Growing Hope: During a pandemic, gardening takes on new meaning

Growing food in a backyard. Image courtesy Jenny Pell

There are many names for the uncertain time we’re living in, but after some contemplation Kevin Watkins II settles on “The Great Pause.” Itʻs not as grim as “the COVID-19 crisis,” “a global recession,” or a “public health emergency,” all of which could also be used to describe the present moment, depending on who you’re talking to. “The Great Pause” is a more optimistic descriptor, implying a time of reflection and an eventual “Great Restart.” It’s a term for the current COVID-19 era of social distancing that makes sense when used by Watkins and his team at Maui Sustainable Solutions and the Maui Garden Project.

On a morning during The Great Pause, Watkins and his team of two volunteers work a freshly cleared 10×15-foot patch of soil at Iao United Church of Christ, the latest site to be installed with Maui Garden Project’s upcycled garden boxes. Wood pallets cut to various sizes and garden tools are prepared on the grass. The smell of the raw earth penetrates my cloth mask and settles into a space in my body that feels deep in my bones, where it awakens something planted there by ancestors long past.

Watkins, long devoted to sustainable solutions to today’s problems, is thinking about the future. 

“What about after the pause? What happens when you press the play button again?” Watkins asks over the scraping sounds of shovels. 

The answer, to him, involves the soil patch nearby and many others like it across the county which soon will be food-producing gardens. In the last month, Watkins says, Maui Garden Project has installed at least 40 custom raised beds at locations on Maui.

“We gotta grow our own food and I think everyone realizes that,” he says, now that COVID-19 has laid bare the island’s vulnerable dependence on imported food. “We gotta prepare, and one of the best ways we can do that is by growing our own food.”

“Apocalypse Gardening”

The combination of grocery store shelves emptied by panic buying, a global health and economic emergency, the longstanding awareness of the island’s precarious dependence on food imports, and people of all ages cooped up during stay-at-home orders has resulted in a gardening renaissance. Cara Flores founded the Facebook group Apocalypse Gardening to capture Maui’s newfound excitement over gardening and connect the island’s budding backyard farmers.

“The name started as a bit of a joke,” Flores says, acknowledging that part of the “collective desire to start gardening” is rooted in fears of food scarcity which have become pronounced in recent weeks. As an administrator of the Maui COVID19 Facts Facebook group, she saw that people were increasingly interested in growing their own food.

“Historically people tend to try and find ways to be more self-sufficient during hard economic times. Gardening helps people do something to provide for their future immediately,” she says. “There is something reassuring about knowing we are doing something regardless how big or small.”

The group was started in March and has since grown to 427 members. It’s a place to ask questions, learn, and share progress among gardeners of any experience or interest level, Flores explains.

“People have been very happy to share their work, plans, progress and excitement for their future harvests.” she adds. “People have been generous about giving away and trading plants and seeds they have an abundance of which is nice since supplies are very low.”

The Maui Backyard Farming Swap is another Facebook group that has seen an influx of new membership during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Membership for the Maui Backyard Farming Swap Facebook group is up 73 percent in the last 28 days, with over 145 new members,” group administrator Sarah Freistat Pajimola tells me. The group has been around for four years and has always been active in facilitating the exchange and sale of produce and services, “but I have definitely seen a noticeable increase in requests for seeds, starts, keiki trees, chicks, chickens, soil, and mulch,” says Freistat Pajimola. That recent shift “might indicate an upswing and trend toward backyard farming and subsistence living.”

Freistat Pajimola echoes Flores’ belief that backyard gardens, however small, can be rewarding. 

“It doesn’t take a ton of space to create abundance and self sufficiency for your ʻohana, and we don’t all have to grow everything on our own, or on our own properties,” she says. “Share with one another. Trade. There is always a want. Always a need. Pandemic or not.”

An garden box made from upcycled wood pallets by Maui Garden Project

Victory Gardens Rebooted: ‘Ohana Gardens

While the efforts of socially isolated backyard gardeners might seem insignificant in comparison to the food needs of the island, local permaculturalist Jenny Pell sees the potential for a movement akin to the Victory Gardens of World Wars I and II, when home gardens were urged and ended up providing up to 40 percent of a household’s food after a year or two of cultivation. 

“To put it in Hawaiian terms, it was phrased as it’s your kuleana to grow food for your family,” Pell says of the Victory Garden movement. “And that’s the motto for our organization: It’s your kuleana to grow food for your ʻohana.”

