How to be happy in a pandemic: plant a garden

By Janet Uren

There is an old proverb: “If you would be happy for an hour, brew a cup of tea. If you would be happy for a day, prepare a feast. If you would be happy forever, plant a garden.” That is just what some Glebe residents are doing at the nearby Ottawa Tennis and Lawn Bowling Club (OTLBC) – they are planting gardens. During the pandemic, those gardens are helping to keep them happy.

Some 12 people have preserved their health and happiness during the pandemic by working as volunteer gardeners at the Ottawa Tennis and Lawn Bowling Club last season. The gardens are full of tulips this spring awaiting the return of the gardeners and tennis players.   Photos: Claire Brodie

Colleen McGowan, who lives in an apartment building in the Glebe, has been walking to the OTLBC in Ottawa South since 1985. Gardening at the club, she says, has really helped her “to get through the pandemic.” She was in Florida when the Canadian government issued its call in early 2020 for Canadians to come home. The journey back was difficult and stressful.

McGowan has some tried and true ways to get through difficult times. She has been baking, for example, and sending a steady stream of cakes, muffins, pies and tarts to friends. She is also a self-confessed garden addict, and she finds gardening to be a never-failing source of solace and peace. She never needed that more than in 2020, so when a fellow club member put out a call for garden volunteers, she was among several people from the Glebe who responded.

Another Glebe resident, Joyce Barbour, agrees that being active and outdoors has been essential to her well-being during the pandemic. For her, the gardening project came at a particularly good time. Having recently retired, she was planning to travel. Obviously, that was impossible in this “strange year.” The garden project offered her a new, alternative kind of adventure. “I have played at the club since 1998,” she explains, “but this is the first year, now that I am fully retired, that I have the time to volunteer.”

The OTLBC appreciates club members volunteering for all sorts of special projects like the gardens. Over the years, McGowan has seen various individuals and groups step up to look after the flowers and shrubs, but such projects tend to be cyclical and last year she felt it was her turn. “And I enjoyed every minute,” she says. “I have a little section of my own, and I take great pride in it. Other members stop to say thank you as they leave the courts. I can’t remember that ever happening before, and I like that.”

The camaraderie of the garden project has been important to Barbour as well. Her little patch of garden is perfectly located right beside the courts. “I love watching the tennis as I work,” she says. “I used to bike down to the club – eight minutes door to door – play a game and leave. Now that I’m retired, I’m getting to know more people. They walk by as I’m working in the garden and stop to say hello and thank you.”

The theme for the gardens comes straight from the club’s slogan – “Your cottage in the city” – with the project leader working out a plan for the kind of lush, informal look that is typical of country gardens. “A bit on the wild side,” says McGowan, “with lots of peonies, daisies and delphiniums and not too well behaved.”

Another way to get through difficult times is to expand your horizons. Unlike McGowan, who literally grew up among flower beds, Barbour was new to the world of green thumbs. “I am a farm girl but not much of a gardener,” she says, “and it is something I always wanted to learn.” The project leader does most of the research and works out the plan, then advises the volunteers as they do their thing on their own patches.

The pandemic’s return with a vengeance this spring and the renewed lockdown threw a wrench into the garden project as it prepared for its third season. The gardeners were busy before the province lowered the boom, however. They weeded the beds, added compost and got everything ready. Then the club shut down in April, and the weeds got a bit of a break.

The pandemic and lockdowns will end eventually, and one of the first signs of “better times ahead” will be the sight of gardeners from the Glebe heading south to the OTLBC.

Janet Uren is a lifelong resident of Ottawa who lived in the Glebe for many years. She is a writer specializing in local history.

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