One year ago, on March 6, 2020, Plant Nerd Night was held for the 19th consecutive year with more than 500 attendees. Little did we know that the following week COVID-19 restrictions would begin, and Plant Nerd Night suddenly had the dubious distinction of being the last large in-person consumer gardening event that year.
Gone was Gardenpalooza, gone was the Clackamas County Master Gardeners Spring Garden Fair, gone was Hortlandia (the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon Annual Plant and Garden Art Sale), gone was the Portland Rose Society Annual Spring Rose Show, and the list goes on.
For many plant vendors who relied on these spring garden events as their major source of income, it simply was not to be.
If that was not enough, much of Oregon suffered from horrendous wildfires that destroyed many homes and even some towns in the late summer. The heavy smoke created an air quality that was deemed hazardous. People were told to stay indoors, and many garden centers temporarily closed.
Then, this past February, parts of the Willamette Valley experienced an ice storm that came with a vengeance. Roads closed, trees toppled, greenhouses caved, businesses closed, residential and commercial areas lost power for multiple days, and plants were covered in ice.
I was shocked at the extensive damage that was done to plants from the ice that formed on branches and limbs. The weight of the ice caused major limbs — some the size of trees themselves — to crash to the ground. Many mature trees in my neighborhood simply fell over. Birch, maple, oak, or fir, there was no discrimination.
What does all of this mean for garden centers for 2021? That is the major question.
It will take a crystal ball to predict the future and that is especially so in the garden industry because there are so many varying factors. Weather, of course, is high on the list, but also, is the desire to garden.
During this unsettling past year, there has been a huge surge in gardening and much of it is due to the participation of novice gardeners. The challenge for our industry has been to make their gardening experience rewarding so that it will be ongoing.
I can think of two good indicators that are positive for the garden center business in 2021. One is garden helplines, which can provide a good indication of interest in gardening.
Neil Bell, of the Oregon State University Extension Service in Marion and Polk counties, told me that the “Ask Extension” (extension.oregonstate.edu/ask-expert), has been extremely popular. This is a service whereby someone can email a garden question and receive an answer from an extension agent. Pictures can be sent along with the email if there is a particular problem with a plant.
Neil said that he was surprised that even in the winter, the volume of questions did not diminish and remained high.
Another good indicator is mail-order business, especially orders that have later spring shipping dates. If gardeners are ordering now for a later shipping date, this would indicate that they are planning ahead. That is a good sign of ongoing gardening interest.
Even though there was extensive damage from the recent ice and snowstorm, there is something positive to be gained from this. Many of the trees and shrubs that were killed or damaged will be replaced. One neighbor who was removing a tree that had toppled said that he was trying to be positive and was looking at it as a new planting opportunity!
Seeing more novices
Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene recently held their annual Hellebore Open Garden Days. This year it was spread out over two weekends — Friday, Saturday and Sunday for both weekends. To help alleviate crowding, they partnered with Gossler Farms Nursery in Springfield and held the event at both locations. The final tally was that both locations completely sold out of hellebores.
Marietta O’Byrne of Northwest Garden Nursery said that for the first time, she noticed many more novices than she remembers seeing in past years. Many new people were asking basic questions about growing hellebores and that also is a good sign.
Roger Gossler echoed what Marietta said about customers asking about the fundamentals and he took that as an indicator that they had not grown hellebores before. Gossler Farms Nursery has an extensive display garden and there were many questions about some of the perennial and shrubs growing there. He felt it was a sign that there was also interest in other plants. Roger also said that their on-site sales are good, and their mail-order business has been strong with no sign that it is declining.
Dancing Oaks Nursery in Monmouth suffered extensive storm damage with many large trees uprooted. A large oak in one of their display gardens was toppled and ruined much of that display garden. Co-owner Leonard Foltz believes that there will be many plants sold for replacements for what has been lost to the ice storm.
Like Gossler Farms, Dancing Oaks has both a retail and online presence. Leonard said their website traffic has been steady with many orders coming from the New England states.
Local garden centers are reporting good early season sales with vegetable seeds continuing the same strong trend as last year. It is not unusual for some vegetable seeds to already have been sold out and replenished. Of course, there are many hard good sales including tools, soil and fertilizers related to the sale of vegetable seeds.
Customers seem to also want color, and who can blame them? It has been a long winter with many people not venturing far from their home due to the threat of COVID-19. Blooming daffodils, tulips, pansies, primrose, and more can quickly brighten up a spring day and improve the home garden.
We cannot predict the future, but in analyzing the last year, we can at least begin the planning process to ensure more success for this year. Certainly, many of the new gardeners of last year will have been so sufficiently successful that they will continue with their new endeavor. Growing their own food may be a bonus that will add to their growing enthusiasm for gardening.
Half joking, Foltz said that when people receive their vaccination, he hopes they will also get a big shot of the gardening gene.