Julia Oldfield, co-owner of Big Oak Nursery in Elk Grove, tends to a display of tomato plants. Oldfield and other nursery operators report a jump in sales of vegetable plants and fruit trees. (Photo by Kevin Hecteman)
Julia Oldfield, co-owner of Big Oak Nursery in Elk Grove, tends to a display of tomato plants. Oldfield and other nursery operators report a jump in sales of vegetable plants and fruit trees. (Photo by Kevin Hecteman)

By Kevin Hecteman
Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation 

At California nurseries, the COVID-19 crisis has led to plunging sales of landscaping plants, while sales of vegetables and other edibles have skyrocketed.

“Right now, we are just blowing out of all herbs and veggies,” said Alyssa Forester, project manager at Premier Color Nursery in Fallbrook, which grows more than 300 kinds of edible crops along with annuals and perennials for independent garden centers. “We cannot keep them long enough to even mature to the size they typically need to get to. People are taking them small, and they’re pretty much taking anything that they can get.”

With supplies running low, the nursery is reassessing production, Forester said, noting it takes two to three weeks to produce the plants and move them to market.

The story is much the same at Big Oak Nursery in Elk Grove, where co-owner Julia Oldfield said the vegetable market has been “crazy—off the hook.”

“It’s a little bit early for vegetable season,” Oldfield said. “Usually, we aim for April, so we had a little bit planted, a little bit started, but I have probably tripled my normal planting.

“I can’t keep up,” she added. “We’ll put a flat of cucumbers out, and someone will take the entire flat.”

With stay-at-home and social-distancing guidelines in place, a lot of first-time gardeners are jumping in, Forester said.

“People who have not ever gardened are now running to garden centers, placing orders online, picking them up and not even going and seeing the plants, taking them home, planting their gardens so that they don’t have to go to the grocery store as much,” she said.

Or, as Modesto nursery producer David Van Klaveren put it, people are planting “not a victory garden, but a survival garden now.”

Fruit trees also are gaining in popularity, according to Phil Pursel of Hickman-based Dave Wilson Nursery.

When times get tough, “people tend to want to start homesteading again,” he said, noting the same thing happened during the Great Recession of 2008, leading to a yearslong bump in tree sales.

“I know from years of experience that this kind of panic buying will now spur on the homeowners to go ahead and start thinking a little bit more long term,” said Pursel, the nursery’s Northern California territory manager. “I expect fruit tree sales to start growing again for about the next two to three years.”

Fuyu persimmons have been his most popular trees, he said, especially with buyers in the Bay Area, whereas he expects peaches, pluots and plums to be top sellers in the Central Valley.

With all of his 2020 production already out the door, Pursel said he expects the nursery to boost production for 1-year-old trees, to ensure it has enough for 2021. He said shade tree production would likely be pared back, depending on demand.

“But we’re definitely going full bore on the fruit side of it,” he said. “We know for a fact it’s going to start growing again.”

On the landscaping side, Van Klaveren noted a steep decline as the pandemic and associated restrictions took hold.

“All of a sudden, sales dropped off completely,” he said. “There’s still some landscaping going on, and a few purchases, but nothing for the retail garden centers. With our weather this year, this spring, a lot of the nurseries have already been stocked up, so they’re not having to backfill for any sales.”

Van Klaveren estimated his March sales were off 30%, and “we’re really scared to see what April’s going to be like.” He said sales might start edging up as the weather warms and people start thinking about yard work.

Oldfield said people have been visiting her nursery “and saying they’re redoing their whole yard because they’re home,” but that late March was still early for flowering plants.

“Things are starting to bloom though, now,” she said. “They’re taking them as fast as they’re blooming.”

Wholesale landscaping purchases have slowed a bit as projects are postponed, she said, which will throw a monkey wrench into the nursery’s schedule when times get better.

“Part of the problem is the planning,” Oldfield said. “We planned for them to plant in April, and if they end up planting in June, then the plants are going to be overgrown and/or tossed.”

Pursel also reported a slowdown on the landscape side of the business.

“Landscape shrubs are not where they should be for the beginning of April,” he said. “This should be the boom time for everyone getting out there and doing the landscaping of the yards. People are hunkering down for edibles.”

Van Klaveren said recovery would depend on people having money to shop.

“Having never experienced anything like this before, as with most people, we don’t know what to expect,” he said, “but we’re hopeful that, yes, they will get out in their yards and gardens and plant some plants. That kind of seems like a big unknown at this point.”

Nursery operators said they’ve been working to keep their crews safe. Forester’s employer has people working split shifts, wearing face masks and observing social distancing on the job.

Van Klaveren said he also has his crews working split shifts.

“There’s half the crew here at a time, to give them more room to operate,” he said.

Forester said she’s counting her blessings.

“We’re thankful to be open and operating, and thankful to our customers that they are continuing to buy and service their communities,” she said. “We’re just taking it day by day, and I think that’s all everyone can really do at this point.”

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