Nature is a Respite during Disconcerting Times, Part II

Part 2. Gardening and Gardens Outdoors and Online

Written by Mary Free, Extension Master Gardener

Viola and a hori hori knife, an immensely useful garden tool. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

Physical distancing to limit spread of this novel coronavirus may restrict you to waving or nodding at your friends, but there is nothing to prevent you from getting as tactile as you want with your plants and soil. A garden not only keeps you physically active, but provides a therapeutic environment to soothe the mind. One could even view weeding as a stress-reliever rather than a chore–well almost. Both adults and children benefit from working in a garden. It is a hands-on activity that can be fun and educational simultaneously (see Identifying Plants and Wildlife in Part 1).


Among the many garden chores to undertake in spring, you might consider redesigning or expanding an existing garden, establishing new gardens, or creating more inviting habitats for wildlife.1,2

Follow the example of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and create a pollinator garden on your property.

The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (MGNV) offer resources that provide basic gardening information and recommend a wide variety of native plants that thrive in our local conditions and benefit our local wildlife. We also recommend the best plants for particular uses and native alternatives to invasive plants.

Like the Urban Bird Habitat Garden at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, you can encourage birds to visit your property by providing the food, water, and shelter they seek. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

If you have questions about a particular gardening problem, plant, or pest that these resources do not address, please visit our Extension Master Gardener Help Desk via email at The Help Desk is being monitored remotely so you will get a timely response to your question.

Paul Lund dividing plants in the demonstration Sunny Garden in Arlington County’s Bon Air Park one March. Photo © Elaine Mills

If you are unable to obtain new plants at this time,3 then perhaps you can divide or transplant those you have. Many perennials can be divided in early spring unless they are ready to bloom, in which case you should wait until several weeks after they flower. The University of Minnesota Extension provides useful general information about how and when to divide perennials as well as plant specific information.

If you cannot identify a plant in your lawn or garden and wonder if it is a wildflower worth keeping or a weed warranting extraction, then visit the New Jersey Weed Gallery. Still, even with this information, one might ask the same question posed by Ralph Waldo Emerson over a century ago: “what does the botanist know of the virtues of his weeds?”4

Native cactus Opuntia humifusa (prickly pear) is a good choice for a waterwise garden like that in Alexandria’s Simpson Gardens, where its early summer flowers welcome pollinators. In the middle of a lawn, though, its glochids and thorns can be a painful reminder of the importance of good turf maintenance, especially when walking barefoot. Photos © Mary Free (left) and Elaine Mills (right)

Among healthy garden practices are sanitary measures that also will help keep you safe from the novel coronavirus: not touching your face (plants, soil, and insects may carry diseases or toxins) and washing your hands (even after wearing gloves) and your garden equipment thoroughly when finished.

Chinquapin Community Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia in late March. Photo © Mary Free

You may want to take additional precautions if you work a plot in a community garden. 5,6,7  Besides following your community garden guidelines, you can avoid using shared tools and equipment by using your own and taking them home when you are done. If this is not possible, then be sure to use sanitizing wipes on all community handles and nozzles/spigots before and after you use them.

Public Education Webinars and Online Garden Tours

If your mood is not amenable to outdoor activity, then perhaps it is time for some online learning about popular lawn and garden topics. Usually workshops on lawn care, composting, sustainability, attracting wildlife and pollinators, etc. are presented in person by Extension Master Gardeners. For the near term, though, they will be providing some free public education webinars, which will be presented live as a Zoom meeting and archived thereafter. Two live webinars, Turf Grass Alternatives and Pruning Woody Plants, were held in March. Visit for information on future offerings or “subscribe by email” (on the website sidebar) to receive email notifications of new updates to the site, which would include the webinar announcements.

United States Botanic Garden Conservatory in May. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

While on line, visit some professionally designed gardens. Take a virtual tour of the United States Botanic Garden or the Chicago Botanic Garden, or read the MGNV Regional Garden series, which includes descriptions and pictures of  Arlington Cemetery Memorial Arboretum, Brookside Gardens, Chanticleer, Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, Ladew Topiary Gardens, Longwood Gardens (Christmas and The Meadow Garden), Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, Native Plant Botanical Garden and North Carolina Arboretum, Norfolk Botanical Garden (Part I and Part II), River Farm, The Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden and The Charlotte Botanical Gardens, The National Garden, The United States National Arboretum, and Winterthur Garden. Learning more about these public gardens may inspire you to new heights of creativity and purpose in your own garden(s).

Newly transplanted Lonicera semperivrens for a hummingbird garden. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

Remembering the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “When I go into my garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health, that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. But not only health, but education is in the work.”8


1. Mary Free, For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats, (Virginia Cooperative Extension, revised March 2014).

2. The Cornell Lab: Educator’s Guide to Nest Boxes.

3. Call before you make a trip to find out if a nursery is open and whether or not it has the plants you want in stock. You also can inquire as to what safety precautions it is taking and whether or not it offers road-side pick-up or delivery services and at what additional cost.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Beauty’, in The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: The conduct of life [Vol. 6], (Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903-1904), 281.

5. City of Alexandria Community Gardens

6. Arlington County Community Gardens,

7. NC State Extension: COVID-19 FAQ for Community Gardens

8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Man the Reformer’, in Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, Being Volume I of Emerson’s Complete Works, (Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1898), 226.

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