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Getting down and dirty during the pandemic

THEY said it would spread like wildfire through Africa, but lockdown measures, quarantine regulations for returning residents and a dusk-to-dawn curfew have all helped to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Zimbabwe. Although effective in keeping the ‘sneaky virus’ at bay, lockdown and the loss of social contact and livelihoods has had a devastating effect on our mental and physical health.

Growing chillis in the garden

There are ways, however, to regain control of your life, and to get back into shape, none of them involving smoking pot or becoming a secret drinker. High intensity workouts like CrossFit will make you physically strong, mindfulness meditation will reduce stress levels and put you in harmony with the universe, and reading literary fiction will transport you to another world while boosting your emotional intelligence. But for a more down-to-earth means of achieving stress relief, why not take up gardening?

Getting down and dirty in the garden can do wonders for your well being. Spreading compost on flower beds and mulching newly-planted seedlings will bring us closer to Mother Earth,while a few hours a day spent caring for plants can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. And there’s nothing more satisfying than harvesting and eating the lettuces and green peas from your own garden, or tending pots of rocket, coriander, spring onions and green chillis, as they grow apace in the warm weather.

Raphael Chikukwa, recently appointed director of the National Gallery of Harare, is passionate about promoting African art and establishing Zimbabwe in the global art world. When free time allows, his favourite hobby is gardening, and tending the flourishing cabbage, potatoes, beetroot and broccoli in his vegetable garden. Chicken manure provided by resident road runners nourishes peach and mango trees, while organically made compost and mulch help preserve moisture from the erratic water supply.

Marigolds and hanging baskets at the garden centre

Growing up in a village in Chiweshe, Raphael learned from a young age the value of growing vegetables, and affirms today that ‘growing your own vegetables is like printing money.’ He still visits the family homestead in Chiweshe, where maize, okra and mutsine (blackjacks) flourish. A super food, mutsine is thought to kill cancer cells and reduce the risk of heart disease. At weekends Raphael likes to make mutsine with peanut butter for his family, a dish he says is ‘close to his heart’.

Spring and the start of the growing season is always a busy time, and the surge in interest in gardening since the onset of the pandemic has seen plant sales at nurseries soaring. It’s time to re-pot cymbidium orchids, but at my local gardening centre, demand for the required potting mix of bark, perlite and peat moss is exceeding supply. Last week, an assistant reluctantly added my name to a lengthy waiting list, and I turned my attention to marigolds, hanging baskets of petunias and superabundant trays of basil, parsley and rocket.

Although my plan during the pandemic has been to connect with nature and give technology a break, buying plants is thirsty work. Fortunately a mobile coffee shop, The Coffee Station, is in residence at the garden centre. Formerly a horse box, and now a state-of-the art coffee bar, it is manned by barista Ian Parwada (formerly an IT specialist) who serves macchiatos, flat whites, lattes, espressos and hot chocolate. A high-tech Wega coffee machine and the unique blend of Tribe coffee beans from South America, Asia and Africa ensure a full-bodied flavourful coffee, reminiscent of ‘hazelnuts, berries and milk chocolate’.

One of the world’s most popular drinks, drinking coffee is said to fight depression and make you feel happier. It may also be true that drinking coffee improves ones physical performance. After a mug of latte from The Coffee Station, I couldn’t wait to transport an array of herbs and petunias to waiting pots and flower beds at home, and to start planting.

Spending time gardening and taking care of your plants can be rewarding and a way to take care of yourself. Instead of catching up on emails and Instagram before going to bed, check on your indoor plants. Dust the leaves on the peace lily and the ficus benjamina, plants that improve the air quality in your bedroom and help control snoring, thus ensuring a good night’s sleep.

It’s a well known fact that talking to your plants can help them grow, so if you’ve been playing safe during and beyond lockdown, and miss the social contact with friends and associates, exchange pleasantries with your plants as you water them.

Research has shown that contact with soil and gardening without gloves triggers the release of serotonin, a happy chemical and natural anti-depressant. The peaceful space of your garden may provide the means to restore your mental and physical wellbeing, while helping you cope with whatever lies ahead.  A Matter of Taste with Charlotte Malakoff

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