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Long, cool spring tough on growers, as gardeners wait for warmth

Cool temperatures, strong winds — even snow and hail — have kept gardeners out of the dirt this spring.
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Christon Smith, who owns C&C Growers, waters begonias in one of his greenhouses. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Last year at this time, it was 20 degrees and sunny, and gardeners were rolling up their sleeves, getting on their knees and planting vegetables and flowers.

This year, it has been an entirely different story.

Cool temperatures, strong winds — even snow and hail — have kept gardeners out of the dirt and waiting for the weather to change, said Christon Smith, one of the Island’s largest wholesalers of flower and vegetable plants.

“The greenhouses are bulging, absolutely bulging with plants and we’re just waiting for the sunshine to get people out into their gardens,” said the owner of C&C Growers in the Blenkinsop Valley.

C&C has 31 greenhouses on its eight acres and they’re maxed out as the retailers Smith supplies say the demand just isn’t there right now.

“We’re about 24 per cent down in sales compared to last year at this time,” he said.

C&C supplies grocery chains Thrifty Foods, Fairway Markets, Country Grocer and Quality Foods, as well as other plant retailers around the region.

“Right now they aren’t taking too much product because customers aren’t gardening yet,” Smith said.

Plantings are about three weeks behind last year and, while weather conditions are improving, warm, sunny days are still at a premium as winter goes out like a lion.

Environment Canada is forecasting sunshine today and a high of 13 C, but only clouds and showers through next week — and possibly the one after that — with temperatures between 12 and 13 C. Overnight lows will remain around 4 or 5 C.

The Farmer’s Almanac says April and May will have “near-normal temperatures” and be rainier than usual.

At Down to Earth Garden and Nursery in Metchosin, Kelly Chashai is calling it “spring-tober.”

“That’s what it is … we’re three weeks behind,” Chashai said. “We grow a lot of our own product and we have these big baskets of flowers and people aren’t seeing them because [people aren’t thinking about gardening].

“I think everyone just wants some sunshine and some happy flowers.”

When periods of sunshine do appear, retailers say customers are appearing.

Down to Earth also does landscaping design, and those jobs are also lagging as everyone waits for the weather to improve.

Chashai said they have a major design project in Sooke that has been delayed two weeks because it’s too muddy to work.

Gord Nickel, owner of Wildwood Outdoor Living Centre in Saanich, is telling gardeners to be patient. Warmer weather is coming, “it’s just not happening as quickly as we would want.”

Nickel said the cooler moist conditions are ideal for shrubs, fruit trees and ornamentals, but cooler overnight temperatures and too much moisture in the soil may not be so good for annual flowers.

Ideal overnight temperatures should be about 8 to 10 C, he said. “That’s when things start to roll … that’s when you can even start putting basil out.”

Business is down compared to a year ago, he said, but the centre remains brisk with traffic.

“A lot more people come in when the sun is shining. Today it was pouring and the sun came out and all of a sudden there were lots of people here,” he said.

“People here are asking a lot of questions about what to plant and when.”

Smith said C&C Growers has had to manage it greenhouses carefully, turning on heaters in the evenings and opening the doors during the day — and sometimes not watering the plants — just to keep them healthy. He estimates the heating bill this spring to be $45,000, “a huge expense” for his business.

With the greenhouses full, he has more than 400,000 “plugs” or starter plants ready to be replanted and grown for sale. So he’s waiting for the customer demand to start — now.

He said retail stores that would normally order 50 flats of plants a week are now only taking 20.

Smith said all it will take is a small warm stretch of weather.

“As soon as this weather cracks, it will be stand back and watch the animals feed … our five delivery trucks will be going 12 hours a day.”

Growers have been going through cycles since the pandemic. During 2020, many had record years as COVID-19 lockdowns generated thousands of new backyard and balcony gardens. Last year, business leveled off as the region was hit with record heat waves that withered plants and trees.

“It’s a crapshoot,” Smith said. “We live and die by the weather.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com