Gardeners eager to get their hands dirty will no longer have to wait to fill their shopping carts with plants.
Wednesday brought news that garden centers had been added to the list of critical industries that are exempt from the statewide stay-at-home order.
Some retailers plan to open immediately; others said it will take a few days to figure out how to modify their operations to best protect employee and customer safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And while retailers expect plants to be in adequate supply this growing season, the shopping experience is likely to be quite different — with limited hours, restrictions on the number of shoppers allowed in stores and lots of gloves and masks.
Bachman’s is ready to be back in business, said Karen Bachman Thull, director of marketing. The company plans to reopen its six outdoor retail garden centers on April 11, including its flagship store in Minneapolis and stores in Eden Prairie, Apple Valley, Plymouth, Maplewood and Fridley, as well as its farm store in Farmington. The gift, home and floral departments will remain temporarily closed, but gardeners will be able to stock up on plants and other garden supplies.
“The shopping experience will be different as we alter operations to provide safe and sanitized conditions,” she said. Bachman’s is likely to limit the number of shoppers inside stores, and customers can expect to see employees in masks and gloves and lots of signs urging social distancing.
“We’re following all guidance. It’s changing and evolving,” said Bachman Thull. Bachman’s COVID-19 response is detailed on its website, bachmans.com, she noted.
Many garden centers were still figuring out their plans on Thursday.
“We’re excited that we’re essential workers,” said Sarah Davis, general manager of Sunnyside Gardens, Minneapolis. “But as much as we want it to be business as usual, there will be rules. First and foremost is the safety of our employees and customers.”
Sunnyside plans to reopen its retail store April 10, but will limit the number of people inside, and its staff will wear masks and gloves. “We may have to schedule shoppers. It’s yet to be determined.”
Davis said her staff is anxious about returning and some have opted not to. As last month’s stay-at-home order approached, some staffers had become uneasy interacting with customers who wanted to ask questions and talk at length without maintaining social distance.
“Gardening is a mystery to people. We don’t want the level of customer service to suffer,” Davis said. “But we may need more of a self-serve environment. Workers’ roles may change ... we’re reinventing the way we operate. We have to be fluid. How we do it today may not be how we do it tomorrow.”
Scott Endres, owner of Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis, also expressed eagerness to reopen the store.
All the garden centers contacted for this story have been selling their products online, for curbside pickup or delivery, but online sales have their limits, Endres said. “It’s so hard to put every single thing online. It would be overwhelming.”
Endres plans to open Tangletown’s store next week, most likely April 15, he said. “One of the reasons we decided not to spring open the gates today is, let’s pause and be responsible, so customers feel safe.”
He plans to use the extra time to “create more elbow room in the store, while still being authentic to ourselves. It’s not necessarily business as usual. We’ll be following safety precautions for hygiene and cleaning. Social distance will be a huge thing. We probably will limit the number of people in the store .... there are a lot of unknowns.”
All the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 restrictions have been emotional and exhausting, said Heidi Heiland, owner of Heidi’s Lifestyle Gardens and Heidi’s GroHaus in Corcoran.
“People are very anxious,” she said of her staff. Seasonal employees are “just starting to come back but some don’t want to come back.” Much of her business is in gardening services, such as planting seasonal containers.
“We called our clients who want pansy pots and asked, ‘Do you want a DIY kit?’ 40 % said they did, and we delivered them,” she said. “But some of our clients are aged and didn’t want us on their property. Now I will have to contact them and ask, ‘Should we come back?’ I can’t keep pivoting. It’s expensive and complicated.”
She expects to reopen her retail store by April 20. In the meantime, her business is developing new store protocols, which are likely to include one-way lanes, limiting the number of people in the store and requiring gloves. “We’re just starting to explore,” she said.
Despite the rocky rollout, local centers expect a robust gardening season.
“There’s probably going to be a run on food and vegetable gardening,” said Heiland. Victory Gardens, a World War II practice being revived for the pandemic, will have a resurgence, she predicted.
“The buzz is building. People want more control over their food. Tower gardens are taking off, and veggie pods.”
Bachman’s also has seen an “uptick of interest” in seed-starting and growing food, said Bachman Thull. “Everyone’s itching to do something productive in the garden... People are really interested in trying their hand at growing their own vegetables.”
Tangletown has even had to caution overeager rookies against going overboard, Endres said.
“People are very excited about seed-starting. They’re ordering seeds and asking, ‘I’ve never done this before. What do I need to do?’ Sometimes we put the brakes on them. ‘Do you need six packs of tomato seeds?’ ”
Houseplants have also been hot sellers, according to Endres.
“People are at home, looking around and wanting more green. With many people working at home, the home office becomes more important, and plants add more value than before.”
And with many people separated from others, there’s interest in plants as gifts, said Davis. “People are missing friends’ birthdays and anniversaries and wanting to send something.”
Plants are expected to be in good supply. “Our greenhouses are bursting,” said Bachman Thull.
But don’t expect to find warm-weather plants right away. Newly opened garden centers will stock cold-tolerant plants, such as kale and cabbage, as well as pansy bowls, however you probably won’t find many tomato and pepper plants until later in the season, closer to May 1. The last frost date in the Twin Cities is typically around Mother’s Day in mid-May, Bachman Thull noted.
Regardless of what the weather has in store, “It will be an interesting spring for sure,” said Endres. “There are a lot of unknowns.”
Still, being around plants makes him feel better. “I feel less anxious when I’m in my store full of plants with all that greenery,” he said.