Plant Nurseries and Gardeners Are Essential on Earth Day (and Every Day)

At-home gardening in Austin for food and mental health

One kind of business deemed "essential" during pandemic restrictions – a sometimes confusing designation – is the plant nursery, proven essential and booming since the stay-at-home orders issued in late March.

People are “panic planting,” starting edible gardens for the first time in response to perceived uncertain food supply chains in the time of coronavirus, provoking comparisons to the victory gardens of the Forties.

Jennymarie Jemison of Joy Max Jardin in her garden with ranunculus blooms. (Photo by Christopher Shea)

In Austin, most nurseries have either closed temporarily, like the Natural Gardener, or gone to curbside delivery, like Tillery Street Plant Co. Melissa Hagen, the Houseplant Manager at Tillery, says, “It’s been really interesting to see how what we're selling is evolving more to be like herbs and veg and lots of soil ... we just cannot keep our herbs and veg in stock. It's been crazy.” She says houseplant sales have had a recent uptick as well: “I think people are stuck at home and they're kind of just like, shoppin’.”

Shoal Creek Nursery, conversely, has stayed open, allowing shoppers in as long as they maintain six feet of distance. James Owens, self-described “nurseryman” at Shoal Creek, says the day of the stay home order people were swarming: “A lot of overwhelmed people coming in – like the grocery shopping.” Then came the daily visits from the police and fire department responding to concerned citizens’ phone calls. “People would be driving by, calling because the parking lot was full. But they'd come in, take a look and say, ‘Wow this place is so big, people are spaced out, I don't see a problem.’ I mean, it's on an acre.”

Liz Cardinal of Austin Edible Gardens (Courtesy of Austin Edible Gardens)

Shoal Creek, like Tillery, has seen an increase in vegetable sales, specifically cherry tomatoes, which do well in the sizzling Texas heat. “Emphasis on the vegetables. That's why we're essential. I feel like if we didn't have that, what's the point of being open almost. It's food, you know what I mean.” But, he says, “Overall business is not what it would be in spring [without coronavirus].”

While traditional nurseries are making the transition to online orders and curbside delivery, personalized gardening businesses that lived somewhat online before the stay-at-home order are booming. Liz Cardinal of Austin Edible Gardens, a gardening consultation business that helps at-home gardeners get started, says the transition has been successful. “The first couple of weeks got extremely busy with homeowners asking for help with building and installing raised beds.” She has now transitioned to virtual consultations through FaceTime and email to help her clients set up gardens, even replicating ongoing maintenance by providing to-do lists. “I spend a lot of time emailing and texting with gardeners now and am adding more 'how-to' content on social media.”

“In a garden, you’re never alone – I say that all the time, but it’s true – you have a habitat in your backyard that most people are not aware of.” Jennymarie Jemison of Joy Max Jardin

Joy Max Jardin, a gardening website/Instagram started by Jennymarie Jemison last spring, was a hub for at-home gardening tips long before corona victory gardens. She originally began sharing tips with her Instagram followers, a casual way to document her own garden’s progress, and it grew into a small but ardent club of eager learners. “A lot of people were gardening vicariously through me which I think is still a thing. People get the benefits of nature just by looking at images of nature. That kind of dopamine release and stress relief.” Three weeks ago, she started an offshoot of Joy Max, the Stay Home Garden Club, with tips for expediting the process of starting a new garden in light of the stay-at-home order. “Of course it's good to be self-reliant and to grow your own food,” says Jemison. “But there are so many other benefits that a garden can give someone, especially someone who is isolated alone. In a garden, you're never alone – I say that all the time, but it's true – you have a habitat in your backyard that most people are not aware of.” Jemison knows the mental health benefits of gardening firsthand; last year she contracted typhus from a bug bite in Tennessee, which led to her liver almost shutting down. “I was really burnt out, and the only thing I wanted to do was garden; it was the only thing that made me feel better. So I thought, how do I focus on this in a way that I can share it with other people?”

"Growing flowers and herbs alongside your vegetables is a big Joy Max method. They attract pollinators and some lure pests away from your food crops, while others repel pests. And on top of that, they are just pretty." – Jennymarie Jemison, Jox Max Jardin (Photo by Christopher Shea)

Jemison says the goal of Joy Max is "helping people avoid those mistakes that turn so many people off in the beginning, when they put all this effort in, they spend all this money, and then the plant dies.” Something as simple as helping people choose the right things to grow for the Texas climate will build new gardeners’ confidence. “Don't spend so much time trying to grow strawberries, you're just never gonna have a giant field of strawberries.” On the Stay Home website she details how to do container gardening if you don’t have a backyard, which type of soil to use, cheap fabric containers to buy online so you don’t have to venture out to a Home Depot. “Even if you only have an apartment balcony, those fabric pots come in like packs of 10, so you could easily grow a couple tomato plants, a couple peppers, and still have bags leftover to grow things like marigolds. I love to plant flowers because they attract pollinators, and I get so much joy out of my flowers. Flowers like zinnias – the more you cut them the more they bloom, so it's like an endless supply until the frost comes.”

Currently the Stay Home website has three sections: container gardening, soil tips, and bunker crops (herbs with culinary and medicinal uses). Jemison plans to add more sections to the website, like a guide to Texas native plants and landscaping design principles, to help build a garden’s longevity. But now more than ever, her at-home gardening tips can offer structure in isolation: “In this time when there's not these other reference points, it helps distinguish that time is actually passing right now," she laughs. “Watching your plants grow from these seeds to big strong plants is a really handy frame of time and in the most satisfying kinda way, not like, ‘Oh god, everyday is the same.’ There's so much happening in the garden that no day is the same.”

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