Looking back just six months ago, the feeling of uncertainty that swept over the garden center industry still feels fresh. As COVID-19 paralyzed businesses and supply chains, no one knew what would come next. But fears of a lost season were soon supplanted by a flood of new gardeners that lifted many IGCs to their best year yet.
The starting point for this influx of interest was remarkably constant from coast to coast. For some gardeners, COVID “victory gardens” rooted in World War II nostalgia held strong allure. For others, the idea of modern self-sufficiency and control held sway. But from one gardening perspective to another, vegetables led the way.
For insights on how vegetable gardening became a gateway to something bigger, we spoke with IGCs from California to Ohio to New York. Here’s what they saw this year:
SLOAT GARDEN CENTER
San Francisco Bay Area, California
The concept of victory gardens resurfaced last spring, thanks in large part to the National Garden Bureau’s victory garden media campaign. Sloat Garden Center’s 12 Bay Area locations embraced the idea and promoted victory gardening via social media, newsletters and in-store.
President and Chief Operations Officer Dave Stoner reports positive customer feedback, but a more modern take on vegetable garden victories was also underway.
“Whether it was victory gardens or just being prepared for not knowing what the food supply was going to be come summer — or just the fact that people were home and concerned — gardening definitely played a role in limiting those concerns,” he says. “Vegetable gardens did it two-fold because they were growing food.”
As vegetable sales soared, Stoner noticed two camps. On one hand, seasoned veggie gardeners upped their efforts “just in case,” planting more than ever before. “The other extreme was people that have never thought about where their tomatoes come from, let alone that they come from a plant, saying, ‘I’m going to grow a tomato,’” Stoner says.
Questions emailed to Sloat’s Garden Guru reflected the newness of gardeners involved. “It exploded this year. We had to double our force as far as answering those questions. But the quality of those questions also diminished dramatically because there was so much inexperience out there,” Stoner reports. “We found we were answering basic questions like ‘Why doesn’t my tomato have fruit yet? I’ve had it for two weeks.’”
To help new gardeners, Sloat focused mainly on in-store information and communications. But in-store handouts that had been popular lost their appeal to new vegetable gardeners with COVID concerns. “Nobody wanted to touch anything,” Stoner shares. So, the IGC quickly moved to get more online.
“One thing we’ve learned initially is that our company is grossly underrepresented with e-commerce, which is something we’ve never ventured into,” he says. “We’ve been pretty simple in our approach, pretty true to our core and to our brick-and-mortar, and it serves us really well. But we’ve learned there’s some avenues that we need to focus on moving forward.”
As new vegetable gardeners realized work-from-home would continue, Sloat saw interests evolve. “The first month was nothing but edibles,” Stoner says. Annuals were next. Vegetables kept skyrocketing, but focus shifted to landscaping and nursery stock. As the Bay Area enters fall planting season, interest continues strong overall.
Supply chain issues — the biggest challenge for Sloat this season — remain a concern. “I think the thing that surprised us around edibles, that we’ll address going into 2021, was ancillary products,” Stoner says. He notes that COVID-related production and packaging issues caused shortages in soil, fertilizers and more.
“What we’re looking to do going into 2021 is secure as much product as possible in advance, and put processes and programs in place that are nimble,” Stoner says. “If we left anything on the table this year, it was because we couldn’t get it, so in our mind, supply chain is really one of the most important things the industry has to do.”
Stoner points out that 2020’s garden victories transcended harvests: “We added a huge increase in brand new gardeners, which I think bodes well for the industry. There’s an investment they’ve made, and they found solace in it. A lot of them got the gardening bug. That’s what we’re hoping for and planning for next year.”
One observation that fuels Stoner’s optimism is that new gardeners weren’t just adults. “Kids were home, too, and the children got involved with not just growing veggies, but growing flowers and growing plants and digging holes for shrubs,” he says. “These are the gardeners of tomorrow. They really were exposed to much more than I think parents would have the ability to do in a normal year. That’s really exciting.”
THE DEES’ NURSERY & FLORIST
Long Island, New York
When coronavirus hit New York City this spring, emotions ran high at The Dees’ Nursery & Florist. Co-owner Joe DiDominica explains, “We were in the hot bed at the time. Long Island was the first hotbed of COVID-19. Obviously, now it’s the safest place in the country, but our area was pretty much shuttered. It shut down, but we were luckily allowed to stay open.”
With people quarantined at home, DiDominica saw a change take hold. “Folks were saying they had to do something to get out of the house, keep themselves occupied and do something with the kids,” he says. “That transformed into seed starting and teaching kids how to add a garden. We had a lot of people who had never gardened in their lives saying they wanted to start a vegetable garden.”
Dees’ promoted COVID victory gardens on social media, but DiDominica says that victories became more personal: “Victory gardening was out there, but vegetable gardening just took on a whole new thing. It was self-reliance. It was ‘I want to grow my own food.’ People wanted to take care of themselves.”
