After last spring’s gardening boom, greenhouses prepared for another — but had no idea what was coming

Melody Joyal couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Or, more accurately, what she wasn’t.

Onions out of stock. Peas picked over. And lettuce, utterly lacking.

The veteran gardener said she snagged the last package of celery seed before leaving T&T Seeds earlier this week with just enough to grow some flowers and a bit of lettuce.

Behind the scenes, Kevin Twomey can’t really believe it, either. After last spring’s COVID-19 lockdowns led to a boom in new gardeners and a 40 per cent jump in sales at his seed store in Headingley, Man., just outside Winnipeg, he made sure he was ready to meet a similar level of demand — even a little more.

But nothing could have prepared him for the 300 per cent spike he’s seen so far.

“It’s just pouring in more every day.”

Now, those days are marked by chaos, as staff scramble to catch up on thousands of orders that don’t stop coming and curbside pickups turn into a “nightmare of logistics.” The shop has already seen 15,000 more orders than it had this time last year, he said.

Melody Joyal, pictured here in her backyard garden, says she’s glad to see so many people taking up her favourite hobby during the pandemic, but was surprised by her recent visit to a Manitoba garden centre. (Submitted by Melody Joyal)

Some things sold out right away — a few kinds of cucumbers, orange peppers, baby carrots — while others are still fully stocked. And there’s no way to know what the hot-ticket seeds will be.

“Every day is very hectic,” said Twomey, the general manager at T&T. “It’s good headaches to have, but they’re still headaches.”

His shop has had to stop taking orders over the phone, unable to keep up with the constant ringing, and is now considering limiting how many website orders it takes in a day — something other shops have already done, he said. 

“I’ve talked to almost every other seed company, our suppliers in Canada and the U.S., and everybody’s in the same position,” he said. “Too many orders, not enough product.”

Last year’s surge, this year’s drought

The unexpected jump in seed sales last season is partly to blame for that phenomenon, Twomey said. Seeds come from farmers, who have to map out their inventory a year or two in advance — a process completely upended by the strain the pandemic put on the industry.

“You just can’t go to the warehouse and pull out another thousand pounds of seed. You have to plan to grow it,” he said.

Seed vendors like Sage Garden Greenhouses in Winnipeg started getting their orders in months earlier than usual for this season in anticipation of another rush.

Many headed into 2021 optimistic that they had the stock to meet demand, said Dave Hanson, who co-owns the St. Mary’s Road shop.

But, like many things during the pandemic, that didn’t work out as planned.

“It only took a couple of weeks into January to see that seed supplies, and sort of the capacity for seed houses to manage a large number of orders, became kind of overwhelmed,” Hanson said.

Dave Hanson, co-owner of Sage Garden Greenhouses, says it took a lot of extra planning to prepare for this year’s gardening season, after a boom in new gardeners emerged during the pandemic last spring. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Still, he’s confident Sage Garden will have enough product this season, after months of meticulous planning that included ordering popular items from more than one vendor to increase their odds of getting what they need.

“That’s probably the key strategy we’ve used,” he said. “So if one place doesn’t work out, we have it from a backup source.”

Solace in the garden

Another part of the reason for this year’s gardening explosion is the solace people find in the pastime, Hanson said.

If last year’s growing season was defined by people “hunkering down” with an inspiring pandemic project to get them into the summer, this year’s is marked by the realization that the COVID-19 tide may not turn as quickly as hoped.

“[We’ve] seen just how much the pandemic has not gone away and how many things are not back to normal, and so it’s kind of difficult. I think we all wish that it was a little bit easier to just carry on,” he said.

“We’re trying our best to kind of do what we can to make sure people can get the things they want and for us to go forward with the least amount of stress as we can.”

Following a year of layoffs and panic buying, Joyal — a lifelong gardener — said she thinks the spike in its popularity is partly driven by a desire to save money and put food on the table.

Melody Joyal’s backyard garden includes a greenhouse her husband, Rilien Joyal, finished building last year. (Submitted by Melody Joyal)

And with the hope of a time after the pandemic still just a glimmer on the horizon, gardening is also a way to remain optimistic — even if it’s just by taking care of a four-foot section in your yard or a planter on your apartment balcony, she said.

“It gives you something to look forward to, and I think we all need that.”