Pell is the project manager of the ʻOhana Gardens campaign, a project inspired by Victory Gardens and started by the organization Food Security Hawaii, which Pell also sits on the board of. ʻOhana Gardens’ goal is to plant 10,000 fruit and nut trees in neighborhoods, and start 1,000 individual gardens and 100 community gardens across Maui in the next year.

“We want people, in their backyards, to grow the food that is the easiest to grow, is going to give them a yield, and is the most pest resistant,” she says. “We don’t want people to fail out the gate.”

To help people be successful gardeners, Pell is working with groups like Watkins’ to connect a network of individuals and groups who can share services, products, and plants, all with the goal of increasing the amount of locally produced food. She also hopes to host how-to information for growing and preparing food, create a seed subscription service, and maintain a stock of starters for curious gardeners. Eventually, when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, paid staff could help neighborhoods maintain their gardens and supplies. Larger community gardens, extended collaboration, and food hubs or processing centers could be implemented, Pell adds.

“Let’s plant our gardens right now, in this first flush of excitement when everybody is at home and they’re digging in, literally,” Pell says emphasizing again the importance of starting small and obtaining a yield for the beginning gardener. “Let’s make sure that they have access to the content and information to make them really successful in growing food. That’s part of what ʻOhana Gardens is going to do. We’re going to be one of the organizations providing that background, that content, and education.”

After the Great Pause: A New Community

The grounds of the Iao United Church of Christ are quiet these days. The preschool is closed, the rolling green grass of the campus is empty, and there is no service – except perhaps the one occurring between the three masked gardeners and the Earth. Reverend Florentino Cordova who pastors the church has kept social distance from his congregation and held his services digitally for weeks now. The congregation is made of many kupuna, he tells me, and their health and safety was paramount when concerns over the novel coronavirus emerged.

Like others stuck in self-isolation, Reverend Cordova thought it was an ideal time to renovate the garden. Itʻs something heʻs wanted to do for years.

“We’ve been wanting to do raised garden beds for a while, because I want to build that bridge between our elders and our younger generation,” Cordova says. “The elders can’t be down there teaching the kids on the ground.”

The church is home to a preschool, serves many elders in the community, and has a population that needs the food, “so I thought, you know this during this downtime, we can do some of these projects and get things going here,” says Cordova. “That way when they come back, we’ll have this already set in place.”

Cordova touches on a side effect of gardening: community and connection. 

“I grew up with my mom tending the garden where she learned a lot of her morals and stuff from her mother,” he says. “So the garden gives us also this opportunity to teach and to work with our hands and see how we’re connected – connected with Mother Earth – and how Mother Earth sustains us at a time such as this.”

Pell envisions a similar shift that lasts long after hands are washed of garden soil. 

“There’s this neighborhood cohesiveness that happens,” she says, when a sharing economy is able to start in a community. It starts with people sharing excess from their crops, then eventually their skills and knowledge, as well as materials and tools.

Watkins sees the same type of community growing, and hopes it will form an island-wide supply chain that will reduce dependence on imported food and increase the community’s self-reliance and independence, all while strengthening human ties and connection on the island. 

“Food fosters community. It creates a bond,” says Freistat Pajimola. “There is pride in providing for yourself – and then providing so much for yourself, that you think about sharing with your neighbors… and then even further looking beyond your neighborhood to the community that surrounds you, to share. It’s a thing of beauty and very symbolic of how most of humanity would like to imagine humanity being.”

Watkins shares the hope for a reimagined humanity. “In many ways [the economic system before the pandemic] wasn’t working, and I think that we live in an amazing time,” he says, looking at recovery as a chance to rebuild something better.

“I look at COVID-19 as a cocoon opportunity,” adds James Lumpkin, one of the volunteers working with the Maui Garden Project. He’s currently unemployed because of the pandemic, having most recently worked as a line cook in a now-closed restaurant. He empathizes with others who have been laid off, but says “There’s some ability for us to take that and recover from this and come out the other end, a caterpillar into a butterfly. To come out better, stronger, as a whole community.”

“We have this pause,” he tells me, “to think about what really matters to the community.”

Jenny Pell shows off the bounty. Image courtesy Jenny Pell

Everyone I talked to for this story agrees: All you need to get a garden started is a square foot of yard or a single pot, some seeds (or a starter plant), water, and sun! The internet is full of knowledge for cultivating plants. The Apocalypse Gardening and Maui Backyard Farming Swap are public Facebook groups to join where you can share knowledge and resources. Maui Garden Project and Maui Sustainable Solutions are available on social media, through email at and, and on the web at The organization is in need of resources, donations, volunteers, and space to store materials and build garden boxes. Food Security Hawaii is online at and on social media.