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In the garden of hope and optimism 

Newsday Opinion columnist Michael Dobie's garden.

Newsday Opinion columnist Michael Dobie's garden. Credit: Newsday/Michael Dobie

At its most basic, planting a seed is an act of optimism.

When you drop this little kernel, that tiny sliver, into a bed of soil, you're saying that you believe that something will grow. You're also making an expression of self-affirmation: You believe that you can coax this growth, that you will have a hand in producing these beets and peas and radishes, that your nurturance will enable this little miracle of life to occur.

Those feelings are present every spring, when it comes time to sow the seeds for the first cool-weather wave of vegetables. The wind is still biting as you work the soil, the sunlight slowly lengthening as you place and cover the seeds, the robins hopping excitedly around the periphery of your work area as you water.

All of that was true this year, too, but still something felt different. How could it not, in this time of the virus?

The coronavirus looms over everything now. Where we go, when we go, who we see, what we do, what we talk about, what we think. If it's not in the forefront of our minds, it's hunched on the edge of the back seat, lurking just over our shoulders.

It was there while plotting out this year's vegetable garden. And it seems to have been on a lot of other people's minds, too. Seed companies have been overwhelmed with orders, leading to out-of-stock and back-ordered seeds in online catalogs, frequent shipping backlogs and questions pouring in to sites that offer advice for new gardeners.

Motivations? There probably are a few. Concerns about the safety of our food supply, and whether it will continue unbroken, seem to be first and foremost. Reports about new restrictions on special visas for field workers, the people who pick the crops, the vast majority of them from Mexico, create anxiety, as do worries about whether those workers will remain free from the virus. Planting some vegetables means you'll have some food you can count on.

Some folks exiled from jobs, cloistered at home, no doubt are seizing the opportunity to do something they always said they wanted to do but never found time for — paint, clean the basement, plant a garden. It's farming as fulfillment.

It doesn't seem that the spiking interest in seeds is echoing the victory gardens popular in World War I and World War II, at least not yet. Those home gardens were part of a patriotic push, promoted as a way to let Americans assist in the war effort; the vegetables people grew in their backyards and in their windowsill pots and in their community parks allowed farm-produced food to be sent to American troops and Allies overseas. It was wildly successful.

No, what's going on now is different from that we're-all-in-this-together feeling.

To plant a garden is to start something you think you can control, as life as we know it blurs and spins away. It has an order to it that is calming. You tap into the predictable rhythm of nature, the sun and the rain, the increasing warmth, the cycle of growth, the early sprout giving way to the burst of full bloom, the unseen development of roots. Planting is grounding.

The virus might yet intervene, in mid-May perhaps, when thousands of us typically trek to garden centers for our tomato, eggplant, zucchini, pepper and cucumber plants. But that's a worry for a later day. For now, we'll nurse our lettuce and spinach, coax our kale, anticipate our arugula, minister to our peas and beans and carrots, and tend to our sanity.

The soil is waiting.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.