August 1, 2020

May you live in interesting times


Rod McDonald Interesting times: A blessing, that you have the excitement of an ever changing landscape, or a curse, that you no longer experience stability?

This past spring season has been the most unpredictable in recent memory. We did not know if we would even have a season as Easter approached, and very little could be sold. National news showed a greenhouse in Ontario that gave away its Easter crop to local residents, rather than throw it out. Smart move. They not only received publicity that reached all the way across the country, but they built up good will with their customer base. No doubt, while that operator appreciated the platitudes, he or she would have preferred an actual cash crop. Hard cash is always preferable to compliments, especially when dealing with your line of credit. Interesting times, all right.

It was late March and the Covid-19 pandemic was emerging as our version of the Spanish Flu. Where would the pandemic go, how long it would last, and how much would it damage our businesses? We were sailing in uncharted waters. Interesting times can be scary times.

I received a phone call in late March from a greenhouse owner whom I mentor. He wanted to know if he should cancel his orders and shut his greenhouse down. Why should he keep going when the future was so uncertain? He was not alone in his concerns. My long-time friend, Hans de Jongh of Paridon Horticultural in Delta, B.C., had prairie customers cancelling orders in April as they, too, were fearful.  

I know, full well, the highs and the lows we can experience. We worry about thrips in our roses. We worry about sales when it rains. We worry about not enough staff when it is sunny. We worry and then we worry some more. My wife, who has never been a part of this trade, pointed out to a group of us greenhouse lads having coffee in the kitchen, “You guys complain when you are slow and you complain when you are busy. Pick one.”

On other occasions, I have written I have no crystal ball to see the future. If I did, I would be at the racetrack, betting on the sure winners, not writing. What I do have is a history with the trade, and I have seen the highs and the lows. I told my mentee when The Great Depression was in full swing during the 1930s, greenhouse sales actually increased. There was no money for treats, holidays or new clothes. However, there was money to buy plants and seeds, especially plants and seeds that produced fruit and vegetables. There was an upsurge in gardening during the Depression.

two men
I sensed a lot of cabin fever with the self-isolation. Kids were home from school, many people were either not working or working from home and there was an itch to do something. Prior to the start of the greenhouse season, I noticed bicycle sales were climbing. People were wanting something to do as a family. Trips to Mexico had been cancelled. Trips to visit the grandparents had to be postponed. Meals in restaurants were no longer allowed, or movies and concerts. Something had to take the place of those activities. Cycling showed increased popularity, so why not gardening?

At the same time, lumber yards selling home renovation supplies saw an increase as the DIY market jumped. People had the time to get around to long neglected projects.

With those observations, I told my greenhouse friend there was an itch this year, unlike any other year, and that itch would need scratching. No crystal ball, just an observation. I told him to carry on and prepare for a good year. I had absolutely no idea it would be a banner year.

When the season opened up in Saskatchewan, the online and phone orders with curbside pickup were proof the itch was being scratched. When customers were allowed into the greenhouses, even with many restrictions and limitations, there were line-ups — long line ups. Sales boomed in spite of the difficulty with access.

Soon, there were gaps on the benches. First, impatiens disappeared, and none could be found. One of my friends commented, tongue-in-cheek, you could sell a 4.5-inch pot on the black market for $20. That showed how desperate people were for impatiens. Even with all of my contacts, I was left out this year. My garden is a shade garden, and impatiens are my colour anchor. With none to be found, I filled my spots with begonias. This year, impatiens were to greenhouses what toilet paper had been to Costco.

We have a local Plant Junkies web page in Regina. I joined so I could monitor what people were saying about plants, local greenhouses and garden centres. By the middle of May, many posts asked, “Have you seen this plant?” The other side of the coin was, “Tom’s Greenhouse just got in a fresh shipment of geraniums.” Soon, people flocked to that business and all of the geraniums would sell within hours. One local box store sold 800 Majesty palms in six hours, once the news hit social media. There was a demand for plants none of us had ever seen.. May you live in interesting times.

As plants sold out, greenhouse operators attempted to purchase what they were missing from others. Brad from Cedar Creek called his sales rep from Ball Superior, hoping to find something … anything. The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Even before you ask the question, the answer is no. Everyone is sold out.”

I have done business with Burnaby Lake Greenhouses in Surrey, B.C., since 1990; I still order a few cases from time to time. Their avail sheet, that comes out every Friday for Monday shipping, was the smallest I had ever seen. I asked my sales rep why so few plants were on the list. She told me retailers were purchasing everything Burnaby had, often before it made it to the sheet. The same thing was happening over at West Coast Floral: The avail sheet was useless. By the time it was published, product was already taken. Never have I seen that prior to this May. Of course, in other years, there were gaps where a variety or two was missing, or a colour was not available — but entire lists wiped out?

THERE WERE NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE to pick plants and load trucks at Jeffries Nurseries in Portage la Prairie, Man., or at Byland’s in Kelowna, B.C. Staff were missing-in-action due to quarantines. Chaos was the order of the day in companies that have always been organized.

Those growers who had cancelled their orders with Hans at Paridon were now asking for orders to be reinstated — a request that could not be met, as he had sold out.
A season that began filled with fear, finished with exhaustion and empty benches. May you live in interesting times. And always, stay on the road to success.  
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.