For Frank and Karen Morton, the owners of Wild Garden Seed Company in Philomath, April and May are normally a time to rest. In a regular year, most people would have planted their seeds for the year by now, and business would have tapered off.
But this year, seed sales didn’t slow down.
“Right now, we would not normally have a whole lot of business. But my wife, Karen, is up at five every morning filling orders,” Frank Morton says. “And she doesn’t stop until six or seven at night.”
People are spending more time at home these days, and they’re gardening a lot more. This has led to a boom for garden and seed businesses across the country.
Some big national seed companies, like Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, were so flooded with orders at the beginning of the federal shutdown that they temporarily closed to everybody except farmers.
Local seed businesses, like Territorial Seed Company, have shipping times of 10 to 14 days, and have changed their terms for ordering seeds to accommodate more customers. For example, orders from Territorial can no longer be edited once placed, and seeds from them might come in generic packages without growing instructions.
Morton, whose company sells seeds to both Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Territorial Seed Company, says he’s selling three times more seed than he normally does this time of year.
He says his seed sales have gone up in other times of social crisis — when the dot-com bubble crashed, after 9/11 and during the Great Recession.
“It’s something that happens whenever there is uncertainty,” Morton says. “I think it’s kind of an anxiety meter.”
Nevertheless, his business has never been busier in its 26 years.
During the COVID-19 crisis, people are worried about having access to food, says Erica Chernoh, a horticulture specialist for the Oregon State University Extension Service.
Seeds, at the beginning of the shutdown, were selling nearly as fast as toilet paper.
“With this whole pandemic, there’s a lot of concern about the food supply chain, and people are looking at ways to grow their own food,” Chernoh says.
Many people are trying gardening for the first time during quarantine, she says. Others are ramping up their production.
Sarah Maxwell has been working from her home in south Eugene since the shutdown started. Her wife and 6-year-old son, Theo Maxwell, have been home as well. They moved into the house in 2019 and inherited an overgrown garden.
Recently, they’ve been doing a lot of weeding. They’ve been planting sunflower, wildflower and kale seeds and veggie starts such as chard, spinach and bok choy. And they’ve started composting — which Theo carries coffee grounds out to every day as part of his hands-on science education.
“We’re outdoors a lot,” Sarah Maxwell says. “We’ve been living in our front and backyards.”
She’s been getting gardening tips from Facebook groups like “Eugene Avant-Gardeners” and “Eugene/Springfield Houseplant Addicts.”
Chernoh manages the OSU Extension Service’s Master Gardeners and has trained volunteers who are available to answer gardening questions when Facebook groups fail. The program is offering its online vegetable gardening course for free through May 27.
While shipping times for seeds online are longer than normal and certain varieties of seeds may be hard to find right now, Morton says shortages won’t last more than a season. Local stores like Down to Earth still have lots of plants and seeds available for curbside pickup, according to store manager Rachel Klinnert.
Chernoh says she’s happy people are gardening more now.
“I would encourage people to go for it, get your hands dirty, have fun,” she says. “There is some good that comes out of this situation, and that may be that people are returning to the land — or to their backyards.”
Reach Territorial Seed Company at TerritorialSeed.com; Johnny’s Selected Seeds is at JohnnySeeds.com; and Wild Garden Seed Company is at WildGardenSeed.com.