Faced with Peak Season Pressure, Portland’s Nursery Industry Adapts to COVID-19
In mid-March, as news of the COVID-19 pandemic was building to a panicky din and lawmakers at both state and federal levels scrambled for answers, Portland was experiencing a particularly beautiful dry spell. On March 20, a few days before Gov. Kate Brown solidified her quarantine recommendations, bluebird temps reached a balmy 67 degrees. The message from both state officials and Mother Nature was abundantly clear: get your ass off the street and into the garden.
For Portland nurseries, April and May are the make-or-break months: roughly 60 percent of all sales come from the spring rush for retailers like local heavyweight Portland Nursery. While most "non-essential" retail businesses, from gyms to jewelry shops, had no choice but to close their doors, Brown’s March 23 executive order did not include nurseries, putting local plant merchants in a dubious ethical position: shutter and wither on the vine, switch to a contactless model, or simply remain in business as usual mode.
Oregon’s nursery industry—whose out-of-state wholesale business accounts for a whopping 80 percent of sales—is massive. In 2018, annual sales came close to the $1 billion mark, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Jeff Stone, Executive Director of Oregon Association of Nurseries lobbied hard to make horticultural operations “essential” in the eyes of lawmakers in order to avoid a catastrophic industry collapse like the one currently unfolding in New York state where such businesses are deemed non-essential. “We just had a truck drive all the way to New York to be turned around,” says Stone. “They don’t get paid until they’ve delivered. It’s been keeping me up all night.”
On the local retail end, Portland nurseries are getting mobbed with inquiries from stir-crazy locals attempting modern day “victory gardens.” Portland Nursery president Jon Denney closed up shop on March 18 for two weeks, right in the middle of the region’s fair weather spell. The nursery reopened last week after rearranging the layouts at both Southeast locations to be social distancing-friendly (no contained indoor spaces), gloves, and frequent sanitation. “In that weeks’ time,” says Denney, “social distancing had really gotten the attention of people. We felt that we could safely…well, much more safely, reopen.” Right now, they’re one of the few nurseries in the city that hasn’t moved to a curbside pick-up/delivery-only model, along with Cistus Nursery on Sauvie Island. “We’ve gotten some reaction for staying open, but other people are saying, ‘thank god you’re open.’ We’re trying to walk the line as best we can.”
Birds & Bees Nursery near South Tabor is on the other end of the spectrum from Portland Nursery: a tiny operation run by co-owners Amanda Lepley-Simard and Caitlin Gaul. The duo shifted to a pick-up and delivery-only model (one of them answers the phone, the other drives the van) and have been making close to their typical sales goal for this time of year, according to Lepley-Simard. “There is a resurgence in people doing food gardening, because everything is up in the air in terms of supply and demand; we’re selling more vegetable starts than anything else,” she says.
Still, says OAN's Stone, the industry is on shakey ground. "To say that business is booming would be inaccurate. It's a cash flow issue right now. If people are afraid to go out, they aren’t going to spend money at a garden center." The bottom line? "We want to have gardening be an outlet for the general public, but only in a way that keeps them safe."
For those itching to start their own COVID victory garden, here are a few local nurseries still operating:
Open for Walk-In Retail
Pick-Up and Delivery
Marbott’s Greenhouse & Nursery