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The Plot Thickens

Graphic with title "The Plot Thickens - The last two years have seen a dramatic surge in gardening". Green background with drawings of flowers and plants surrounding the text.

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s Lisa Jenkins discusses her worries for this year’s garden season, her husband Jim is rooting through a filing cabinet and quickly finds a flyer he’s been searching for.

“I sold Christmas trees with my dad,” he said proudly. The 1974 handout proclaims in big letters “any tree for $5.95.” How times have changed.

The couple runs Jim Jenkins Lawn and Garden Center [1] together in Upper St. Clair. “I just started my 40th year,” Jim said with a smile.

It’s been a wild ride for nurseries over the last two seasons, navigating the virus and dealing with an explosion of interest in gardening that continues today.

“When COVID hit in 2020, we were scared to death,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect.” It was early spring and the pair had just brought back all their seasonal employees as the first restrictions were put into place.

“May 1, we were still going to be closed one day a week,” he continued. “The first Monday we’re closed, people were beating on the door and they were like, ‘why aren’t you open, we want to buy stuff.’”

It was a good indication of what was to come. “2020 was the best year we ever had,” he added, “and 2021 was even better.”

Lisa does all the ordering and has been forced to be creative when finding sources for shrubs, trees and other hard goods. “We have everything ordered, now it’s just a matter of, will it come?” she said. “I have acknowledgement from growers, that ‘yes we have it.’ But am I going to be able to get it here and how much is it going to cost me to get it here?”

Shipping has become a problem across the board for all garden centers and nurseries. Fewer drivers and higher prices for gas, tires and maintenance have made a dramatic impact on the cost of getting product to the nursery. The couple has seen marked increases in those costs, up anywhere from 17 to nearly 50 percent, depending on the item and the distance it travels. “The freight is unbelievable,” Lisa said with a sigh. “Last year was bad,” she added. “I couldn’t get any pottery, most of that comes from overseas. I still have back orders on file from last year.”

Portrait of Jim and Lisa Jenkins surrounded by trees.
Jim and Lisa Jenkins saw their gardening business boom in the pandemic years of 2020-2021, but like everyone else, they are feeling the effects of the hard-hit global supply chain. Photo by John Schisler.

She has searched a wide range of suppliers and growers to offer plants at multiple price points. “I tend to be more worried,” Lisa said, “because I’m looking at costs. I know I cannot make the profit margin I used to make. I’m stocking more of a variety, because of the price ranges.”

But the Jenkinses aren’t panicking; there’s good news, too. Because they are ordering more than usual, they’re pretty confident most things will be in place as the season gets underway. “When we get into annuals, hanging baskets and perennials, we will have our normal assortment,” Jim said. “Those growers are more local, a bit closer, with less logistics problems.”

One item that’s going to be hard to find this year is peat moss. “Bales of Canadian peat moss are basically nonexistent,” said Jim. With frozen bogs, labor issues, border problems and the fact that peat is not being used as much as it once was, supplies are short. “Who would have ever thought you couldn’t get peat moss out of Canada?” he said with a laugh.

Although there are going to be struggles, the couple is preparing for another banner year for gardening. “I think volume will be up again,” said Jim. The people who got involved in gardening in 2020, a lot of them were very successful. Those people came back and I think it’s going to carry on again this year, especially with more people working at home. You can pay more attention to the plants.”

Lisa warns though, if you absolutely want a specific plant, shop early or even pre-order at the nursery.

Even though she stresses over the orders more than her husband, Lisa is confident that as long as gardeners are flexible, they’ll find what they need. “I’m not worried about them coming in,” she said of shoppers.

“We have such a loyal customer base; we’re really blessed for all these years.”

Visiting the store  is Tim Morgret, from Washington, Pennsylvania. He’s territory manager for Arret Sales, a premier lawn and garden wholesaler servicing garden centers and nurseries east of the Mississippi River.

“I’ve been in this wholesale game for over 40 years and these were the first two years where we thrived, we’re here,” he said of the spike in gardening.

“The demand was going through the roof. In the beginning the supply chain was not a challenge.  The problem was the supply chain could not keep up with the demand.”

Morgret counts manufacturing shortages as a big problem too. Resins used to make bags for grass seed and other products or something as simple as bottle caps are scarce. “It’s been a huge challenge, and getting it off the boat, from the port and getting it where it needs to be is hard,” he added.

Another shortage Morgret foresees this year will be with grass seed. Much of it is grown in Oregon, which has been hit with drought, heat and fires. Suppliers are more likely to fill three- to five-pound bags of grass seed instead of 50-pound bags, just to be sure there’s some seed available for gardeners. Just like Lisa, if he can’t find what he needs from his primary source, he’s now searching other manufacturers to fill orders.

Morgret has sage advice for gardeners this season. “Get out and find your material early, get it now.”

He’s also aware of the irony connected to the great garden boom seen over the last two seasons. “I love the fact that the demand is so high. Since the ’70s I’ve been pulling for this,” he said beaming. “I just want to be able to fill it.”

Earlier this year at the annual Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Baltimore, vendors echoed many of the sentiments shared by Morgret and the Jenkinses.

At the Alpha Nursery booth, Irwin native Scott Tarris discussed shortages of plants throughout the industry. “A lot of the growers are having challenges taking care of their long-term existing customers,” he said, “let alone taking on new customers who are looking for additional plant materials.”

Planting grounds of several Thuja Green Giant plants.
Thuja Green Giant, a popular species of arborvitae, is hard to find this year. Experts recommend selecting something similar but easier to find, such as Spring Grove or Steeplechase.

Tarris said one of the most sought-after trees is Thuja Green Giant, a variety that has been one of the most popular and easy to find in the past.

“Folks who have been home recently due to COVID issues have been outside more and have been seeking privacy,” said Tarris. The deer-resistant, fast-growing evergreen has been a staple in the garden world for decades, but it’s hard to find now and Tarris has a few ideas for substitutions.

He recommends Spring Grove or Steeplechase arborvitae as alternatives and reminds gardeners that it takes time and planning to produce good nursery stock and that creating a supply for plants takes years.

“There’s always a good substitution,” he said about choosing plants. “It might not be your first pick, but you might find something that’s been overlooked or even a little bit better.”

Cameron Bonsey is vice president of marketing for Coast of Maine Organic Products. He attends the Mid-Atlantic trade show every year. The company provides a host of compost and ocean residual-based products for gardeners and commercial growers.

“We are seeing somewhere between 16 to 18 million new gardeners and they want information,” he said. “People are looking for organic gardening products. We want to continue to get more and more sustainable.” The Coast of Maine products are only available at independent garden centers like Jenkins’ store.

“A huge part of what we do is buy local,” said Bonsey. “We’re not in the big box stores, we don’t intend to be in the box stores.” He reflects on the ups and downs of dealing with COVID, so many unknowns, adjustments and then the surge in gardening.

“The last three years for us have been incredible. It’s been a strain on everyone,” he said. “We came into 2021 thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, we literally grew 75 percent in one year.’ We’re looking for big growth this year and that’s what we’re going to plan for.”