As the first wave of the COVID pandemic crested in 2020, retailers suddenly found themselves struggling to keep up with the demand for seeds. Everyone, it seemed, was planting a pandemic garden.
Now researchers have gone back to ask how much of a trend those overwhelmed garden shops really represented. They looked at Internet search terms to see when people around the world sought information about gardening. As each country’s first wave of infections peaked, they found, gardening interest peaked too. The rising wave of disease seemed to make people want to put something into the ground.
“We wanted to understand: Has gardening really picked up as this phenomenon during the pandemic?” says Brenda Lin, an ecologist at Australia’s federal research agency, CSIRO.
Lin is interested in urban green spaces, such as parks and gardens, and who can take advantage of them. Studies have shown that gardening can have positive effects on both mental and physical health. But, Lin notes, disparities exist in who has access to the green spaces in cities, as well as the time and resources to enjoy them.
To learn more about the people who have turned to gardening during COVID, Lin and her co-authors used Google Trends, a platform that shows the popularity of Google search terms over time. The researchers chose 39 countries to study. Lin says they aimed to include a range of country sizes, climates, wealth, and regions of the world. Then they gathered data on searches for the word “gardening” in each country’s predominant language.
They saw that as each country reached the peak of its first COVID wave — no matter whether that was in April, as in the United States, or in June or even October — gardening searches also peaked.
“Really, it was quite universal,” Lin says. The gardening trend wasn’t limited to Western nations, or those places hit first by the pandemic. “I think that’s just a clear indication that there was this real interest during that time,” Lin says. “The question now is, how do you capture that and maintain it?”
Lin hopes this research will help reveal ways to make green spaces more widely accessible to city residents. If more people have nature nearby — even just potted plants on an apartment balcony or a view of a garden below — they might start to experience the mental and physical benefits, Lin says. “That could be a great boon for our health systems.”
Elizabeth Preston is a science journalist in the Boston area.