Gardening in the pandemic

Signage at Country Flower Farms, Middlefield, Connecticut.
In February I was getting ready for my first (ever) solo trip out of the country. I was headed to Mexico to see where (and how) the monarch butterflies overwinter. In all the excitement leading up to this trip, I decided to postpone ordering my seeds for the growing season.

In the past I've managed to order my seeds as late as March and still have a pretty good selection to choose from. But as daily life rapidly changed in March thanks to the COVID-19 virus that was spreading quickly in our country, the seeds that I had delayed ordering were now either out of stock or would take weeks longer to ship. Seed companies were selling record numbers of seed packets, and the surge in sales was attributed to COVID-19 and a rousing fear of food insecurity in the coming months.

Online seed companies were not the only garden industry affected by COVID-19. Connecticut's independent garden centers were also trying to adjust to what the new social distancing procedures would mean for their busiest season of the year. On March 23, Governor Ned Lamont issued a stay-at-home order for Connecticut residents, and allowed garden centers, nurseries and agriculture supply stores to remain open as essential businesses.

While two of my local independent garden centers remained open for customers to come in and shop, one decided to remain closed to the public. It wouldn't be long before the social distancing restrictions encouraged garden centers to consider a new way of shopping.

Three adventures: contactless and curbside

I have an autoimmune condition so I have been careful to limit my exposure to others during this time. I have not left the house much at all since we started to shelter in place and (thankfully) work from home in mid-March.

I continued to watch as updates were shared on various business social media accounts. To adapt to social distancing recommendations, two of the three garden centers — Natureworks and Country Flower Farms — created online stores with the option of contact-less pickup or delivery. Paul's and Sandy's Too continued to update customers through Facebook and Instagram and welcomed customers to phone in orders for curbside pickup.

My first foray into "social distance garden shopping" was with Country Flower Farms. I had so many questions. After checking their website, I called the store to find out if there were other plants available that were not listed in the online store yet. I asked how contactless pickup worked. I asked how much lead time was needed after the order was placed.

I decided to think about it some more overnight, and then placed an order on Sunday morning and paid online. Within an hour, they called to let me know it was ready for pickup on the benches outside.

I parked in front of the curbside pickup station. This photo was taken through my car windshield. 
Once I reached the store, I parked in front of the pickup area and saw my plants with my name attached. I put on my gloves, opened the door to my trunk, and then walked over to retrieve my plants. No one was outside. I loaded the plants with little fanfare, removed my gloves (and put them on the passenger side floor mat) and started my drive back home. I had my plants. A trip to the nursery, where I usually spent 30 minutes to an hour, was reduced to less than five minutes. But it was safe, easy, fast and pretty seamless.

The next weekend Natureworks had launched their online store. They had decided to close their store to the public for a few weeks as they set up a website to take orders online.  They set up three tents outside (alphabetically divided) where customers could collect their orders. To deal with lines, the parking lot had one way in and one way out. Customers were instructed to not leave their car until the person in the vehicle in front of you had loaded their order and were back in the car. (By this time, it was also recommended to start wearing masks while out in public.)

View from the car of the contactless pickup station at Natureworks, in Northford, Connecticut.
I drove to the appropriate tent, put the car in park, put on my face mask and gloves, and proceed to load my order into my car. While I was doing this, a car pulled in behind me and the driver patiently waited as I tried to load the plants faster. (I really had no reason to worry. She followed the guidance and stayed in her car.) Soon I was back in my car and on my way. It was safe. Easy. Seamless. And fast. Again, in less than five minutes I was back on my way home.

And of course, after watching Facebook videos of houseplants that had arrived at Paul's and Sandy's Too, I not only ordered a string of dolphins and a flowering maple for curbside pickup (how could I resist, really?), but soil and bean seeds as well. I phoned in my order, paid with my credit card, and was told I could head over as soon as I wanted. I donned my gloves and face mask and headed out.

Curbside pickup at Paul's and Sandy's Too in East Hampton, Connecticut.

I pulled into the appropriate loading area, parked, and opened the trunk. I called the store to let them know I had arrived. Within a minute, an employee (also wearing a fashionable face mask) came outside and placed part of my order in the trunk. Next I drove over to the soil loading area and the rest of my order was loaded into the trunk. Easy, seamless, fast ... and safe.

What's next

The stay-at-home order is expected to expire on May 20 in Connecticut, but the virus is not gone. Social distancing and face masks are here to stay for a while.

During this time, the people who work at Paul's and Sandy's Too, Natureworks and Country Flower Farms have been flexible and clever. Moving forward, I hope they continue to keep the curbside and contactless shopping options available for at-risk populations.

And to those who have made garden shopping possible in this time: thank you.

Thank you for all your efforts to keep your customers safe. Thank you for making plants available as a lovely distraction in this often frightening and uncertain time. My well-planned and easily executed weekend field trips were a break from the days that have run together, and has allowed me to continue to plan my garden for the upcoming growing season.

Comments

  1. Similar to my experiences in Austin, TX. It was so hard to find seeds and plants online. And then shipping was delayed so now I have plants coming that I’d forgotten I had ordered. Probably too late for them here now, but I’ll take whatever I can get! Missing nurseries!

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    1. I still have some seeds coming in. Wondering if it is going to be too late to start some- but at least I will have them for next year! :-)

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  2. Hey Jenn, I had very similar shopping experiences in Oklahoma. One of my favorite nurseries did online only shopping and we stayed in our cars. Another let you shop outside. I’m really glad that I was able to buy some plants this spring. It’s been a scary time for lots of people, and I’m glad you’re OK I’m sorry that I didn’t get to go to Mexico with you though.~~Dee

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    1. Good to know so many places are adapting. <3

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