BLUE HILL — Garden centers and nurseries are in the midst of a perfect storm thanks to the arrival of spring and a global pandemic that shuttered the economy, disrupted the food chain and left thousands of Mainers at home with nothing to do but plant a garden.
“Everyone’s going to have a garden or they say they are,” said Harvard Jordan, who owns the Ellsworth Feed and Seed. “I’ve re-ordered four times and it isn’t even May yet. Usually I don’t do the first re-order until May. It’s hard.”
For Don and Althea Paine who have owned Mainescape Garden Center in Blue Hill for 45 years, keeping employees healthy and happy has been job number one.
“Once your employees get sick, you’re out of business,” said Don Paine. To that end, only one or two customers will be allowed in the greenhouses at a time until further notice. The couple have ordered an awning to erect by the main door to their shop so that customers can stay outside and find things they need such as gloves, soil and tools. Clerks will take payments through an existing window.
“We may have a policy if you want to go into the greenhouse or shop at all, you need a facemask.”
“I think we’re going to see a huge upsurge in backyard gardens this year,” Paine said. “Nobody could have anticipated this last fall when people were anticipating their spring seed orders.”
In addition to planting gardens, many Mainers have decided to raise chickens.
The Ellsworth Feed and Seed has been “overwhelmed” by the demand for chicks, said Jordan. “I’m only one of the places in the state that has chickens every week until September. The volume of chickens people want is shocking.”
Prospective fowl customers need to be patient. It takes about 22 days to hatch chicks, Jordan said. There’s no way to rush Mother Nature.
Time is of the essence for nurseries, especially in Maine’s short growing season. May and June are when nurseries make most of their revenue for the year, Paine said.
“We’re no different than a grocery store,” said Paine. “All of our items are perishable. They have to be watered every day. They have to be maintained. Once you bring that inventory in—you’ve got to sell it. It’s a very tenuous thing.”
One of the questions for the Paines is whether there will be any hospitality business this spring and summer, which is a good chunk of their revenue.
“If the hospitality centers [hotels, restaurants] don’t open up—that’s a huge,” he said. “They all deck themselves out every year for the summer traffic. If they can’t open, they aren’t going to order. Those are the things we think about today.”
The pandemic has created more work for everyone.
Taking email orders for curbside pickup means employees doing the shopping instead of the customers then having a place to have all the orders organized, Paine said. Then there’s the sanitization that needs to be done frequently throughout the day.
Surry Gardens had been taking email orders for curbside pickup but has stopped to “get ready to re-open at some point next week,” nursery staff told customers in a social media post.
“We will have an improved outdoor checkout area,” according to the post. “We will be limiting numbers of people, especially inside the greenhouses. We will be asking people to respect the personal space boundaries of our workers and other customers, as well as encouraging one shopper to come in for the family if at all possible, to allow another family a chance to shop, too.”
Todd Simon, owner of Simons Hancock Farms and Greenhouses, said he opened earlier than planned—on Friday—because of customer demand.
Simon installed plexiglass at the check-out counters to shield employees as they assist customers. The nursery is limiting greenhouse activity to no more than five people in a greenhouse at a time. “We have sanitizers everywhere. We’re protecting everybody very well.”
“We have everything marked off six feet. We’re taking it one day at a time. As it gets busier, things may change. I need to get people through here but I can’t have a line 1,500 miles long either.”
Simon said the additional unemployment benefits the federal government is providing has affected his ability to hire the workers the business needs.
“It’s hard to hire people right now,” he said. “Who wants to work when they can collect an extra $800 bucks a month?”
Simons has plenty of seeds as does Mainescape and the Feed and Seed.
However, Fedco and Johnny’s have been so overwhelmed by the demand for seeds that they are only filling commercial orders at this point, according to Sarah Alexander, executive director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
“We want to make sure people aren’t hoarding seeds,” said Alexander. “For home gardeners you don’t really need that many seeds, depending on how much you’re growing. One packet of seeds for something like kale, is going to be more than one family needs. We’ve got some community resources we’re putting out to encourage the sharing of seeds.”
“We’re very excited to provide support for new gardeners,” said Alexander. To that end, MOFGA has been providing free video tutorials on gardening basics. “We have a link right on the home page [www.mofga.org] that says resources for gardeners.”
Paine said he and Althea are grateful to be in a business considered essential during this pandemic.
Governors in Pennsylvania and Michigan have deemed nurseries non-essential and shut them down.
“If everybody’s going to garden, I can feel good about that,” said Paine. “I think it’s going to change the shape of who we are as a society. We will be more aware of our environment every day and more appreciative of the food chain.”
“We tend to be optimists,” Paine said. “We try to keep on the positive side. When it all shakes out, we’re not going to have a bust-out year but we’re going to survive. We’re going to keep moving forward.”