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Why plant sales are soaring, even at nurseries closed due to coronavirus

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While stuck at home during this pandemic, we’ve found plants and gardening to be an unexpected source of relief. What exactly is going on in our brains when we spend time in the company of plants? We look into the science behind how plants can reduce stress and anxiety and help us feel connected to the outside world.

This has been a banner spring for plant sales in Southern California, but no one is celebrating. They’re all too busy trying to keep up with demand from gardeners stuck at home due to the coronavirus.

“It’s kind of overwhelming, the number of orders we get every day,” said Greg Kuga, manager of the Sunset Boulevard Nursery in East Hollywood.

“This time last year the majority of our customers came in on weekends; we’d get 300 to 500 people on a Saturday or Sunday. But now we’re getting 200 orders a day, throughout the week. We’ve had to increase our staff because it’s very demanding on us, and a little stressful.”

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Many smaller nurseries, including Kuga’s, closed to on-site visits in mid-March because of coronavirus distancing concerns but began offering sales online or by phone. Sunset Boulevard Nursery’s website was pretty minimal in early March but, within a week after the shutdown orders, the nursery listed all its inventory online and set up an online order form.

The nursery also accepts call-in orders, but good luck getting through on the phone. And customers ordering online can expect a waiting period of several days before they can pick up their orders.

Kuga said his nursery started permitting people to come in by reservation only last week, but the slots filled up immediately, so it closed that option. The nursery has such a diversity of items, it can’t put everything online, Kuga said, so he hopes to reopen to limited drop-in customers in early June. Only 10 to 15 people will be allowed in at one time, he said. Social distancing signs have been placed all over the nursery to remind people to keep six feet apart, and everyone — visitors and staff — will be required to wear masks.

Armstrong Garden Centers’ 29 employee-owned stores initially closed to in-person customers for everyone’s safety, switching to online and phone sales only, said Desiree Heimann, vice president of marketing. But last month Armstrong began reopening its stores to in-person visitors, a few at a time. The numbers are limited, she said, and everyone must wear a mask. The stores even provide disposable masks for customers who arrive without.

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“It was kind of a phased approach to make sure the store was ready,” she said. “This is a hard environment for any business to be in because some people think the world is fine and don’t want to wear masks and some are scared to leave their houses, so we’re trying to keep things balanced.”

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So how do you tell customers they need to wear a mask? “We use kindness,” Heimann said. “We try to remind them that it’s just not us we care about but the people around us, so we all need to be extra patient and extra kind to each other.”

L.A. Times video journalist Claire Hannah Collins shops for herbs at the Marina del Rey Garden Center.
L.A. Times video journalist and newbie gardener Claire Hannah Collins shops for herbs at the Marina del Rey Garden Center on May 16.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)
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Other large nurseries, such as Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, Marina del Rey Garden Center and Parkview Nursery and Louie’s Nursery in Riverside, implemented social distancing rules, remote ordering and curbside pickups but chose to keep their doors open.

“We did see an increase in curbside deliveries,” said Louie’s Nursery manager Mary Kannor, “but we’re very open here, about 2.5 acres. We do require masks for customers and employees, and limit the numbers who enter the building, but most of our business is outside.”

Other small nurseries, such as Two Dog Organic Nursery in Mid-Wilshire and Fig Earth Supply in Mount Washington, closed to walk-in customers in mid-March and have no plans to reopen.

While stuck at home during this pandemic, we’ve found plants and gardening to be an unexpected source of relief. What exactly is going on in our brains when we spend time in the company of plants? We look into the science behind how plants can reduce stress and anxiety and help us feel connected to the outside world.

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“The virus hasn’t gone anywhere, has it?” said Fig Earth Supply owner Conor Fitzpatrick. “Even though places are opening up, things haven’t changed, so for the safety of our team and our customers, we’re keeping things as they are.”

Fig Earth Supply has added employees to keep up with demand from its online orders, and sales have increased over last year, “but there’s no joy in that,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s really hell, to be honest. Our suppliers are running around in circles because they can’t get enough products. Those poor suppliers who provide our seedlings are working like Trojans to keep up.”

The strongest sales are in vegetable plants “and not just vegetables but fruit trees, berries ... anything edible,” Kannor said. “We’ve seen a huge interest in organic gardening — our organic soils sales have skyrocketed — and people seem less conscious about price right now because this is something they’re passionate about and excited to do.”

Many nurseries reported a surge in first-time gardeners, and with several nurseries closed it’s been a challenge to answer questions as they browse. Many have added Q&A blogs to their websites. Fig Earth Supply’s Fitzpatrick and nursery manager Samantha Dargis Torres provide online classes and an Afternoon Coffee With Conor & Sam series on YouTube and Facebook, asking customers to email their questions.

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Concern for their employees’ welfare has made some nursery operators open to more flexible work arrangements. Two Dog Organic Nursery owner Jo Anne Trigo said she and her husband, Alex, work pretty much nonstop trying to keep orders filled. “Our business has exploded; it’s half again what it would be normally, and that’s with our slightly reduced crew. We’re up at 6 every morning, and we fall into bed at midnight.”

The nursery’s inventory is being depleted so quickly it can’t keep up its normal supplies, she said. The nursery grows many of its plants from seed, and Trigo became alarmed when she went to buy more seeds for warm-season vegetables and found seed inventories depleted.

“So two weeks ago I spent five hours online and ordered $1,000 worth of seeds for fall gardens,” Trigo said, “because the last thing I need now is to run out of seeds.”


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