Many greenhouses saw a surge in sales this spring as coronavirus kept people at home and gave them time to spend on their yards and gardens.
On Highway 163 in south Columbia, Strawberry Hill Farms closed 15 days earlier than planned after running out of plants due to relentless customer demand.
Steven Sapp, one of the owners of Strawberry Hill Farms, said he was shocked by the turnout. By May, the greenhouse was already three weeks ahead of the usual sales curve.
“Basically every day felt like a weekend day,” he said. “There was a constant number of people coming through, which was unusual.”
Most states, including Missouri, allowed greenhouses and nurseries to remain open as essential businesses after coronavirus restrictions were put in place.
Sapp acknowledged how fortunate the farm was to be deemed an essential business when other businesses in town had to close their doors.
“We actually didn’t advertise throughout the whole season,” he said. “We have friends that have businesses that weren’t open and were losing revenue, and so we tried to help them out when we could.”
Bruce Young, executive director at CMSE Giving Gardens, said it was a roller coaster for sales this spring. The nursery on South Bearfield Road provides employment opportunities for adults with disabilities.
“We were only doing online sales in the beginning, to keep our employees safe, since many are at risk for (COVID-19),” Young said.
But online-only orders didn’t keep pace with projections. Young said the nursery was down $50,000 in sales revenue compared to a normal year.
Since reopening May 4, however, the increased customer demand has almost returned business to where it was last year at this time.
Allie Henneke, media coordinator for Superior Garden Center, estimates sales were up 30% this year and called it “a great season.”
“It was fun to be so busy,” Henneke said. “It had its own set of challenges, but everyone was so excited to have projects to work on and stuff to do. It was a fun, pleasant spring considering the situation.”
Members of the Eckerle family in Columbia were among the customers who flocked to plant nurseries and greenhouses when COVID-19 forced them to spend more time at home.
“I never had the time to garden before,” Tera Eckerle said. “Since we were stuck at home, we wanted to spend some time out in the sun, and gardening helped that.”
Eckerle estimates that she spent over $500 on gardening supplies but said the experience of gardening as a family was priceless.
“It was actually very therapeutic, and it definitely made our moods different,” she said. “You could tell when we had been outside after we started gardening. It made a huge difference in the way that we acted toward each other.”
Patrick Byers, a horticulture field specialist in Webster County, said he believes the increased customer demand on greenhouses was related to the emotional toll the threat of COVID-19 had on people’s mental health.
“Plants have a documented calming impact on people’s well-being,” Byers said. “Especially during this time where things have been so stressful for many of us, being able to leave that behind and go spend some time in our gardens and work with plants is huge.”
Food insecurity was another reason for gardening during the pandemic, said Debi Kelly, a horticulture field specialist in Jefferson County.
“There has been a surge in people wanting to grow their own food,” Kelly said. “It is easier for inexperienced people to begin gardening from transplants, which is why there was a rush to greenhouses.”
Worried about the food supply in grocery stores around town, Rona Silvers and her husband began gardening when the stay-at-home order was announced.
“With the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of anxiety over food security, even financial security,” Silvers said. “The possibility of (gardening) seemed useful at some point. Just to be independent and smart about eating and cooking. It just makes gardening a more sustainable idea.”
Silvers estimates she spent at least $300 on gardening supplies, but believes it was worth the investment of having fresh fruit and vegetables at home.
As the spring gardening season ends and transitions into fall, Kelly predicts that this group of new gardeners will continue to flock to the greenhouses.
“Those who are successful when they start gardening are probably going to continue into the fall,” Kelly said. “The reality of you planted something, you took care of it, and then got to reap the benefits of the harvest, there is nothing better than that and that is why they will continue to garden.”
Sapp said Strawberry Hill plans to supply the same number of plants for the fall despite this seasonal demand but may look to outsource to acquire more.
“I don’t know what the fall is going to bring,” Sapp said. “I am anticipating it being fairly good just because I think people are still going to be at home more. They are used to that and are going to want to keep up with their yards.”