Robin Jordan, owner of Robin’s Flower Pot in Farmington, waters leek and onion seedlings in a greenhouse on Thursday afternoon, April 1. Area greenhouses are preparing for another busy year. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser Buy this Photo

The past year was not ‘business as usual’ for local greenhouses and gardening centers.

Each growing season can be a bit different for plant growers but the coronavirus pandemic and the weather created challenges that left businesses and their customers scrambling.

“Every day was a Saturday for two months,” Robin Jordan, owner of Robin’s Flower Pot in Farmington, said April 1. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

On March 15, 2020, Gov. Janet Mills declared a civil state of emergency after Maine reported seven confirmed and five likely coronavirus cases. Later that month, Mainers were told to stay at home when cases of COVID-19 topped 300.

There were a lot of disappointed people, Jordan said. Robin’s Flower Pot grows most of the plants offered and can only grow so much with the seeds and space available, she noted.

“My crew was exhausted trying to keep up,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough annuals. Even the big growers ran out.”

A decrease in flower sales was also seen, Jordan said.

“People were just home, there were no funerals, no calls for birthdays,” she said. “People didn’t want people showing up at their homes.”

More flower bouquets were sold at Tranten’s in Farmington and Food City in Wilton, Jordan said.

An infestation of tarnished plant bug ruined all the snapdragons and issues with stem rot caused damage to the lisianthus crop, she said. Other flowers filled gaps from those losses, she added.

Violas bloom in a greenhouse at Robin’s Flower Pot in Farmington on  April 1. Local gardening centers were impacted by the coronavirus last year and expect that to carry over this year. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser Buy this Photo

At Whitehill Farm in Wilton, there was a tremendous increase in sales at the online market, owner Amy LeBlanc said in an email April 8. That more than made up for the abruptly canceled winter market at the Farmington Grange, she noted.

“At the last actual physical winter market, we passed out information papers about signing up for the online market and I’m sure that made all the difference,” LeBlanc said. “My root cellar was emptied promptly!”

The Fedco Tree Sale was canceled after LeBlanc had committed to a full greenhouse of garden seedlings with about 1,600 dedicated to that sale. The Clinton-based company offers cold-hardy selections especially adapted to our demanding Northeast climate, according to its website.

“So for the first time I attended the Farmington summer market right from the start and sold a lot of those seedlings locally,” she wrote. “Customers were actually wrangling over the plants.”

The majority of LeBlanc’s sales were veggies because other items – crafts, jewelry, etc. – really only sell well at an in-person market, she noted. There was no increase in demand for the edible flowers she raises.

A frost June 1 emptied LeBlanc’s greenhouse.

“Many people, including a farmer I grow for, lost all their seedlings, and thankfully I was able to fill the need, she wrote.

At Shaky Barn Farm Gardens in Livermore, owner Bonnie Brown hoped her business wouldn’t be impacted by the pandemic, but was prepared.

COVID-19, weather and other circumstances affected area greenhouses last year. Bonnie Brown, owner of Shaky Barn Farm Gardens in Livermore, talks about her experiences while sitting in one of her greenhouses April 2. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser Buy this Photo

“I tripled what I usually do for seedlings,” she said Friday, April 2. “Gardening can be calming for the anxiety caused by the pandemic. New gardeners might not know what they’re doing. I could help them avoid mistakes, encourage them.”

People had time to be at home with their children, learn how to garden or get back to it, Brown said. You knew you could be in control and supply help, she noted.

“I don’t know a person in this industry who wasn’t thrilled at being right about it,” Brown said. “I think it’s not going to go away. Young people want gardens in their front yard, to do local. As sad as it was, if it took that to get to this point, take advantage of it. Learn.”

Last year when people were terrified, they could come to this outdoor place, be in nature and just breathe, she said.

“This has brought on so many new gardeners, gave the younger generation an opportunity,” Brown said. “They were home. They always had the interest but didn’t have the gift of time. I don’t think that is going to go away.”

The growing season also had an impact.

Shaky Barn Farm Garden owner Bonnie Brown walks among vegetable and flower seedlings in her greenhouse in Livermore on April 2. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser Buy this Photo

“After gardening/farming here in the Farmington area since 1987, I believe the 2020 season was the shortest we’ve ever had,” LeBlanc wrote. “Thankfully I usually do not plant until around  June 5 so I was spared the late frost damage. However late corn, pole beans, squashes and pumpkins, large tomatoes, and some seed crops were severely affected.”

