Food growers and first-time gardeners flock to garden centers

  • Cambria Hobbs waters plants at the House By the Side of the Road in Wilton on Tuesday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Cambria Hobbs waters plants at the House By the Side of the Road in Wilton on Tuesday. Ben Conant / Transcript staff

  • The House By the Side of the Road in Wilton on Tuesday. Ben Conant / Transcript staff

  • A turtle warms itself at the House By the Side of the Road in Wilton on Tuesday. Ben Conant / Transcript staff

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/1/2020 3:58:34 PM
Modified: 5/1/2020 3:58:24 PM

Spring has sprung, and empty store shelves in the early aftermath of coronavirus shutdowns seems to have spurred a desire for gardeners to create their own food reserves, as local nurseries are preparing for high demand for fruits and vegetable starters and seeds.

Ara Lynn, owner of Amazing Flower Farm in New Ipswich, said Tuesday their opening weekend of business this Saturday saw almost as many customers as a traditional opening day – and many more new customers than is typical.

Amazing Flower Farm distributes customer loyalty cards to its customers, Lynn said, and 26 percent of the cards given out so far are to first time buyers. That’s unusually high, she said.

Many of those first-time buyers are looking to start produce gardens.

Lynn said she and her staff anticipated the increased demand as early as March – as other nurseries may have as well, because when she went to her stock suppliers, there had already been a run on vegetable seeds, to the point that her two main suppliers had only a few left, and one had announced it was only taking commercial orders due to demand.

“I was pretty shocked. That’s never happened before,” Lynn said.

Preparing for the demand

Beth Coll of Coll’s Garden Center and Florist in Jaffrey said they’ve reached out to their growers and added additional orders for fruits, in addition to the orders they’ve pre-booked, and said they’re prepared for the expected bump in demand.

Maureen Vaillancourt, owner of Mason Brook Nursery in Mason, said the nursery’s mature fruit trees and berry bushes are currently in high demand, and she’s also seeing a lot of first-time food gardeners.

“Business from that end is going to be better than normal,” Vaillancourt said. “I think people are in the realm of still wanting to be able to provide food for their family. It’s a point of interest for people.”

Vaillancourt said she’s planning her summer plantings with that in mind, and overall is planting less, particularly when it comes to decorative plants such as flowers.

Coll said she, too, will be conservative when it comes to her orders for flowers. The Garden Center expects to receive its first shipment of perennial flowers next week, she said, and she doesn’t know yet what the demand will be, so she’s being conservative in her estimates.

“I’m taking it day by day. I’m going to be cautious about it,” Coll said. “I’m thinking we’ll have to take it slow and be careful about planning the non-essential items. We’ll just have to see how the economy does.”

Coll’s also provides cut flowers, she said, and while there have been major hits to the regular spring business with the cancellation of proms, weddings, and soon, graduations, Coll said day-to-day sales of cut flowers is brisk, with many people sending flowers to cheer up friends and family.

Mardi Poliquin, of Daffodils Flowers & Gifts in Jaffrey, said she also has seeing a lot of daily business.

“We’re so busy. Everyone’s sending flowers because they can’t be near their people,” Poliquin said. “Flowers mean a lot to people.”

Poliquin said she’s still getting orders for events like weddings and funerals, though they are for smaller bouquets as the events shrink.

“There is a cut, there,” she said.

But though there were not the usual big Easter celebrations, Poliquin said the shop still saw a lot of holiday orders, as families that would normally gather together sent flowers, instead. The shop is already getting orders in for Mother’s Day, which is another big flower-sending day.

“I think this year, Mother’s Day is going to be busier than ever, because some people can’t be with their mothers,” Poliquin said. But they still want to show they care, and flowers are a way to be able to send that message.

Poliquin said she doesn’t know how cancellations of events like prom and graduation will impact her spring, but said people may find their own ways to celebrate. The advent of drive-by baby showers, where individuals drop off gifts and say hello rather than attending a gathering have meant she is still getting orders for those types of events, she said. There may be something similar that evolves as high school and college seniors firm up what the end of their school year looks like.

“I just have to take it day by day,” Poliquin said. “I can’t say what the next holiday is going to look like. It’s just a weird time.”

Others said they’re being cautious when it comes to their flower offerings, expecting they’ll be less in demand this year.

“A lot of people are on a budget,” Vaillancourt said. “And they may not be willing to spend on flowers where they are willing to spend on vegetables.”

But Abby MacFarland, owner by Wilton’s House by the Side of the Road, said her business, which doesn’t close for the winter months, has been booming, and customers are coming in wanting all kinds of plants.

“We’ve seen a lot of people out for everything,” she said. “It’s been insanely busy. We’d be very busy on the weekends, but now, it seems like every day is like the weekend.”

MacFarland said her seed racks are constantly emptying, but people are also buying houseplants and shrubs.

“One woman bought several houseplants, and she said, ‘My bedroom is going to be a jungle after this, but I don’t care.’ People want life right now, and there’s all kinds of life,” MacFarland said.

Shrubs and hedges are also in high demand, MacFarland noted, with some people looking to get some separation from their neighbors.

A lot of first timers

“We’re seeing a lot of people who have never grown gardens, or haven’t in years. They see the value in it, when they’re afraid they might not be able to depend on the stores for what they need,” Coll said.

MacFarland said she watched gardening books shoot up to the top of Amazon’s sales in the past few weeks, and knew that she was going to be getting a lot of first-timers coming through the door.

That can lead to some first-timer mistakes, she said, such as people being a bit over-zealous with their seed buying.

“I don’t think they know just how many cucumbers they’re going to get out of a packet,” she said. “But it’s a learning process. It’s all going to be good.”

Lynn said educating people about the plants she sells is just part of the business, and something she’s always done. She’s had to educate customers on certain growing cycles, such as the fact that its far to early to plant later crops such as cucumbers and squash seeds.

Vaillancourt said with new gardeners comes a lot of requests for compost and loam, and she expects that like fruit and vegetable starters, that will be in high demand this spring.

Vaillancourt said she’s just happy customers are coming in the door, and she hopes demand remains high across the board, but said with the demand trending towards foodstuffs, garden centers are likely to see less profit than usual. There is simply less profit margin on them than flowers, or higher end items such as decorative shrubs or trees.

“All you can do is hope that people will come in and want other things, too,” she said.

Sharing with the community

The demand for seeds has spilled over beyond the commercial realm. The Jaffrey Public Library has run a “seed library” for the past four years, according to Library Director Julie Perrin. When the library was in normal operations, the seed library lived in an old card catalog, and people could self-select up to five packets of seeds to help them start a garden.

Demand for that service hasn’t gone down, according to Perrin. The library has just had to figure out a new way to fill it.

“With the [library’s] closure, we were met with this dilemma. People were asking for seeds, and more importantly, we had seeds.”

The library had already received grants to support the program, and had ordered bulk envelopes of seeds, which library workers and volunteers from the Conant High School Interact Club helped to divide into smaller packets.

This year, the seed library program received more grants and donations than in any of the other three years the library has hosted it. And received more demand than ever.

“With the threat of food security, for all kinds of reasons, it seemed important to get these out to folks,” Perrin said.

In April, the library mailed out about 800 seed packets to 90 of its patrons. Residents filled out an online order form requesting seeds. They we’re able to select specific seed varieties, but could indicate what type of garden they’re growing, like container gardens, or on a land plot, to make sure the seeds selected could work for their set-up.

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