garden and enjoy the company of Mother Nature.
Whether you realize it or not, by creating habitat for birds and pollinators on your property you are joining the Homegrown National Park movement, while by growing your own vegetables you have become an urban grower.
Knowingly or not, you have joined the worldwide movement to protect the environment and started building up a green legacy for your children and grandchildren.
And remember the words of the British horticulturalist Gertude Jekyll: “The love of gardening is a seed, once sown, never dies.”