In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, many people stuck at home are turning to backyard plots for entertainment and sustenance

By Amy Eskind
May 01, 2020 06:10 PM
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Credit: Gabrielle Friedman

As the coronavirus pandemic shook the country this spring, grocery stores quickly sold out of essentials and produce departments were emptied. Fearing food shortages, and afraid to expose themselves to other shoppers in the store, many following orders to stay at home came up with the same idea: pandemic gardens.

It happened to be spring planting season as shelter-in-place orders came down in the U.S. Even people unfamiliar with gardening began placing orders for seeds and those selling them saw exponential spikes in business.

“Not in any recorded history have there been sales at these levels, certainly in the last 20 years,” Dave Thompson, director of sales and operations at organic seed company Seeds of Change in Rancho Dominguez, California, tells PEOPLE. “This is so unprecedented. We’re doing the best we can. You can’t capture all of this business.”

Each week, retailers adapted to new rules and restrictions. Home improvement stores closed the doors to garden centers to control the number of customers inside. Thompson expected sales to drop as a result, but customers simply waited to go in and seed sales remained three to four times higher than last year. “It’s clear that consumers want to garden,” he says. “It gives people more control over their food source."

Jaxson Heaton, a marketing employee at True Leaf Market in Salt Lake City normally produces video and social media content, but almost all marketing was halted when the pandemic was declared. Now he arrives at 6 a.m. for the morning shift and helps get orders out. The company says they are shipping two tractor-trailers a day — double what they’d normally sell this time of year.
| Credit: courtesy True Leaf

“The last half of February was uncharacteristically strong, but nothing nuts,” says Parker Garlitz, co-owner of seed company True Leaf Market in Salt Lake City. Then the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11. “On March 11th or 12th, our order volume went completely through the roof,” he says.

Normally, the company can send out online seed orders the same or next day. At the peak of the demand, new orders were taking two or three weeks to ship and the company was 7,000 orders behind. Family and friends have come in to help, so new orders are going out the door in three or four days now.

They’ve been busy restocking, but at the same time they’ve had to split shifts and let vulnerable employees stay home to keep them healthy. “We had a huge spike,” Garlitz says. “When it started I thought it would last a week. It’s slowed down but it’s been steady.” Sales are still two to three times higher than last spring.

At first people wanted peas, beans and wheat and barley. “March was panic buying, just in case,” Garlitz says. “People were buying pinto beans – you can plant them or you can eat them.” Then orders came in from people actually growing gardens. “Now it’s, ‘I’m trapped at home, I’m bored out of my skull,’” he says. “I think we’ve got a huge amount of people gardening. They’re buying everything. We’re selling a lot of seeds we have never sold before. People are experimenting with varieties. Some are buying purple or orange or green cauliflower.”

Misha, a worker at Plant Land in Milwaukee, carries peas, beans, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes and celery to a curbside pickup.
| Credit: courtesy Plant Land

People who have never considered putting their hands in dirt are planting vegetable gardens this year, says Karen Jorgensen-Matt, owner of Plant Land in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where there was a large outbreak of the virus. The store is seeding plants every two weeks to keep up with the demand. Kids are home, so it’s become a family project. ”It’s early [to plant] in this area, but people are buying them early and growing them in the house. They’re nervous we’re going to run out. I just had the largest order I’ve seen in my 52 years in business – nothing but vegetables. It was impressive what they spent on seedlings.”

A jewelry maker in Nashville, Tennessee, Gabrielle Friedman is adding beds in her backyard, growing seeds inside, and composting garden scraps. “It’s such a dark time, to see something grow and flourish is very healing to me,” she says. “The alternative is staying inside watching the news — this is an escape. I’m outside and I don’t even think about COVID and what’s going on.”

Nashville resident Gabrielle Friedman's broccoli growing in her backyard garden.
| Credit: Gabrielle Friedman

She worries about her husband, an anesthesiologist, being exposed while he intubates virus patients, and gardening helps her stay calm. “I’m in this other dimension. It gives me so much hope to nurture things. It’s incredibly therapeutic to see things grow. Every day you see all the little changes,” she says. Eventually she hopes to avoid going grocery shopping, but so far she has only harvested lettuces, greens and herbs. “It’s going to take a little while. I’m still growing a lot of the things, but we have salads from the garden every night,” she says.

New home gardeners may be causing a run on online-order seedlings (small plants that are starting to sprout and are ready to be planted outside). At W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a 139 -year-old company in Warminster, Pennsylvania, seedlings for several peppers, kale, spinach, patio eggplants and tomatoes are sold out. Some of the company’s showstoppers, such as SteakHouse hybrid tomatoes, billed as the world’s largest hybrid, have sold out of seedlings, but seeds are still available for the patient. There is a two-week delay in delivery. “It’s literally all hands on deck here,” says executive assistant Gaynor Hannan.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia, has been so overwhelmed with orders for seeds that they are turning off their website periodically, and now have a daily maximum for orders.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, usually ships orders the same day they are placed. Recently, they had to temporarily cut off amateur gardeners and only take commercial orders. They’re now open to all again.

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The National Gardening Association is fielding half a million questions a week from gardeners. Their industry report found that a quarter of all U.S. households grew vegetables last year. “I would not be surprised to learn that 50 percent did it this year,” says Executive Director Dave Whitinger. “Tomatoes are consistently the most popular vegetable to grow,” he says. “The easiest way to convince someone to grow them is to have them taste a homegrown tomato.”

Some home gardeners may also be hoping for herbal health remedies. Oregano has antiviral properties, which might be why organic oregano seeds at Johnny’s Selected Seeds are completely sold out. Elderberry can be used to make a syrup that herbalists have been touting for ages as an immunity booster. Strictly Medicinal in Williams, Oregon, currently has a waitlist for the plant. The run on garlic bulbs at Burpee’s also may be due to its medicinal properties. Dozens of varieties are sold out.

Whitinger of the National Gardening Association says people are frustrated because they can’t find the seeds they want at online retailers. His advice: try a local garden center. Many will arrange for curbside pick-up.

Some families are also gardening the old-fashioned way. Carly Stiller, 15, from Sherborn, Massachusetts, noticed that several of the carrots in the bag from the store had started to sprout. While her family has been trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, she came up with an idea. “Why not regrow a new one?” she says. “Can’t hurt. My mom cut the end off and put it in water. We left them in our kitchen and they just started growing. It was cool to see that life kept regenerating with just water. We’ll have to figure out how to plant them in soil.”

She’s looking forward to watching them grow, but she’s just realized it could be a while before she’ll see more carrots. She’ll have to grow carrot greens and wait for them to flower and produce seeds. Then she’ll be able to plant the seeds.

There’s a learning curve in gardening, as Stiller found out. Garden consultants who help people pick the right spot and plan a garden are in high demand. Nathan Ballentine, founder of Overalls in Jacksonville, Florida, has had so much business this spring that he’s booked out for six weeks. “My phone has been buzzing,” he says. “We’re turning away some business. We’re backed up on deliveries of compost.”

In response to the pandemic, Ballentine is picking up a new kind of client too. Most of his customers had been empty nesters and seniors, but now he’s hearing from millennials who are starting home gardens as a precursor to something bigger. “They want to learn enough to scale their own mini-agricultural enterprise. If they need to grow food for their community, they’ll have the skills,” he says. For the first time, he’s even hearing from people who want to replicate his subscription you-pick farm.

Ballentine says he grew up hearing family stories about the Great Depression, and he’s glad to see this response. “It’s good for nutrition, but in desperate times it’s good for calories so we can all eat,” he says.