In a challenging, exhausting year, the garden has been a lifeline

Mara Tyler grows thousands of peonies, dahlias and bulbs at her cut-flower farm in Oxford, Pa., but when the pandemic arrived in March, there was one glaring gap in her 12-acre property: a veggie garden.

Enter friend Matthew Ross, a guy well-versed in vegetable cultivation but without land. After a three-week construction frenzy, they created a plot that provided Tyler and her family, and Ross, with months of fresh produce. "There's kale he put in the garden in the spring, and I'm still eating it," she said.

But the project has been about more than just putting food on the table. Learning new gardening skills kept her spirits up this year amid the stress, sacrifices and general weariness of life during the pandemic. "It was mentally therapeutic, because if I'm learning things, I feel positive," said Tyler, whose business is called the Farm at Oxford.

If ever a home garden - vegetable or ornamental - was needed, it was this year. It became a place to spend time, safely, with others; to supplement the table; to replace the lost travel destinations; and to provide kids with an alternative to the computer screen. Then there's the mental succor. When you're tying up a tomato vine or pulling a weed, you can put aside for a while the unrelenting news of an upended world.

"The garden has given me a lot," said Elizabeth Gomez, reflecting the shared sense of blessing for those who threw themselves into gardening this year. Her flower and vegetable garden in Winchester, Va., became "a lifesaver."

Tyler lives near Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., where Ross is the director of continuing education, and when he expressed a desire to create a veggie garden as the world was shutting down, the response was immediate and positive. By the end of April, they had identified a site for the garden, and Tyler's husband, Greg, and Ross set about establishing the raised beds, putting up a deer fence, laying landscape fabric against weeds and adding compost to the beds. Meanwhile, Mara was tending the seedlings started in the farm's greenhouse.

Ross and the Tylers' 10-year-old son, Julian, planted the spring garden soon afterward. As it grew, Ross would come by once a week to consult with Mara and take his share of the goodies. They would text when she needed day-to-day guidance. "I got to learn from someone very experienced, so I felt very lucky," she said. The minor duds - the flea-beetled eggplants, the stinting watermelons - were overshadowed by all the successes, including a surfeit of choice varieties of tomatoes, greens, beans, squashes and okra, to name a few.

Gomez is a retired horticulturist; her husband, Jorge, is a landscape designer and contractor. Fairly new to their home, they had planned to put in a vegetable garden this year, but the pandemic and the early fears of food shortages pushed them to make it bigger than planned. They also have a patio framed in curving retaining walls that became an ideal spot to socialize, with guests entering through the garden.

"We have had people over, usually one couple at a time. I set up a buffet, and we sit at different tables, probably 12 feet apart," she said. "That's been very nice. People feel comfortable."

The gatherings have helped fill the void of having to cancel three planned vacations abroad.

The proximity of neighboring backyards brought everyone together, she said. They would exchange perennials with one another. "I've even had people drop plants in my yard and I don't know where they have come from, and that's never happened before," she said.

The garden has also been a lifeline for parents this year, giving them screen-free options for their children, both young and not so young.

In rural Nelson County in central Virginia, Paul and Sonya Westervelt built a house on 40 acres, where they raise their 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. Juggling child care and work is the new norm (they both work for the nearby nursery Saunders Brothers), but their expanse of garden, woodland and meadow has been a boon.

Gathering fallen branches to form twiggy sculptures in the woods has been a welcome distraction for the children. "I don't know if it's registering with them at all, but it's keeping us sane and keeping them outside," Paul said. The easiest thing would be to plant the kids in front of computer screens, "but that's not the kind of parent I want to be," he said. He set up a motion-sensor camera to capture images of wild animals; bears are common, but a fleeting view of a raccoon seems just as thrilling to the kids.

The pandemic and its disruption of school and social life has been especially pressing on older children. Tatiana Lisle, who lives in Springfield, Va., with her husband, Brian, said their two teenagers took an active part in tending their quarter-acre plot, including harvesting fruit trees and weeding. "They have become good at identifying weeds," she said. Last March, her 17-year-old daughter, Angelica, "was in the middle of school sports, lots of social groups, so it was hard to pivot, to just hit that wall," she said.

She turned to a farmer friend, who allowed Angelica to foster three newly hatched ducklings; they lived in her bedroom in a box with a heat lamp. "Ducks are wonderful little creatures. They would follow her around the garden." After a few weeks, when they were grown, the ducks went back to the farm, but Angelica and her parents also tend a few thousand other charges: honeybees, with one hive in the garden and another two at Green Spring Gardens near Alexandria. The Lisles' 14- year-old son, Thomas, is now skilled in the related tasks of honey extraction and bottling.

Cynthia Miller, who lives in a small townhouse community in Annandale, Va., spent a chunk of time attacking a stand of mature bamboo that had invaded the common grounds, using some of the harvested culms for veggie tepees. She also volunteers in the edible demonstration garden at Green Spring, where she helped raise produce for food banks while socializing at a distance with other gardeners. "It gave us a sense of accomplishment," she said.

In Morgantown, Pa., Bridget Wosczyna and her husband, John Briddes, moved from one historic farmhouse to another about five miles away over the summer. The "new" property (dating to 1805) was more isolated, had more acreage and appealed to the couple for its remoteness in the pandemic. "My husband and I are not particularly private people, but we wanted some separation from other people. We wanted space where people couldn't be near us unless we chose that," she said.

The rub was that Wosczyna is a collector of unusual bulbous plants such as jack-in-the-pulpits and other aroids, as well as spring flowers such as trilliums. She had to dig and move them to the new property, either to replant this year or carry over in containers. Moving years of accumulated plants is a big task, especially as the summer heat sets in, but the work had its benefits.

"It helped me to not think about what happened this year, and certainly the politics as well," she said. "I was able to remove a lot of the stress by moving the garden."

Gardening tip:

Check Christmas tree stands daily to ensure the water level does not drop below the bottom of the cut trunk. A dried-out tree is full of flammable pitch and poses a serious fire hazard.