Quarantined residents rush to get growing

Mike Weeks tending seedlings
BUSINESS LOOKING BRIGHT: Mike Weeks, a managing partner at Fifth Season Gardening Co.'s Asheville location, tends plants to meet the store's high demand. Photo courtesy of Kristin Weeks

Toilet paper isn’t the only product flying off Western North Carolina shelves these days. Area garden stores and nurseries can’t keep seeds and plant starts in stock as quarantined people with time on their hands look for ways to get those hands in the dirt.

While many local shops closed in late March after Buncombe County issued its COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate, gardening retailers and wholesalers were deemed essential businesses. Some have opted to shutter for the time being, but many continue to operate in whatever ways they can. And for them, business is brisk.

“We are seeing a lot of sales this month; all of the stores in our company have been up,” says Kristin Weeks, managing partner and co-owner of the Asheville location of Fifth Season Gardening Co., which has multiple stores throughout North Carolina and Virginia. “People are coming in and spending a lot more money; the average invoice has gone up, too. People are kind of just coming in and going for it.”

Keeping up with demand

This enthusiasm was evident throughout March at Fifth Season in the form of unusually barren seed display racks and greenhouse shelves after incoming shipments were immediately snapped up. Weeks says the store was even forced to sell the vegetable seedlings it sources from Banner Greenhouses in Nebo without the usual one- or two-week grow-out period.

“Last weekend, we got them in on Thursday, and then we had this booming day Saturday,” Weeks recalls. “We were literally cutting the cell trays with scissors and selling them that way, which was wild. They were pretty much gone in two days.”

Weeks notes that her suppliers, which also include the locally based Sow True Seed, have experienced the same buying frenzy. “They are completely swamped,” she says. “[Sow True’s] turnaround used to be about 24-48 hours for us, but now, they’re about a little over a week out.”

Sow True marketing manager Kari Brayman — who has lately, out of necessity, also been helping pack orders — confirms Weeks’ assessment. “For the month of March, we’ve had at least double the amount of orders year-to-date over this time last year. So it’s all hands on deck,” she says.

The most popular seeds have been what Brayman describes as “victory garden veggie staples” — things like beans, carrots, greens, tomatoes, watermelon and squash. And the business has completely sold out of its large Homesteader and Be Prepared seed kits.

“We’ve had those for years, and it’s a slow-moving product,” she says. “They’re huge collections of seeds, so some people just want to buy a whole kit just to be covered.”

Sprouting interest

Brayman says Sow True is seeing a lot of first-time customers, and the high demand for staple seeds suggests that many are probably new to gardening. Jeff Mast, general manager at Banner Greenhouses — a family-owned, certified organic flower and vegetable plant grower that distributes nationally to farmers, retailers, homesteaders and other buyers — has noted a similar trend.

When Mast spoke with Xpress, he had just emerged from an early morning staff meeting about how to handle the recent surge in volume. “Our sales are up dramatically over last year, and we’re having a sizable increase of new customers. This is not just regional: It’s national,” he says. “We’re talking to other seed suppliers, and this gardening boom is across the board. Anybody involved with vegetables, I think, is experiencing it.”

Tomato plants, Mast adds, are Banner’s No. 1 seller, followed by lettuce. “Lettuce is very easy to grow for a homeowner, and a tomato plant can supply a family all summer long,” he says.

Weeks says Fifth Season is thrilled about the influx of beginning gardeners because the company has worked to position itself as a community hub for learning and sharing knowledge. “But what’s been really challenging for us during this time is the volume of sales and trying to be mindful about distancing in the store. And we have limited staff, too,” she explains.

For the time being, the shop’s approach has changed a bit for efficiency’s sake. “We kind of need you to do a little bit of research before you come in, and then we will help you arrive at your answers as quickly as possible,” Weeks says.

Fifth Season staff members have developed a basic soil recipe, simple infrastructure options and other resources for beginners. And Weeks encourages shoppers to place orders over the phone or online, email or call with specific questions and consult the shop’s blog for general gardening information. She also refers customers to other resources in the community, such as Living Web Farms’ collection of video workshops.

Sow True’s downtown retail space, which also normally functions as a community gardening information hub, is currently closed to the public, and the store is taking online orders only. “But we have a really robust resource on our website of planting guides and a gardening blog,” says Brayman. “Pretty much any gardening question you can think of is answered on those sections of the website.” Specific concerns can also be addressed by email and phone as time allows.

Silver linings

Weeks, Brayman and Mast all see the current gardening boom as a positive for the community.

“The food security piece has been something that we’re hearing a lot from people,” says Weeks. “They just realize right now that having your own garden, growing your own food — not only is it therapeutic and a great activity to do when you’re home, but it just feels like an important thing to do.”

“Gardening is the perfect fit for these times,” says Brayman. “It’s a time when people need to be self-reliant and try to maintain a hopeful attitude. We’re just really grateful to be able to provide the community with the tools to take care of themselves now and also to support regenerative agriculture, which is in our mission.”

Mast agrees. “I think this is a good thing,” he says. “People are staying home, and it’s very rewarding to plant a plant or seed and harvest and enjoy it on your dinner table. And I hope this creates lifestyle changes for the future as well.”


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