AS the impact of the coronavirus pandemic gripped the public mind and many people began dashing to the supermarket to stock up, Beth Howison-Ryan rushed to the plant nursery.
"I panic bought manure and mushroom compost," said the western Lake Macquarie resident. "That was my panic buying."
Long before COVID-19 made many people think about food security, Mrs Howison-Ryan was creating a cornucopia around her home.
The mother of two wanted to "teach my kids where food came from".Having planted a range of edible vegetation, including citrus trees, in her backyard, Mrs Howison-Ryan took advantage of her husband being away for work in 2016 to dig up the front lawn and convert that into a garden as well, growing all manner of vegetables and fruits.
"The look on his face was priceless when he saw what was done," she recalled.
Now, in the midst of coronavirus, what the garden does for not just the stomachs but also the minds of those in the Ryan household is priceless.
"It's helped me control, in my mind, the anxiety where food comes from, because I know I can grow it," Beth Howison-Ryan said. "I can't control the virus, but I can control this.
"I've gone to the shops and seen how people were acting, and it scared me to see people's response to food."
In the past few weeks, Beth Howison-Ryan has been placing in the garden and in pots more edible plants, including Chinese cabbage, mizuna, and different varieties of garlic, "anything that can help the immune system grow stronger".
She said gardening had also helped her children, Ruben, 10, and six-year-old Arielle, with her daughter particularly finding comfort in the plants.
"To have her out here when I'm in my happy place, that happiness transfers to her," Mrs Howison-Ryan explained. "She sees me with my hands in the dirt, and she wants to do it. 'What can I do? How can I help?'. And that gives her a bit of power."
Beth Howison-Ryan has noticed growing interest from passers-by, as they stop and ask about what is in her garden.
In recent weeks, as people have been told to stay at home, many in the Hunter have been embracing gardening, especially trying to grow their own food. But demand has outstripped supply.
"Demand has probably tripled for vegetable seedlings, but supply has quartered," explained Richard Rowan, the managing director of Lee Rowan's Gardenworld.
"The [seedlings] marketplace has been shrinking, and suddenly that's flipped. The poor grower could not have been prepared for this, no matter what."
Richard Rowan said sales of seeds had also doubled.
"It's 'toilet paper'," Richard Rowan said, in regard to what customers were after. "They just want anything they can get their hands on."
The big retailers had also seen a rush on gardening supplies.
"We've seen an increase in popularity of seedlings, and we are working with our suppliers to increase supply and replenish our seedling stocks, as soon as they become available," said Bunnings' National Greenlife Buyer, Alex Newman.
Community organisation Trees in Newcastle has also received an increase in queries from people who, in the words of nursery manager Jocelyn Barker, "in their own urban way are wanting to do something".
In the past week, Ms Barker said, at least six inquiries were from people wanting to do work in their yards at at a time of isolation. One woman wrote an email to Trees in Newcastle, saying planting during this time was keeping her sane.
Jocelyn Barker said the organisation was now planning to go online to sell native plants, which would be available for collection from the gate of the Belmont nursery.
Lee Rowan Gardenworld's managing director Richard Rowan said while the numbers of customers walking through the doors of their garden centres had dwindled, phone and online orders had soared. As a result, all 12 of the company's trucks were delivering orders from 7am, and even the MD was doubling as a driver.
Many of the customers are establishing their gardens. So when first-time gardeners have been buying supplies, with hopes of feeding themselves with what they produce in their own yard, Mr Rowan has had to explain on occasion that planting seeds today won't result in fruit and vegetables overnight.
"There's no magic beans here," he said.
One customer who received a delivery of soil, plants and vegetable seedlings from Lee Rowan's Gardenworld during the week was Jesmond resident Rosemary Antonuccio.
The aquatic physiotherapist said with swimming pools closed, "I've got no work, I need to stay at home", so she was heading into the garden.
Rosemary Antonuccio said she already had a herb garden, and she and her husband had decided to grow vegetables.
"I like growing things to eat," she said.
However, before coronavirus-related restrictions reshaped her life, Mrs Antonuccio spent about "15 minutes a month" in the garden. By the time restrictions were lifted and she returned to work, Mrs Antonuccio predicted, "the garden's going to look really good".
Even the most experienced and celebrated of gardeners have been dipping their hands in the soil to seek refuge from the restrictions and uncertainty swirling around coronavirus.
"I've been pruning and weeding, and I'm even creating a new garden at the side of the house. I want to get more native bees in the area," said Redhead green thumb John Le Messurier.
For his efforts of more than 40 years in transforming barren ground into flourishing gardens at the Scout camp by Glenrock Lagoon, Mr Le Messurier was awarded the 2018 Gardener of the Year by the ABC's Gardening Australia TV program and magazine.
John Le Messurier said whether a resident had a large yard or a small patio in an apartment, they could do some gardening, from creating something new to maintaining what they already had planted.
No matter the activity, it would provide "horticultural therapy".
"During these troubled and uncertain times, we spend more time relaxing in our sanctuary, in our garden," Mr Le Messurier said of what he and wife Pam do in their backyard. "We sit there, we have a coffee, we talk."
John Le Messurier turns 80 on April 13. There can be no big birthday party, but he doesn't mind. He can have a private garden party for two.
"We're safe, we come out of the home, have quality time together in isolation, and from there we get our inner strength," he said.
For those starting a garden, Richard Rowan said this was the time to plant winter vegetables, such as spinach, cabbage and carrots.
"As a rule of thumb, if it goes in a soup, plant it now", he said.
Beth Howison-Ryan said new gardeners should seek advice from others, including from online groups, where information and sometimes garden supplies were shared. Gardeners should take their time and not get disheartened if something didn't flourish straight away.
"In this society, we're used to seeing it on Instagram and it looks amazing, and we want it now," she said.
Lynne Turner, the president of the Lake Macquarie Garden Club, said there had been an increase in inquiries through its Facebook page in recent weeks.
"I think people might be stuck in their homes, look out and think, 'That needs doing, I might go out and do it'," she said.
"I think it's good for the soul, you're getting out in the sunshine, you can just relax in your own space."
Richard Rowan hopes this surge of interest in gardening remains after coronavirus has been contained and life returns to normal.
"We hope this will be a change," he said. "We're looking for a reset button that has been pressed, with a little bit more interest in our gardens, rather than just the disposable world we've lived in. To be house proud again."
For Beth Howison-Ryan and her family, the love of gardening and how it nurtures their lives will continue to grow. But Mrs Howison-Ryan hopes that from this tough time will come a new crop of green thumbs and a desire to be more self-sufficient.
"It's a terrible thing that's happened, it's terrible that people have lost their lives, it's awful, but hopefully what will come out of this is people will feel a bit more resilient, because they've had to learn new skills," she said. "They've had to push themselves far outside their comfort zone to do things they normally wouldn't do.
"To grow your own food, to care for the soil and to nourish something, and to watch something grow, there's a lot of positive aspects in that at a time when everything seems a bit dark and gloomy and out of your control. There's something really beautiful in watching a plant grow."
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