The isolation and spare time created by the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked new interest in gardening for many in Colorado Springs, flooding local garden centers and nurseries with new customers.
And while the surge in sales is a welcome lifeline in a stumbling economy, the gardening spike has brought its own challenges — among them overstretched supply chains and workflow issues.
Andrew Cronk, who manages the garden center for Phelan Gardens, said despite being declared an essential service as agricultural crop producers in the early days of the pandemic, the business was largely unprepared for new challenges.
Within three days of the stay-at-home order taking effect, Cronk said, Phelan Gardens shifted its entire operation from in-person sales to 100 percent online, with customers collecting their orders curbside.
“We went to an online order form through Google that we had to hand build in three days, but it worked,” Cronk said.
“That being said, we weren’t seeing the regular income that we usually do just due to the limited amount of staff we were able to have and the limited amount of orders we were able to process daily — because we were doing the job of the shopper and of the cashier, which takes twice the amount of time.”
Even with its new online capabilities, the business struggled to generate revenue through the month of April.
Cronk estimates they brought in less than half of the revenue they normally would during that period.
But garden businesses in Colorado were able to reopen to in-person shopping in May — typically one of the industry’s busiest months. At the same time they’ve tackled new safety guidelines, such as social distancing, increased cleaning efforts, mandatory mask-wearing for employees and suggested mask-wearing for customers.
“May is our big time and we were able to hit that,” Cronk said. “I would say since then, we’ve seen double what we usually see this time of year. Once that [stay-at-home order] was lifted, it seems like every single person in the city wanted to come buy something to grow, even if they haven’t done it before.”
Dan Hopper, co-owner of Rick’s Garden Center, said his business also switched to curbside and delivery services during the stay-at-home order — and April revenues were 60-70 percent below last year’s April total.
Since Rick’s reopened to in-person shopping, Hopper said they’ve seen a “huge demand” from people wanting to start their own gardens.
“The demand for seed and veggies and herbs has just been through the roof,” Hopper said. “Business has been good. But the problem we’re facing now is that our suppliers can’t keep up with the demand on seeds and veggies and even flowers.”
Hopper said Rick’s is now back-ordered on products “across the board,” with most of their suppliers completely sold out of many plant products.
“The suppliers generally plant a kind of rotation, where they stagger their crops. So the first crop basically went away a month early, if not more,” Hopper said. “So it throws everything off. It’s kind of like what the grocery stores have seen with certain products where you just can’t get them, because the demand has gone up probably three to four times [compared to normal.] So it eventually just breaks the supply chain.”
For Phelan Gardens, some supplies that previously took about a day to receive now take about a week.
“We’re having to order a week in advance to make sure we can get our hands on certain things like hanging baskets,” Cronk said. “So we’re having to be a lot more preemptive with ordering on a lot of products.”
Garden center managers see numerous reasons for the surge in demand.
“I think people that are parents who are at home with kids want to start up a project that is kind of centered in gardening and outdoor-oriented,” Hopper said. “And there’s people that are wanting to grow their own food in ‘victory gardens,’ and then there’s just traditional customers that we have had through the years that are just kind of increasing what they normally might be doing with their gardens.”
Many aspiring gardeners are driven by a desire for sustainability, Cronk said, looking to grow their own small crops and become less dependent on other sources of fresh produce.
“They’re realizing that if the grocery stores get strained or if they can’t find stuff, maybe they can grow it themselves,” Cronk said. “Backyard homesteading and backyard farming is on a huge upswing — we literally tripled or quadrupled our veggie production, and we’re already low on that compared to years past, which is astonishing.”
And while edible plants seem to be the most popular items these days, Cronk said, there’s also a large segment of new customers seeking to start projects purely out of boredom.
“Even our houseplants — things that don’t provide you with anything but a little clean air and something to look at — we’ve seen staggering numbers just flying out the door,” Cronk said. “And then there are things that are providing … just something pretty. I thought our flower sales were going to be tanked this year because everyone was going to go for something that provided food or something like that … but people want something pretty, too. If they’re going to be stuck at home they want something to look at.”
More heavy traffic is expected throughout the summer months — meaning ideal growth conditions for garden centers and nurseries.
“Honestly, it has been a pleasant surprise to see the rebound from April when we were closed,” Hopper said. “We weren’t anticipating this huge demand that we’re seeing. So that’s certainly been a positive surprise. It’s definitely panned out better than I would have hoped.”
“We expected a good season before all this happened — and when all this [COVID-19] stuff started happening, we saw an opportunity,” Cronk said. “I think we’ve handled it well and we are — as far as I can tell — prepared for what’s going to come next.”