Learning to navigate the effects of Covid-19 is an experience that every person in our country and across the world has been confronted with over the past year. Times changed dramatically as the world has been staying at home for an unforeseen amount of time, not knowing what to expect or how to plan for the future. The same was true for the Longwood Professional Horticulture class of 2021, myself included. After beginning the two-year Professional Horticulture program in August 2019, by March 2020 our cohort was deeply immersed in classes and work rotations at Longwood. Memories of March 2020 begin with thoughts of sunny days and early blooms—a result of an unusually warm winter. Spring ephemerals were overtaking the Gardens, especially the Hillside Garden, and the beautiful pink magnolia outside my window was blanketed in swollen buds. The soil was already warm and you could practically feel spring in the air.
At that time around 30 students, including nine Professional Horticulture students and the rest interns, lived in Longwood’s shared housing on Red Lion Row, which we refer to as “the Row”. We were a community of plant-loving friends, accustomed to visiting on one another’s porches, and chatting about new plants as we passed each other on the short walk to the Gardens. We were all aware of the news that Covid was spreading, and concern was rising especially for the international students whose families were already feeling the effects of the virus from afar. Even with the reports of colleges emptying dorms, conferences being cancelled, and even the March 2020 closing of our own Longwood Gardens, it stung when the news hit that our international students would have to be sent home. That bit of news was quickly followed by news that the interns would be leaving as well.
My class of nine prepared to bid goodbye to our friends and housemates wondering if, or when, we would also have to leave. We hoped that maybe, somehow, we could stay. However, not even 24 hours later, the painful decision was made that the Professional Horticulture class should also go home. At first, we were given three days to gather our things and say goodbye but as the intensity of the situation was realized, the timeline was adjusted and we were asked to move out of our Longwood housing that very evening. With carloads of houseplants, we dispersed … leaving behind our friends and beautiful gardens, abandoning a greenhouse full of crops we had planned for a spring sale, as well as any houseplants that wouldn’t fit in our vehicles. It was a time of uncertainty for everyone, but necessary for safety.
We kept in touch as we settled into our new locations, often sharing plant photos from our different zones. We swapped and identified pictures of everything from cacti in Colorado, to woodland plants from the Pocono Mountains. We watched annuals being grown in personal greenhouses and tropicals flourishing on the edges of one classmate’s fishpond. At the start of the program, horticulture and a love of plants had brought the nine of us together as friends. Now, throughout the uncertain and difficult months, that same love of plants and basis of friendship cemented us together as a sort of misplaced family. We dreamt of returning to the gardens, but in the meantime, we made the gardens where we were and continued our Professional Horticulture requirements remotely. My parents’ home, for example, became overrun by houseplants the moment I moved back in and my sister’s backyard quickly became a veggie garden as my classmates and I worked through our Fruit and Vegetable Production class over Zoom!
Similar stories can be shared from each of the members of the Professional Horticulture class as we carried our knowledge and love of plants along with us. Zoom classes certainly required a different set of skills than in-person classes, yet we learned to manage distractions and focus on our work. We completed classes in history and theory of design, fruit and vegetable production, and plant identification, with some sessions lasting a whopping four hours long! Despite the challenges of virtual classes, for me it was always a burst of encouragement to sign on and see the faces of my friends tuning in from our scattered locations.
Just after Mother’s Day 2020, about two months after being sent home, we got the news that we could return to Longwood! It was bittersweet as we told our families and packed our bags, not knowing how much time would pass before we could visit them again. But we remained excited by the thought of once again being back at Longwood and reunited as a class. It was odd returning to our homes and a location that was so familiar to us, but without the other students, volunteers, and guests with whom we had previously shared the space. The skeleton crew of staff working onsite had persevered like warriors, and we were honored to step in and share their load while caring for the Gardens.
This time was certainly a unique experience for our Professional Horticulture class. The classes which we had previously been working on from home were put on hold and we worked full-time to help care for the Gardens and prepare for when we could once again welcome guests. For many of us, the task of weeding took on a new meaning as we led crews from one bed to another, working furiously to knock back weed species before they could go to seed and lay unnoticed until the following spring. Other classmates received assignments in assisting production and Conservatory staff, where they too worked hard and took on new roles, learning new skills. Through it all, we worked differently than before as we followed state and federal safety protocols by wearing our masks and practicing social distancing.
Before long, the gardens were back in shape and Longwood was able to open to Members, and then guests, once again! To be honest, there were times when the thought of sharing our sanctuary wasn’t easy, it had been wonderful having the gardens to ourselves knowing that they were a place to find rest. But how could we be gardeners in a public garden without wanting desperately to share our love of plants with others? And we did!
So, when Members and then guests returned, we smiled behind our masks and were comforted as we observed the gardens we care for and love providing sanctuary and hope for so many. After all, that was why we spent weeks weeding and planting to create such a beautiful place. The love of horticulture that originally brought the Professional Horticulture class together at the start of our program also kept us connected while we were away, and it is the same love that connects us to our guests as we share with them the hope, rejuvenation, and resilience of plants.
A lot has changed. We have grown accustomed to wearing our masks and have been thankful for them as they’ve provided us with protection from the virus as well as the cold winter air earlier this year! Guests continue to be a welcome sight as we now have an even greater appreciation for the ability to share our love of plants. Every day I am thankful for the friendships I share with my classmates and as our official Longwood departure approaches after we graduate in July, I treasure the short time we have remaining in our program. Yet within this short time we have a lot to be excited for! Working as teams within our class we have spent the past months planning our Student Exhibition Garden, which we will soon install before it officially goes on view beginning Mother’s Day weekend. The Student Exhibition Garden opening will coincidentally happen one year after our return to the Gardens, and we are excited that this year we will be able to welcome guests not only to Longwood Gardens as a whole, but also to our three Student Exhibition Garden designs, which all center on a theme of signature and identity. A year ago, I had been disappointed that I missed seeing the blooms of the beautiful pink magnolia outside my window, yet today as I sat on my porch chatting with some other members of the Professional Horticulture class, I looked over at that same tree, again blanketed in swollen buds, and noticed a flower wide open against a bright blue sky.