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Seed sales are soaring, as pandemic prompts people to grow their own food

At True Value Home Center in East Lyme, the four-sided seed rack is usually brimming with a colorful variety of offerings at this time of year. Last week, it wasn’t the typical bounty. Sure, the flower seeds were plentiful, but the vegetable choices were sparser than usual.

Emerson Dexter, the store manager, was reordering seeds to shore up that display, but he explained that the run on the product is very much out of the ordinary.

“I’ve never seen a seed rack this empty in my 30 years of managing this store, and so early in the season,” he said last week.

The rack holds 1,200 packets, and he estimated about ¾ have been sold. “I want to say we sold more seeds year-to-date now than we did all of last year,” he said.

That’s similar to what’s been happening all around the country in the weeks since the coronavirus hit — there is a sudden boom in seed sales as more and more people take up gardening.

Many of those who hadn’t tried gardening before are giving it a go, prompted by reasons ranging from suddenly having more time at home to worrying about food shortages.

And faithful gardeners, meanwhile, continue to nab their favorite seeds and products. 

50 plants in her house

Cassie Libardi said she had “dabbled” with tomatoes on the deck of her Gales Ferry home in the past, but she has now gone all-out. She has more than 50 plants growing in her living room, awaiting the weather to warm up enough to move them outdoors. She hopes that her family will have a bountiful harvest of tomatoes, peas, potatoes, peppers, cucumbers and more this summer.

The family moved into a home on a 2-acre lot in Ledyard earlier this year, and they knew they wanted to clear the overgrown garden at some point. But Libardi said, “Being home with lots of time and three restless boys (ages 11, 8 and 4) has sent me into overdrive.”

She thought it was a wise idea to plant her own victory garden (which is defined as a vegetable garden planted to increase food production during a war or time of shortages).

She doesn’t think, for instance, that she would have considered growing potatoes before but said, “The more I was on Pinterest and websites and reading how hard certain ones are (to grow) or how easy certain ones are, extra things just kept jumping into my basket on Amazon.”

Libardi’s living room has very large windows, so she has moved a kitchen island into the room and arranged plants on top of it and below it. A card table by another window likewise is populated with plants.

“My husband has given me eyes, like, ‘You know this can’t last forever, right?’” she said with a laugh.

And, yes, the plan is to get them all outdoors. She has already made a pea trellis in the garden, constructed out of pieces of her oldest son’s baby crib.

Novices try their green thumbs

Teri Smith, co-owner of Smith's Acres in Niantic, has noticed an uptick in novice gardeners buying and a surge in seed sales. Instead of just buying one or two packets of seeds, customers are purchasing six, seven or eight.

“Flower seeds are not selling, but vegetable seeds are selling big-time,” she said.

It’s not any particular type of vegetables — it’s all of them.

More people are buying seed starter mixes and peat pots, which plants can be grown in and transplanted without having to be removed.

“A lot of people are starting for the first time. That’s how you know when it’s a new gardener — they come up with the full packets of seeds and say, ‘Can I just put that in the garden?’ ‘No, it’s too cold for this, it’s too early for that ...’ So we have to give a little instructional along with the seeds,” Smith said.

Shari Hewes, president and general manager of Holdridge Home and Garden Showplace in Ledyard, said that, once the state prohibited gatherings of a certain number of people, the store had to scrap its scheduled seed-starting workshop and is instead giving customers seed-starting information one-on-one as they come in or over the phone.

When newbies are starting out, they tend to stock up. Dexter said that one customer spent about $400 on a haul that included four raised garden bed kits and 20 bags of raised bed soil.

Up more than 200%

Seed suppliers are endeavoring to keep up, though it’s not always easy.

Scott’s Yankee Farmer in East Lyme, for instance, ordered some seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, and co-owner Karen Scott recalled, “Luckily, they would take my order because it was considered commercial, but they were not accepting any home gardener order.”

Smith’s has been pretty well stocked but did put in an additional order from NE Seed in East Hartford last week. NE Seed, a supplier to venues in southeastern Connecticut and beyond, has seen sales rocket as well, up more than 200%, according to Sandy Merrill of NE Seed.

Merrill says she was in the seed industry during the economic crash in 2008, and, at that time, “there was a large increase in vegetable seed (sales) because people were thinking, ‘I want to grow my own garden because I might not be able to afford to buy food.’ But this is bigger ... The amount of seed we’re moving is more than it was 10 years ago when the economy was tanking.”

Discussing what might be prompting that now, she said, “People are home, and it’s something they can do at home. They’re outside, they’re not in the public domain; it’s safe for them to do. It’s a terrific thing for them to do with children ... I think people are a little bit concerned with the latest news that the food supply chain might be in jeopardy, so (they think), ‘I can grow some tomatoes.’”

A booming business

NE Seed sells to farmers who grow their own produce, retailers who sell seed packets, and single customers who buy online.

“We got 160 orders in yesterday, and there's five of us who are filling orders. We’re probably a week behind at this point, getting orders out the door. So, if someone calls in with an order today (April 22), it probably wouldn’t ship till next week,” Merrill said.

She says vegetables have been hugely popular, particularly ones that can be direct seeded — in other words, can be planted directly in the ground and don’t have to be started indoors — such as cucumbers, beans, squashes and beets.

NE Seed grows and breeds some of the seeds it sells, and it gets some from other growers around the country. There’s a backlog from the latter, Merrill said, because, “like all consumables, there is a limit to how much is produced in any one year and everybody else is also asking for seed right now.”

During the past several weeks, she has heard some interesting stories, including this one from long-term customers in Maine: “They know they’re not going to be able to open their hunting-and-fishing lodge this year, so they turned a lot of their open fields into gardens so they can supply their community with fresh produce.”

Fielding calls

As of last week, Charles Hart Seed Company in Wethersfield had sent out as many packets as it had during the last planting season in its entirety, according to Vice President and Treasurer Robert Hart.

The company, which sells to garden centers, hardware stores, groceries and farm stands, has been getting more inquiries from homeowners about buying seeds directly. It also has been getting inquiries from stores that it hasn’t worked with in the past because those stores are having trouble with their regular suppliers, since national companies are having a hard time keeping up with demand.

He said the Hart Company is probably selling more tomatoes and peppers than in previous years.

While many people used to buy plants because it's easier, people are buying seeds now because they are home and have the time to devote to gardening.

Day Staff Writer Amanda Hutchinson contributed to this report.

k.dorsey@theday.com

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