Nothing about the spring 2020 garden season has been ordinary. From March onward, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many facets of the garden industry in ways no one could have predicted.
Six months ago, if you had described a scene where shoppers and workers were wearing masks and standing six feet apart, no one would have believed it. No one would have predicted the newfound prevalence of online or telephone ordering at garden centers, or the occurrence of product outages. The list goes on.
Many garden centers have overcome extraordinary obstacles to stay open. The typical garden center was never designed to take online orders and to have customers drive up for their merchandise to be loaded into their vehicles.
Nurseries nationwide encountered confusion and uncertainty. In some states, the green industry was shut down either partially or entirely. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order shut down many businesses, but nurseries were not among them. However, there were new protocols all businesses had to follow — nurseries included.
Different businesses adapted to the challenge in different ways. For example, the five-acre Portland Nursery (Portland, Oregon) closed for two weeks in March to rearrange its environment and make it safe and legal to open.
Measures taken included limiting the number of customers allowed in the nursery at any one time to 30 people, closing the indoor portion of the store so all business is conducted outside, rearranging layouts for social distancing, setting up plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers, and eliminating the use of cash — all transactions had to be either credit or debit.
The seeds of uncertainty
With all of this going on around me, I had not stopped to consider that vegetable seeds might become more difficult to obtain. I got a reality jolt one morning when I opened a message from High Mowing Organic Seeds, a large seed company in Vermont that sells seeds to growers as well as home gardeners.
The message said that because of record-breaking orders, the company had to make some tough decisions. It would stop accepting new orders from home gardeners from April 11–28, and also would not take website orders during that time.
To me, this decision — coming during the peak vegetable planting season — was almost unheard of. Wanting to get a more local perspective on this issue, I contacted Mike Dunton from Victory Seed Company in Molalla, Oregon. He reported that they too had stopped accepting new orders in April. They simply could not keep up with the demand. Even though employees were working almost around the clock to fill orders, seven days a week, they were still behind with shipping.
Mike believes that the supply chain disruption due to COVID-19 has people looking for greater food security. They want to know where their vegetables are coming from, and they want a reliable supply. If there ever was a time people wanted to sow a Victory Garden, it is now!
I contacted several local garden centers to get a perspective on changes they have made with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. I particularly was curious if the vegetable seed sales increases were, in fact, carrying over from the grower to the retailer.
I asked Portland Nursery General Manager Suzy Hancock about vegetable seed sales and she said they were selling like “hotcakes.” Suzy said that the nursery owner, Jon Denney, was evidently looking into his crystal ball earlier this spring and thought that there might be a big increase in the demand for vegetable seeds. He told the buyers to double what they had ordered last year, which they did, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Many vegetable varieties sold out early, and getting reorders has been difficult, or in some cases, impossible.
Because of COVID-19, the nursery changed the location of its seed racks and how the seeds are sold. Since the seed racks were located in the indoor area that is now closed, they were moved to a location just inside one of the warehouse doors. The store needed to limit hand contact between customers and the seed packets, so they set up tables in front of the racks to prevent access. Instead of picking through a seed rack by hand, customers must ask a salesperson to retrieve the desired packets.
In spite of these barriers, vegetable seed sales increased.
Along with that, there has also been a big demand for raised bed kits and soil.
With a smaller footprint, Garden Fever — another Portland, Oregon garden center — has closed its retail store and with it, the outside nursery area. With their limited physical space, it was too difficult to try to maintain a six-foot social distance between customers, co-owner Lori Vollmer said.
The retailer is now selling electronically, either by email or with Excel order sheets from their website. The customer is then called to acknowledge that the order is ready, and the payment and pick up process is explained.
Lori said that vegetable seed sales have “gone through the roof” and they are often unable to get reorders.
She also said that they have seen an increase in raised bed kits and that garden soil sales have increased dramatically. Garden Fever has always had a good selection of puzzles and Lori said that sales of puzzles have also increased dramatically.
Parking was already limited due to Garden Fever’s urban location. Customer pickups are proving to be even more challenging. Although the nursery was never designed for on-line orders and pickups, the nursery stepped up to meet the challenge and it is working. I commend them for that.
I did smile when I read on their website, “Closed Monday and Tuesday — staff health and sanity days!” Those are probably very well deserved.
Finding a way
I believe that gardeners are very innovative. Despite obstacles that might occur, they will find a way to plant their vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees. Especially in these troubling times, my garden is where I go to relieve some stress and enjoy the beauty surrounding me.
To make it convenient for gardeners to know what garden centers are open, what services are offered, and what restrictions they might have, the Oregon Association of Nurseries has created a Safer Shopping page listing 61 retail locations and counting. For up to date information, go to
This only goes to prove that no matter what you do, you cannot “mask” the ability of garden centers to creatively meet the challenges that they encounter.