Pandemic Gardens Are Trending: Fears Over Food Shortages Lead First Timers to Get Growing





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 that 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.

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