Gardeners dig in for another pandemic gardening boom

At C&C Growers in the ­Blenkinsop Valley, the rush is on.

The plant wholesaler has 32 greenhouses over eight acres brimming with nearly early every kind of vegetable and herb and dozens of flower varieties and succulents.

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The company’s 30 employees are watering and manoeuvring thousands of containers and hanging baskets and filling orders from retailers across the capital region as fast as they arrive.

Welcome to ground zero of the pandemic gardening boom.

“We are at capacity … there is no room to plant anything else,” said C&C Growers manager Colin Lichtensteiger. “I can’t even put a number on the number of plants here right now. There are millions and millions.”

And all will be sold, he said, finding their way to grocers, garden centres and municipalities from now until June, as the popularity of gardening continues to soar amid the pandemic.

“Last spring it was absolutely insane and [the trend] continued into the summer and fall,” said Lichtensteiger. “We expect it to be the same this year. About 65% of what we’ve got here will go out in April and May.”

Cooped up by lockdowns and travel restrictions and encouraged to go outdoors, Canadians got their hands dirty in gardens of all sizes last year — from backyards and city curbsides to apartment balconies — as both a hobby and a way to ensure a supply of food.

A survey of more than 1,000 Canadians by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, after record-breaking sales last fall, indicated about half the respondents grew at least one type of fruit or vegetable, and one in five started growing their own food for the first time.

Diana Meagher, manager of GardenWorks on Oak Bay Avenue, started noticing a huge increase in sales a year ago during the initial lockdown, saying business doubled from the year before.

She said that trend is continuing this spring. “It really hasn’t stopped … people have just jumped right in again,” she said. “We’re doing May sales in March. Every kind of plant is selling. Seed sales are going through the roof.”

Meagher said people are spending more time at home, so they’ve invested in beautifying their personal spaces, which includes gardening tools, outdoor features and patio furniture.

The outdoor department at Canadian Tire in Hillside Centre is doing a brisk business as flat carts loaded with deck furnishings rolled out the door, and the big retailer had trouble keeping some of it shelves full. One customer bought four new wicker garden chairs, saying she had been in on a Monday and saw a good supply, but when she returned Tuesday, the stack had dwindled to a few.

“It’s been a beautiful thing reconnecting everyone back to the earth and planting flowers and veggies,” said Meagher.

At Russell Nursery, a 3.5-acre family-owned business in North Saanich that sells flower and vegetable plants as well as roses and other greenery, co-owner Laurel Russenti said everything is in strong demand.

She said the nursery is a distributor for the popular Halls Greenhouses company in the U.K., but has sold all its models and is having difficulty getting more due to supply-chain issues.

Russell Nursery’s online classes on greenhouse growing have also sold out.

Bare-root rose plants, normally available for order through to spring, were sold out in February, said Russenti.

“It’s tricky to keep up with all the demand,” she said. “We’re doing our best. There’s time involved [with plants]. Some crops take six months or a year to be saleable. We’re concerned some things will be hard to find later this year from suppliers.”

Russenti said the gardening boom is good for everyone. “It’s really good to see people going outside and they’re getting their kids involved,” she said.

Fiona Hamersly Chambers, who grows 260 seed varieties at Metchosin Farm, including vegetables, herbs, flowers and native plants, said the pandemic has brought “an explosion in popularity” for gardening and food-security awareness.

Hamersly Chambers said over 10 weeks last spring, she sold 15,000 packages of seeds, which amounted to nearly a decade of sales prior to the pandemic.

“It was like a bomb went off,” she said. “I went from selling small amounts to a 5,000% increase. We helped about 900 families, individuals and groups grow food last year.” She said many customers involve their children, fostering togetherness.

Hamersly Chambers said she “cleans up the genetics” of seeds by producing open-pollinated varieties that are best adapted to the local climate, soils and pests of the region, giving plants a ­better chance of survival.

The province has announced a study to help provincial seed growers access processing equipment to increase production. Demand for seed imports from the U.S. and other countries had increased sharply, but supplies withered due to pandemic restrictions. The feasibility study will look at adding seed-cleaning equipment in different regions of the province, including the Island.

“COVID-19 has shown us how fragile our seed-supply chain is and highlighted the importance of a resilient local seed network,” said Saanich Organics’ Theresa Heinekey. “All seed producers in our area have been struggling to increase our production in order to keep up with increased demand. Access to the mobile seed cleaner has made a huge difference in our ability to process seed efficiently and has increased the overall quality of the seed we sell.”

• Gardening store is moving

GardenWorks, the ­gardening store on Oak Bay Avenue, is moving to a new home in August.

The company will relocate from 1916 Oak Bay Ave. to 2040 Oak Bay Ave., site of a former fitness centre for women.

Manager Diana Meagher said she expects a smooth transition. “It’s a different layout on one level. We are looking forward to it,” she said. The current location was built around an old house and is ­“disjointed,” she said.

Jawl Residential is building a four-storey, 35-unit residential building with four ground-floor commercial spaces on the site, which includes lots from 1908 to 1920 Oak Bay Ave., between Davie and Redfern streets.

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