Despite coronavirus chaos, Israelis create gardens of paradise

Working the soil becomes popular quarantine activity.

Garden, located in Arad, was gifted to the Ethiopian Jewish community by B’nai B’rith to commemorate Operation Solomon, the 1991 airlift that transported more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel (photo credit: KARIN IFRACH)
Garden, located in Arad, was gifted to the Ethiopian Jewish community by B’nai B’rith to commemorate Operation Solomon, the 1991 airlift that transported more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel
(photo credit: KARIN IFRACH)
With the Israeli public stuck at home, quarantine gardening has become the latest activity to trend. 
Novice and experienced gardeners alike no longer have busy schedules standing in the way of devoting themselves to their craft. At a time when everything has been turned upside down, gardening provides a way to relieve boredom, stress and isolation, and retrieve a sense of normalcy. 
Jerusalemite Lauri Donahue is part of this trend, planting crops such as cherry tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and onions.
“I decided to start seriously gardening about a month ago, when things started shutting down and there were shortages of things like toilet paper and eggs,” she told The Media Line.
“I have no idea whether there will ever be a shortage of vegetables in Israeli markets, but growing my own gives me a sense of security,” she stated. “If I have an abundance, I may be able to donate to neighbors or food banks.”
For Donahue, raising plants is a welcome break from being stuck indoors.
“Gardening helps me cope because it gives me something physical to do out in the fresh air,” she said.
Bernice, who declined to give her last name, has spacious gardens in front of and behind her Jerusalem home. She normally tends to them with the help of professional gardeners, but right now, she must care for them herself, with help from her husband.
“This is the season where the old plants are removed [and] cut back, so that new ones for the summer can come out and start to flourish,” she told The Media Line. “The work we are able to do right now is the least the garden needs, but it’s something just to stop it from turning into a wilderness and losing all the hard work one [already] put into [it].”
While Bernice is unable to do things such as prune tree branches and trim hedges, she feels she has learned valuable life lessons from the experience.
“We have to learn to be self-reliant, but work is [also] supposed to be shared out…” she said.
“It’s not just gardens,” she continued. “I’m here at home with my husband. We are in the age group where we are considered amongst the vulnerable…. I’m getting more into using the internet, buying things online, which we didn’t necessarily have to do before. I’m learning to adapt.”
Yosef Gan El is an educational gardener who has been able to devote more time to his balcony garden, which includes corn and pumpkins, as a result of the stay-at-home order. He also volunteers at Ginat Adam, one of 70 community gardens in Jerusalem, which he helped found 12 years ago.
Ginat Adam has 240 trees, including apples that are blossoming right now.
It’s “a small paradise,” says Gan El – whose last name means “garden of God.” 
Gardens like these, he explains, build communities. 
“It’s not the community that builds the garden. There is a little community around what’s happening in the garden,” he told The Media Line.
“Anyone can volunteer there. More than that, anyone can take whatever he or she wants from the garden; you don’t have to work to take something,” he added. “If you see a lemon on a tree and you want it, you can take it.”
His advice for gardeners is to be patient.
“I’m kind of worried because I didn’t see enough bees on my balcony garden, and I know that without them, there won’t be any pollination – thus no fruit,” Gan El said.
“I planted flowers to attract bees. For now, it doesn’t really work, but I will see. That’s why you need patience,” he explained.
While most shops are shuttered, gardening stores and nurseries are thriving as interest grows.
“We have definitely seen an increase in people buying plants,” Keren-Or Liman, who works at Ganei Tal Gardening and Development, a nursery in Moshav Zekharia, located west of Jerusalem near Beit Shemesh, told The Media Line.
“We have more business than what we expected because people have free time and they don’t know what to do with it right now,” she said. 
She says she sees entire families coming to the nursery.
“They just want to spend time with their kids, cleaning up the garden, putting in some new flowers or seeds for vegetables,” Liman said. “Whatever it is they’re doing, they’re doing it together.”
She is talking about people like David Bernstein, who gardens with Barak, one of his sons. While they started their vegetable patch before coronavirus hit, quarantine has enabled them to spend more time on it.
“Gardening is one more thing that we do around the house that, in general, brings wellness and therapy – and now even more so,” he told The Media Line.
“There are some vegetables that I’ve been avoiding buying from the supermarket that are not packaged, so having fresh leaves is a great advantage,” Bernstein added. “Also, during Passover, a lot of parsley is needed. [It is] what we mainly grow, so it is very beneficial.” 
Back at Liman’s nursery, which is in an open field, people are able to practice social distancing by spreading out. Unlike in a supermarket, they are not at close quarters. 
This is not the case for Chen Attar, owner of the We Love Plants nursery in Tel Aviv, who, because of urban space constraints, has been forced to change how he does business.
“There’s a little bit of conflict here because there is high demand but people can’t come to see or feel the plants. This is one of the most important things to do when you purchase them,” he told The Media Line.
All of his sales now are over the phone or via social media, where people can buy plants and have them delivered.
Attar’s best sellers are Sansevieria trifasciata, commonly known as the snake plant, and Epipremnum aureum, which is called devil’s ivy or golden pothos. Both do well indoors and release oxygen into the air, which is ideal during the COVID-19 outbreak.
He is considering live-streaming on Facebook or Instagram, as well as posting videos with lessons on how to plant things and water them.
“When people stay in their home all day long, the most common problem they encounter is overwatering,” he explained. “People don’t have anything to do and they try to give love to their plants, but sometimes it’s too much.”
Attar adds that gardening is a good way to connect to nature.
“Life in the city isn’t so green,” he notes. “This is particularly true when we are forced to stay indoors. Maybe we want to bring the outdoors inside.”
He also sees gardening as way for people to stave off the loneliness of mandatory isolation.
“Plants help people stay busy, as they need water and their soil needs to be changed. [But] they also provide people company,” Attar said. “It’s like bringing a friend into the house.”