When David Blackley unlocks the doors at Renfrow Hardware at 8 a.m., customers are already lined up — six feet apart — on the sidewalk in front of the Matthews, North Carolina, hardware store with shopping lists of seeds and vegetable plants.
None of them are allowed in the store as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic. So shoppers recite their lists to staff who pick the orders and leave trays filled with vegetable and herb plants and seeds in front of the greenhouse for customer pickup.
“People are buying plants and seeds a month ahead [of the regular planting season],” Blackley said. “It’s thrown greenhouse growers and bulk seed suppliers into overdrive.”
Even though food supplies may be currently secure, said Rose Hayden-Smith, a food historian and author of ”Sowing the Seeds of Victory,” understocked supermarket shelves are forcing shoppers to think about the source of their food, especially fruits and vegetables, often for the first time. And their fears have led them straight to the garden center.
“It’s helpful to be productive and connect with nature and it’s something that’s within our control in a situation that feels entirely out of control,” she said.
Garden centers, considered essential services in most states, have moved their inventories online or started offering curbside pickup of soil, vegetable seeds and transplants, and seed companies are seeing huge spikes in demand due to fears over coronavirus-related food shortages. More time at home also means more time to nurture seeds into supper.
Seeing the almost-bare shelves at her local grocery store, combined with having more time at home, was what motivated Jill Weisensee to plant a small vegetable garden in her Portland, Oregon. “I plant a few tomatoes every summer … but the [coronavirus] and the [food] hoarding made me think about planting a vegetable garden a little more seriously,” she said.
“We got seeds and starts and potting soil from a local gardening store that does curbside pickup,” she said. “The tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and lettuce wouldn’t keep us alive in a disaster, but it makes me feel better.”
“Crisis gardening is not new,” said Hayden-Smith. Concerns about food security led to the Victory Garden movement during WWI and WWII; seed retailers and greenhouses also saw sales spikes during the Great Recession. The number of households growing their own food increased 11% between 2008 and 2009, and the largest increases were among first-time gardeners who cited economic conditions as a major factor in their decision to start growing food, according to a National Gardening Association report.
As the pandemic batters the U.S. economy, it looks like we’re seeing a new spike in crisis gardening, and it’s left seed companies struggling to keep up.
Online retailer Renee’s Garden Seeds, based in Felton, California, has experienced a 300% increase in the sale of vegetable and herb seeds in the past few weeks. Founder Renee Shepherd has extended her employees’ hours and added weekend shifts to keep up with demand, shipping up to 1,900 seed packets per day.
“We pack seeds based on our projected demand and no one predicted this,” she said. “A lot of seed companies are running out of packets.”
In Mansfield, Missouri, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has received three times more orders than previous seasons, forcing a temporary halt in online ordering. A message posted on their website in mid-March read, “Due to an unprecedented increase in order volume our website and farm are temporarily closed to restock inventory ... We understand that during these trying times food security is more valuable than ever.”
In addition to racing to keep up with orders, Baker Creek spokesperson Kathy McFarland has also fielded emails from countless first-time gardeners who write, “I’ve never grown anything before ... ” and requesting advice on growing food gardens.
In North Carolina, Blackley is hoping that the supply chain can keep up with demand. Growers, he says, are working hard to produce additional plants, but it takes up to to eight weeks for tomato seeds to turn into seedlings that can be planted in the garden, which could cause supplies at Renfrow Hardware to disappear. Moreover, if illness strikes at one of the small family farms that provide plant material, it could disrupt deliveries.
“We’ve increased our orders and, so far, we’re not seeing any problems with the supply chain but we know coronavirus could change all of that,” he said.
The Grow Wizard in Cleveland, Ohio, is running low on seed-starting supplies such as seed trays, soil, heating mats and grow lights, and owner Victoria Jones is waiting up to 10 days for deliveries from her overwhelmed suppliers.
Seed companies are allocating additional labor to filling new seed packets but the process is slow, Shepherd said.
Additional safety precautions such as reorganizing workstations to increase space between workers and increasing sanitation practices have slowed down workflow. As a result, seed packets that used to be mailed out within 24 hours of ordering are now taking up to a week to ship, and several popular varieties are sold out.
“I’m glad to see a huge surge in gardening and hope that when [the pandemic] ends, people will continue growing at least some of their own food,” McFarland said.
Even if the desire to grow fresh fruits and vegetables is short-lived, Hayden-Smith hopes it changes our relationship with food.
“It’s a significant thing that people are gardening,” she said. “When people start learning about the food system through the act of gardening, they become better informed consumers and may be more appreciative of the challenges that farmers face in growing our food.”
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