Early on, New Yorkers were hesitant to go out and shop, so they hit the phones instead. With just four regular staff on board, down from 21, DiDominica’s four daughters jumped in as telephone operators. “Like everybody, we really increased our phone order sales. I increased my online sales about 10-fold from the previous year,” he says. “We really transformed our business in a short, short period of time.”
Reticence to shop in-store eventually passed. “As things started lightening up, people weren’t afraid to come out,” DiDominica says. “Next thing, they started penetrating into our store a little bit and then it was game on.”
To help new gardeners, Dees’ turned to handouts on starting seeds, prepping soil and planting. Veggie basics such as peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes were top sellers, but all vegetables sold well. Among herbs, basil was No. 1, with Mojito mint for cocktails coming on strong. “People couldn’t go out to the bars, so they’re going to have their own little party at their house. They need Mojito mint,” DiDominica says.
The fervor for gardening expanded into other categories as Long Islanders skipped vacations and focused on home improvement instead. “Summer sales have been excellent,” DiDominica says. “Everybody wanted to fix up their yards. As long as you had products, you were able to have good days.”
What started with vegetables and segued to nursery stock has shifted to houseplants now, as people working from home want to grow plants indoors, too. “Houseplants were in an upward trend before COVID-19, but now this has supercharged it and really has increased that,” DiDominica says. “They’re booming now.”
Spring’s biggest surprise in DiDominca’s mind was how quickly the season turned around and who got involved. “I was really happy to see how many families did it together,” he says. “Gardening turned back to kind of like the old days, where kids were doing it with their parents. You haven’t seen that a lot. Working outside in your yard, in your vegetable garden, became a family event again.”
DiDominica hopes 2020’s vegetable-fueled gardening victories stick: “When you work in the yard, it’s a feeling of accomplishment and you never want to go backward. Why would you not want that again for next year? We definitely have opened our doors to a whole new group of new homeowners and younger people. I think it’s going to bode well for our industry as we move forward.”
Looking to 2021, DiDominica’s predictions sound a lot like Stoner and Petitti. “I definitely see an opportunity of maybe 10% to 20% increase over  sales, which was a great year,” he says. “It would be very hard to duplicate what happened this year, but we’re definitely bullish for our industry, our business, for next spring.” And, incidentally, he won’t be surprised if vegetables help lead the way next year.
PETITTI GARDEN CENTERS
As late-winter talk about COVID victory gardens circulated the country, customers at Petitti Garden Centers’ nine Northeast Ohio locations seemed to take a more direct approach. “In terms of the actual victory garden, it wasn’t a trend that we saw people rally around. It wasn’t a huge call to action in our area,” says President AJ Petitti. But vegetable gardening itself was a different story. “We picked up about 43% on herbs and veggies compared to last year,” he shares.New gardeners account for much of that growth. “We picked up about a 27% increase in customer traffic in terms of transactions,” Petitti shares. “Clearly, I think a lot of that was driven by a lot of new gardeners. I think existing gardeners did more because they had more time, but we definitely drew a lot of new customers. They got to experience our stores and our product for the first time. And I think that’s going to carry over, hopefully for years to come.”
Across the grower-retailer’s stores, no single category of edibles or non-edibles stands out. “In terms of variety, just everything went. Demand was just huge this year,” Petitti says. “We grow 90% of what we sell, so fortunately we were able to keep planting and keep producing all along. When everybody was struggling to get product, we were able to make sure we had a continual supply.”
Petitti reports that spring annuals and vegetables both started very strong and went hand-in-hand until mid-July. As vegetables quieted down — typical for summer — other categories stepped in. “But in fall, there’s renewed interest in cole crops and fall veggies, so we’re seeing that now.
Obviously, that’s not as strong as what it would be in spring, but it’s still strong,” he says.
To help new gardeners succeed, Petitti fortified their phone resources. “One of the biggest things was we started a call center in our corporate office and moved the questions off the stores,” he says. “A lot of those calls were from new gardeners, so we had really experienced people speaking to our newest customers, which I think made a huge difference.”
Looking to 2021, Petitti expects a strong year. “I don’t see it being as strong as it was this year, so we’re taking our initial 2020 plan and we’re bumping that up,” he says. “I think it’d be really difficult for us to see it increase off of what we saw this year. This was kind of a Cinderella year.”
He advises IGC owners to plan carefully for 2021. “I think it’s really tempting to either go way short or way over in terms of planning — whether you’re buying or whether you’re growing,” he says. “Everybody picked up new customers and there was a great interest in gardening. But I don’t know what’s going to stick, especially as families get busier again, depending on what happens to schooling and activities and all that stuff. I think 2021 is still going to be really strong, but we’re in a little bit of a bubble right now.”