Early on in the pandemic, Karen Scott, owner of Scott’s Yankee Farmer in East Lyme, had been nervous about whether customers would return.
“When we ordered the plant material back in November and we started planting in March, I was thinking, are we going to be able to sell this when it’s ready?” she said.
But, Scott has seen an upswing in sales in the past two months. .
“We’re having a hard time keeping up. I will start some lettuce today. But people may not get their first choice of tomato variety. Vegetable seedlings have mostly sold out and it’s too late to start new ones, she said. “I would say our sales are up. There are probably a lot of people that are gardening that have never gardened before.”
Teri Smith, owner of Smith’s Acres in Niantic, said the plant business has been booming this spring due to a shift in customer priorities since the pandemic.
“I joke that everybody in southeastern Connecticut has turned vegetarian and they’re growing their own food,” she said.
At the beginning of the season she said she was reluctant to expand her business model, but she noticed a marked increase in customer demand for a range of plant choices.
“I hesitated to order shrubs and perennials. I like to stick with what we grow — annuals and veggies — but people were looking to plant so we started bringing in shrubs and perennials,” she said.
Martin Griswold, owner of Judge’s Farm Nursery, a wholesale grower in Old Lyme, said the market for plants rollercoastered after the state-ordered COVID-19 shutdowns in March, but bounced back in April and May.
“Every day is a Saturday for garden centers right now. My drivers will pull into a garden center on a Monday or a Tuesday and it’s full,” he said.
Griswold attributed the rising demand for plants to the number of people who working — and now gardening — at home during the pandemic, which is making up for slow sales early in the season.
“Four or six weeks ago, things were very uncertain and then about three weeks ago it really got busy, the weather got decent and I know it’s straight across the board for other wholesalers. Our customers can’t get enough product from anybody. They’re selling out, the industry is doing well,” he said. “I think we have climbed out of a hole.”
At Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, general manager Burton Jaynes said he and the staff have taken a “pretty cautious approach” to interacting with the public by sticking to curbside pickup, pre-orders and deliveries. The new routines are far more labor intensive than the “old normal.”
“People call or email and place an order and we set aside those plants. They pay by credit card on the phone and then drive in at a predetermined time,” he said. “It’s a lot more work for us to sell that way. Instead of people picking out their own plants, we have to talk to them [on the phone], find out what plants we have and confirm they want the plants. We have one phone line, people leave a message and we call them back.”
Overall, the nursery is not selling as many plants as last year at this time — it’s down by about 20 percent — but putting new, safer protocols into place has been the priority, Jaynes said.
“We are setting a time when people can pick up plants curbside and letting them walk through the sales yard. We’re doing more as we get more comfortable and get more physical barriers to safeguard employees’ areas. We’re not letting people into any of our buildings and we’re limiting the number of people on the property. We have a sales barn where we check out people standing six feet away from our cash register outside,” he said.
The company offers mail order at the two ends of the season, January through March and at the end of the summer into the fall.
“This year the mail order business was really rocking. We usually stop shipping plants in April because the weather gets warm and plants are more fragile then. Because of COVID-19, we left our mail order open and added an extra three weeks of shipping. That was up by a lot and it offset some of the less-than-spectacular sales on site,” he said.
In a typical year, the nursery does almost 75 percent of its business between April and the end of June, with an upsurge after Labor Day. The pandemic could cause these patterns to change, Jaynes said.
“This year customers are champing at the bit. They’re not traveling for business or vacation, they’re sitting in their house looking at their yard.”
The housing factor
One of the big drivers in nursery plant sales on the wholesale level is housing starts, according to Victoria Smith, deputy state entomologist, because new housing requires landscaping.
The other major driver is housing sales. “When you buy a new house, you want to personalize it and change the landscaping,” she said.
The nursery plant sector supports about 43,000 jobs in state of Connecticut, according to a report that came out last year that was supported by University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association, said Smith.
“The total economic impact in Connecticut is over $4 billion and these businesses pay an estimated $263 million in state and local taxes,” she said.
Smith said she has seen a shift toward self-sufficiency in the population since the pandemic.
“Most nurseries said they cannot keep fruit trees, tomatoes, and vegetables in stock. Everybody wants to grow their own food,” she said. “People are working from home and they don’t have an hour commute in the car. They have more time to garden. And it gives the kids something to do, have them plant something.”
A positive migration
The pandemic has unleashed a wave of house-hunting in southeastern Connecticut in a pattern similar to the aftermath of 9/11, said Nancy Mesham, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker.
“We saw the same kind of thing, people reevaluated what they want to do and decided they would come here. They may have spent summers at the beach and see this as a place to raise a family,” she said.
Sellers are staging their homes and redoing their plantings, she said. Those who are working at home are now gardening.
Old Lyme and the surrounding towns are a retreat area and a destination,” she said. “The Covid crisis has sealed the deal both for those buying a second home and for those who are just moving. It’s a very interesting positive migration.”
Buyers want space and they want to do organic gardening, maybe even raise a few chickens, Mesham said.
“I have downsizers, retreat buyers, first time buyers,” she said. “You can feel it, the market is booming, we are seeing multiple offers at all price points.”
One constant this year is that customers desperately want tomato plants, said Sarah Ballek, a third-generation partner in Ballek’s Garden Center in East Haddam.
“We have a saying, ‘tomatoes are the new toilet paper,’” she laughed.
“We can’t keep tomatoes in stock. We still have some in the greenhouse that we’re growing. We started ours long ago and it’s almost too late to start tomatoes from seed now,” she said. “We [also] ran out of cut flowers on Mother’s Day and that’s the first time that’s happened in the 11 years I’ve been here.”
Ballek said business seems to be about the same as last year, even with customers restricted to outdoor browsing. Employees answer phones indoors, take orders, pull stock and work in the greenhouses. Customers can cash out through a contactless system.
“We are very low tech here. We write down our inventory, we don’t have a barcode system or anything online. So that was probably the biggest challenge to this system. People would call and ask if we had a six-inch monstera plant and we’d have to run around the gardens and check for it,” she said.
The nursery uses social media heavily to communicate with customers. “We try to have a really good online presence to show people what we have.”
Because of the uncertainty of sales during the pandemic, the operation focused on essential items related to vegetable gardening and items like seed hay.
“We kept most of the plants that we grow here the same, but we cut back on the kinds of things that we order in — like the statuary, the tropicals, pottery, and houseplants,” Ballek said.
Employees were — and are — a priority, said Ballek, who is one of eight family members who are partners in the nursery, which has about 15 full-time, year-round employees and a number of high school and college summer employees.
“We have some employees who have been with us for 40 years and they’re a little worried about their health and safety. We’ve offered that they could not work with the public, they can work behind the scenes in the greenhouses, or take a leave of absence. But, all of them have stuck with us,” she said.