The drought was also problematic for LeBlanc. There were no water supply issues, but finding the time to sufficiently water was very difficult, she noted.

Cancellation of winter craft and holiday fairs had a huge impact on part of LeBlanc’s sales.

“Most of my farm-related crafts sales depend on face-to-face sales and impulse purchases,” she wrote. “We are still working out ways to solve this!”

At Shaky Barn Farm Gardens, extra pepper plants had been grown and replaced those lost to frost.

Vegetables and cut flowers are sold from the gardens. Brown also does wedding flowers.

“I start my cut flowers that I know I can hold,” she said. “I want strong plants. I typically hide some seedlings for cut flowers for weddings. I have more herbs and flowers than a typical florist would have.”

There were 14 weddings booked last year with only three done. Some brides canceled or moved dates, others changed venues, Brown said.

“It was constantly morphing,” she said. “Flower amounts changed because of less people, needing more table centerpieces. I readjusted, wanted to take some of the stress off the brides.”

Extra vegetable sales made up for the drop-in wedding business, Brown said. Wreath sales were also up, she said.

The well for Shaky Barn Farm Gardens collapsed in three places in June.

“I assumed it was the drought,” Brown said. “It took us until August to get the new well dug.”

Brown watches weather a month out.

“It’s something you have to constantly pay attention to,” she said. “If I send someone home with plants, I need to know to help them be successful.”

There’s work involved in gardening, Brown said.

“You have to want to do it,” she stressed. “There are ways to do this so you aren’t discouraged because if you are disappointed, you’ll end it. If you’re rewarded, you’ll continue.”

Each of the growers noted things being done differently this year after last year’s experiences.

Robin’s Flower Pot is beefing up vegetable and flower seedling production, trying to grow more hoping to start offering cut flowers earlier this year, Jordan said.

“We usually have enough product to get us through the summer,” she said. “This year I’m getting in some later plugs to get us through. You just never know.”

Three years ago the business invested in a transplant machine, which has been a tremendous help in saving time, Jordan said. Some seeds aren’t available and while two and a half more fruit trees were ordered this year, only a fourth is promised, she said.

“The nurseries sold out their (tree) inventory for this year last fall,” Jordan said. “There’s a shortage of yellow onion sets this year.”

People have been patient and understanding, Jordan said. The mask mandate is still on, she noted.

The weather so far this year has been warmer, Jordan said. Five of the nine greenhouses have plants growing in them, she said April 1.

Soil from Living Acres in New Sharon is used at Robin’s Flower Pot.

“What a difference it makes, it’s the best soil around,” Jordan said. “I make my own compost spray. I use it on everything every 10 days.”

“People are already chomping at the bit,” Jordan said. “Others in the industry expect the same this year. You never know what to expect.”

At Whitehill Farm, shorter season varieties are being used across the board with plans to plant more of some vegetables that folks really like fresh at market.

“Prime examples are lettuce, cucumbers, and green beans,” LeBlanc wrote. “I’m also increasing the number of seedlings available through the online market this year as well as planning to attend the Farmington market from opening day.”

Fewer seedlings are being grown at Whitehill Farm because there is no Fedco Tree Sale this year.

At Shaky Barn Farm Gardens, Brown purchased seeds for this year last fall, quadrupling what she normally orders.

Weddings are booked for May and June this year may be canceled, Brown said.

“I don’t want them to feel bad, I’ll make it work,” she said. “I don’t see the wedding industry picking up this year.”

COVID-19 is still impacting people, Brown said.

“They don’t feel secure enough to leave their neighborhoods,” she said. “Enough time has gone through so new habits are now old habits. For those frustrated with all the COVID-19 restrictions, gardening gives some kind of power, control. It has to help mental health.”

Turning lawns into gardens and container gardening are things people can do, she said.

“Plant a garden and share in your community, you’ll feel so much better,” Brown said. “There are people who can’t physically do it. You’re never going to be able to grow everything you want to, but you won’t feel so lost.”

Chretien’s Greenhouse in Livermore did not respond to questions emailed for this story.

Robin’s Flower Pot, 387 Webster Road, Farmington, is open  9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in April. In May, it changes to seven days a week with expanded hours. 207-778-5937.

Whitehill Farm, 357 McCrillis Corner Road, Wilton, sells seedlings, produce and processed items through the Western Maine Market online farmers market and the Farmington farmers market. 207-778-2685.

Shaky Barn Farm Gardens, 504 Boothby Road/Route 108 E, Livermore, is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 207-491-9797.

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