Interest in gardening grows during pandemic

Nathan Baker • Apr 12, 2020 at 8:00 AM

The threat of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to the nation’s food supply chains has caused growing interest in backyard gardening, as residents try to provide for themselves.

National seed and plant suppliers were flooded with orders over the past few weeks, and some struggled to keep up with demand and still observe safe practices.

George Ball, executive chairman of the Burpee Seed Company, told NPR last month that the spike in demand his company is seeing has overshadowed previous modern economic crises.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, an online and catalog seed seller based in Missouri, paused business last week to give employees time to catch up.

“Due to an unprecedented increase in order volume our website and farm are temporarily closed to restock inventory and disinfect our workspace,” a message on Baker Creek’s website said. “We have scaled back our operations and staffing to ensure the health and well-being of our employees, our customers, and the community at large. We understand that during these trying times food security is more valuable than ever.”

Local businesses have been forced to find ways to adapt to the new nature of commerce during social distancing.

Evergreen of Johnson City closed its north side store to browsing customers, but started offering telephone ordering and pickup last Monday. Evergreen has offered delivery services for years.

Office manager Jessica Claman said Evergreen’s phones have been ringing off the hook with customers trying to get ready for spring.

“We have definitely been selling a lot of seeds, that has definitely increased,” she said. “Veggies are a big thing, and we’re selling a lot of plants, too.”

Claman said Evergreen hasn’t laid off any employees during the business changes, but the company hasn’t been able to hire as many people as it would in a normal spring. Physical distance restrictions started just as the company would have started interviewing for seasonal hires.

Claman said Evergreen now has about half the employees it would in a normal April.

Still, employees are filling a lot of orders, some of which seem to be coming from people new to gardening or new to the seeds or plants they’re buying, she said.

While new gardeners are learning about growing, those who have been doing it for a while are having to learn new practices during the pandemic, too.

On Tuesday, Leah Bessette and Rachel Wheeler prepared their plots in the Tree Streets Community Garden.

As they raked and laid out cardboard, they chatted over the six-foot distance between them. Bessette had a face mask ready to put on when a wandering reporter came by to ask questions.

“We’re all just being respectful of everybody’s space,” Bessette said.

The community garden, and others like it, provide space for those who may not have suitable yards for growing.

Bessette said she grows in her yard and in the double plot she rents in the community garden.

“Produce in the winter blows,” she said. “This way, I can grow varieties you can’t find in the store, and I can preserve my own to eat in the winter.”

Wheeler works as the Farm Fresh Appalachia Director for the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council. The nonprofit organization provides support and resources to famers in the region.

The council sponsors Build It Up East TN, which aids community gardens and backyard growers.

During the pandemic, Wheeler said Built It Up has been posting tutorial videos on YouTube with tips and tricks for small-scale gardens.

Look for Build It Up’s YouTube channel for a full playlist of videos.