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Plants

In the face of so much sorrow, we turn to gardens and plants for a sliver of hope

A beautiful ripe tomato
We’re turning to plants for small sliver of solace in the face of world events. And nursery owners all over Southern California are scrambling to keep up as sales soar.
(Photo illustration by Steven Banks )

Between the coronavirus outbreak and the one-two punch of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the protests that followed, the spring of 2020 has been a numbing parade of horror and grief, a great hunkering down and then spilling out as we’ve tried individually and collectively to process a fire hose of changes and emotions that just keep coming.

Thank goodness for plants.

Many of us grieving about the state of the world — illness, injustice, inequities — are turning to our victory gardens, or the potted tomatoes and basil on our balconies or patios, for the tiny moments of respite they provide. Nursery owners all over Southern California — who are scrambling to keep up as sales soar — are proof.

“People come in and say, ‘Oh, my God, can it get any worse?’” said Cathy Hough, general manager of the Marina del Rey Garden Center. “But then you see them take a deep breath and start relaxing.”

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“When people come in here, it’s just a good feeling,” she added.

Jimmy Williams and his son Logan are black owners of a popular Silver Lake nursery that sells organic vegetable plants and builds gardens for the rich and famous, but that didn’t stop the police from pulling them over in their work van one day, saying, ‘We’ve had several robberies in the area.’

The popular 2-acre nursery has stayed open throughout the pandemic, with social distancing lines and everyone wearing masks, and has remained open over recent days. It’s even added some part-time employees to keep up with the crush and monitor the gates to make sure it doesn’t get too crowded.

A sign with Mayor Eric Garcetti in a black mask says customers must wear face coverings at the Marina del Rey Garden Center.
The Marina del Rey Garden Center is open and requires customers to wear a mask.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)

“We’ve just been slammed, and the pace is unrelenting. Our business went up 120% these past two to three months,” Hough said.

Nurseries all over Southern California are reporting a banner spring for plant sales, but no one is celebrating. First, there are the headlines looming over everything. Then there is the crushing workload, trying to keep up with demand, especially from first-time gardeners and people wanting to grow food in these uncertain times.

In the Sawtelle district of West L.A., some nurseries that were only offering curbside deliveries closed last week due to concerns about looting. Several businesses along Sawtelle Boulevard boarded up, but Marianne Yamaguchi, owner of Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery, has remained open, in limited fashion, selling soil, vegetable seedlings and other plants to people who come to her fence.

“We just have a chain-link fence around our business, so there’s not really much we can do” to keep out looters, Yamaguchi said. “But really, coronavirus has been a bigger issue for us. We’re not letting people inside the gates. We tried to stay open [to foot traffic] for a while, but the crowding was too much, and having to disinfect everything. ... We just said, ‘We can’t do this.’”

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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.

She’d like to reopen soon, “but I’m still nervous ... the coronavirus numbers in our city are pretty high still, and with the protests I’m afraid everybody will get reinfected again, with more community spread, so I don’t feel like we’re ready to open up just yet.”

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, even as online business remains brisk.

Los Angeles Times video journalist Claire Hannah Collins shops for herbs at the Marina del Rey Garden Center.
Los Angeles Times video journalist Claire Hannah Collins shops for herbs at the Marina del Rey Garden Center.
(Claire Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)

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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. “Our suppliers are running around in circles because they can’t get enough products.”

The strongest sales are in vegetable plants, “and not just vegetables but fruit trees, berries … anything edible,” said Mary Kannor, manager of Louie’s Nursery in Riverside. She added: “Our organic soil sales have skyrocketed, and people seem less conscious about price right now, because this is something they’re passionate about and excited to do.”

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Logan’s Gardens in Silver Lake sells only organic edible plants it grows itself, and co-owner Jimmy Williams says his business, which includes building and maintaining gardens for the rich and famous, has more than doubled since mid-March.

“A lot of these people have all this beautiful property but no food, no fruit trees ... and I think they realized, ‘We need to be growing food on our property.’” he said. “I think they panicked because they didn’t want to go to the farmers market, they didn’t want to go out at all, so you don’t have to be a genius to figure out it’s time to start growing some food, and our phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”

The stress is ongoing, says Hough of Marina del Rey Garden Center, but at home she finds comfort tending her plants.

“I probably should go out walking or bike riding, but gosh, I’ll go out to the garden to pull a few weeds and the next thing I know, I’ve been there half the day. I take my music out there and everything else ceases to be,” Hough said. “I’m a passionate gardener, but these past few months I’ve connected deeper to my garden than I ever thought I could.”

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She added: “I come from a spiritual community that says, ‘Good comes from everything’; so if these terrible things that have happened help people be more peaceful and centered in their garden, that’s something good.”


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