COVID-19 is drastically changing society in many ways across Blount County as businesses, governments and individuals try to adjust to a new normal. But it’s also changing many thumbs to a distinct shade of green.
Home gardening is seeing a national spikem according to reports across the U.S., and trends in Blount are no different. With the pandemic keeping people away from work, more time on their hands means more time to get a little dirt under the fingernails.
Colton Smith, manager at AgCentral Farmers Cooperative in Maryville, confirmed the store has been slammed with eager gardeners, prospective produce growers and people just looking to spruce up the front lawn.
“We sold out of garden seed for the most part a month ago,” Smith said in a phone interview Monday, noting sales for the season typically last through August. “We usually have seeds left over that I donate.”
The Maryville co-op has already sold 7,000 more plants since March 1 than during the same period in 2019. Additionally, sales of growing materials like soil and compost have nearly doubled.
Managers at Tractor Supply and Rural King confirmed they have seen similar upticks in the sale of gardening materials.
Jacob Sing, a manager at Tractor Supply, said it’s not just seeds flying off the shelves. “As far as all the other material for gardening, we’ve been slammed. ... It’s been busy for sure.”
Sing estimated the divide between new gardeners and regulars was about 20% to 80%, respectively.
Supply and demand
Stores, farmers and gardening experts alike confirmed the reason people are rushing to gardening is twofold: Many are picking up the hobby or more avidly pursuing it using the downtime stay-at-home orders have created. Others are concerned about the stability of food supply chains.
Billy Coning just retired from 24 years of teaching agriculture at William Blount High School, but he still helped manage the school’s annual plant sale.
“We sold more stuff this year than we’ve ever sold,” Coning said.
They started selling plants early April and were basically out by May.
“That never happens,” Coning said. “The interest was amazing.”
He said whether real or imagined, there was a feeling among the high school’s plant sale customers that the food supply is not going to be reliable.
That is yet to be determined, but it’s not stopping Blount Countians from buying produce in seemingly unprecedented quantities.
At the Honey Rock Herb Farm run by Jim and D. Brown, the story is the same. The couple has been setting up shop at the Maryville Farmers Market for about 14 years, less than half of the time they’ve spent growing herbs and produce.
But this year stands out.
“Our regular customers seem like they’re buying more,” Jim Brown said. “And the new customers are asking for advice, saying they’ve fixed them up a place outside: They just want to get a little garden going.”
Vegetables and edible herbs have been Honey Rock’s most popular selling items, and Brown said they have done some of their best days ever since the market opened in April. Currently, they’ve sold completely out of tomatoes and almost are entirely out of peppers.
Blount County Master Gardeners President Mike Holt said interest in home gardening was on the rise before COVID-19 and encouraged new gardeners to join BCMG. Some 19 people have become members through the 2020 class already, Hold said.
Outside of getting an gardening education, he encouraged people just starting a gardening career to research, look up UT Extension publication resources or even stop by the Blount office entryway and pick up materials they can use to get soil tested.
Those who may not be tending their own gardens are rushing to fields where U-pick options are now in full swing.
“We have been overwhelmed; we are picked out every single day,” said a Rutherford Farms representative.
The operation recently opened fields for picking and were inundated with customers.
“We have more business than we know what to do with,” the representative said.
Back to olden days
While Smith has been communicating with entities across the nation about supply and demand trying to keep shelves at the Maryville co-op stocked, he’s also making sure his staff can educate amateur gardeners.
“I have to make sure I have employees here that can ... carry that conversation of ‘You’ve never done this? Here, let me walk you through from start to finish,’” Smith said.
He’s also been a small part of the trend bringing people to the co-op.
“Firsthand, my mother-in-law has never had a garden,” he said. “She had me plant one this year. I’ve been working for the co-op since I was 16, been around their family for years, they never asked me to do it: This year she wanted her garden.”
Brown — who gets around three to four scheduled visitors a day at his farm — echoed Smith’s experiences with a new and enthusiastic customer base.
He speculated on the possibility of “going back to olden days” when, during World War I, people planted “victory gardens” to grow produce for themselves and their neighbors, providing both food and moral support.
“That’s kind of where we’re at now,” Brown said. “Every garden center I pass by is packed. ... I’m encouraged.”