Business

Local garden centers see surge in stuck-at-home customers investing in their yards

Lisa Slattery (left) helps Don Mersch of Cedar Rapids pick out a cypress, for his new bonsai hobby, on July 10 at Blooms
Lisa Slattery (left) helps Don Mersch of Cedar Rapids pick out a cypress, for his new bonsai hobby, on July 10 at Blooms in Marion. Despite worries about how the coronavirus would impact the business, it reports see increased sales and visitors this spring and summer, with people turning to gardening and landscape work. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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The spring growing season brought with it plenty of uncertainty, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But those who work at two local garden centers say they have been pleasantly surprised with the number of customers adding plants, vegetables and landscaping features to their homes.

“Back in March we were wondering what we should do, if we should actually cut our orders,” Lisa Slattery, plant manager at Blooms Garden Center in Marion, said, noting spring orders had been placed last fall. “We wondered how the pandemic would impact our business and if we should cancel some orders and pare back or wait and see what happens.”

Many horticultural businesses feared a silent spring, with the onset of the coronavirus and with some states and countries ordering greenhouses and nurseries closed.

In Iowa, the governor deemed garden centers essential businesses, and they stayed open during the pandemic’s early days, though with staff in face masks and social distancing.

Since then, “we’ve been busier than ever,” said Slattery, noting it’s been the center’s busiest year since it opened four years ago. “So we are really glad we didn’t cancel any orders.”

New gardeners

A number of the visitors to the garden center have been first-time gardeners and younger people, she said.

“I hope they get the gardening bug and keep it,” Slattery said. “There was a young couple that came in and they were looking at tomato cages and wanted to know if you have to put a cage around the tomato plant. They had never put in a vegetable garden before.”

In the center’s greenhouse, vegetables and herbs have been selling well.

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“People were really into home gardening this year more than ever,” said Nancy Exline, who works with perennials at Blooms. “And people are so appreciative of what we have to offer here and they so understanding when we say we can’t get hold of a certain item.

“I would reorder and try to get as much restocked as possible, but even the growers that we work with were selling out of vegetables and herbs,” Slattery said, adding she’s had to add new vendors to meet demand. “I hope that is something that continues going forward.”

Annuals were equally popular.

“People were ready back in April for annuals even when it was a bit too cold,” Slattery said, noting the business sold out of hanging baskets quickly. “Usually by this time of year, we are having a sale on annuals because we are trying to move them which we just didn’t have to do this year.”

Blooms tree manager, Nick McGrath, said fruit trees have been especially popular this year, and he has run into supply challenges — with peach trees.

Lots of deliveries

Shawn Graham at Next Generation Landscape Nursery in Cedar Rapids also reports staying busy, despite having to make some shifts in his business.

“Our season was a little weird as we didn’t really have a whole lot of foot traffic the spring, but we did a ton of deliveries,” said Graham, noting deliveries included everything from mulch and rock to trees and bedding plants.

“Everybody was switching over to having everything delivered to their house.”

Graham said the business went through eight semi truckloads of mulch in about two months, which is double the usual sales.

“Our deliveries have more than offset the decrease in the amount of foot traffic we usually have,” he said.

“A lot of people are doing projects they normally hadn’t gotten to in the past, expanding their landscapes,” he said.

industry impact

The pandemic has impacted the industry as a whole.

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“One of my growers told me that, from the standpoint of a large grower, they also were worried about the pandemic,” said Slattery from Blooms Garden Center. “There were several states where garden centers were not open, so they did release some stock and took things from some orders for sold-out garden centers. The impact certainly went from the home garden all the way up to even the national growers.”

While Graham said he did not run into any challenges with nursery stock — he grows trees, shrubs and perennials on store property — but he did run into supply chain issues for steel power equipment. “Some of my vendors ran out of stock, or they are unable to get components from overseas to fill orders.”

“I talked to my supplier and they said that back in March and April, they had some of their huge accounts cancel hundreds of thousands of dollars in orders, and then like a month later, they wanted all that stock,” Graham said. “People just didn’t know what was going to happen. If businesses were closed and they weren’t able to sell the stuff, nobody wanted to bring in product to take care of and that they couldn’t move it.”

Within the past month, Graham said, more people have felt comfortable coming into the store — which is all open air — to do some in person shopping.

Slattery agreed.

“People like to look at the plants and wander around even if they aren’t after something in particular,” she said. “It seems like this is happy place. People are happy to be outside.

“And during quarantine, they were maybe looking around at their own surroundings and decided to put some time and effort into making their backyard into a little more of an oasis. There’s a lot of do-it-yourself projects going on and people take a lot of pride in that.”

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