People struggling with coronavirus fears have decided to plant a little hope. Actually, they’re planting a lot of hope.

Seed sales for this time of year have spiked like never before, local and national garden supply sellers say. It’s a trend fueled by people stuck at home with time on their hands, worried about short-term grocery trips and long-term food availability. Some are first-time gardeners, others are starting their gardens earlier than usual – with seed starter kits on the kitchen table – or planning bigger gardens. Some are using gardening as a project for kids being schooled at home.

“We started doing this as a project for the kids, but we also want to be more self-reliant and avoid frequent trips to the store,” said Josh Pahigian, 46, of Saco, who is growing bean sprouts and micro greens indoors with his two children. “When facing difficulty like this, it makes you feel better to do something proactive.”

March sales at Burpee, one of the nation’s largest seed companies, were at least double what they’d be in most years, said George Ball, company chairman. Southern Maine stores that sell gardening supplies – including Skillins Greenhouses and Eldredge Lumber & Hardware – say they’ve also doubled their normal March seed sales. Fedco Seeds, a seed cooperative in Clinton, got more than 600 seed orders a day several days last week, compared to maybe 170 a day in the past, and shut down its website over the weekend to try to slow down the number of orders, said Nikos Kavanya, seed purchaser at Fedco.

Other parts of the country are experiencing the same trend, which has been reported on by The Washington Post and National Public Radio. Ball, at Burpee, said he’s never seen such a large spike in sales, though seed sales usually do go up when the economy is bad. He said sales increased significantly during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the stock market crash of the late 1980s and the dot.com bubble burst around 2000. He said probably the last time the company has seen a comparable spike in sales, though, was during World War II, when food was rationed and planting a Victory Garden was seen as a patriotic duty.

“The idea of gardening makes people feel better; even for people who aren’t gardeners I think the idea is soothing,” Ball said Wednesday.

Several Mainers interviewed for this story said they’ve decided to garden to grow some of their own food, which in this time of fear and insecurity helps them feel a little more secure.

“I haven’t grown anything more than wildflowers for years, but now you can’t get things in the store and who knows what the stores will be like down the road,” said Erik Schineller, 53, of Westbrook. “Would we have started a vegetable garden if there wasn’t a pandemic? Probably not.”

Rob and Amanda Duquette stand for a portrait with the 12-square foot garden outlined with cement blocks they are starting in their small backyard in Biddeford on Wednesday. The two are musicians whose gigs have dried up because of the pandemic, and they are starting the garden to be creative and to also have some control of their food because of food supply concerns. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Schineller, who runs a computer consulting firm and is working from home, has started seeds in small containers in his kitchen, including for peas, lettuce and green peppers. He and his girlfriend, Ana Seifridsberger, bought seeds and supplies at Home Depot the weekend before everything started closing and people were warned or ordered to stay home. He’s also been working in his yard, clearing the way for a garden when the weather cooperates.

Calls and emails from people seeking gardening advice during the past month or so prompted the University of Maine Cooperative Extension to start an online series offering gardening advice called Garden Chats, said Pamela Hargest, horticulture professional with the Cumberland County extension. The first session, held Monday, attracted 67 participants with just a few days of online advertising, Hargest said.

Many gardening supplies can be ordered online, important in this time of social distancing. Some local stores have closed their buildings to the public but sell seeds and supplies outside or via curbside pickup.

Pahigian, an author and adjunct instructor at the University of New England, did some research online to see what he might grow quickly, indoors. He found information on the website of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a Winslow company, and bought one of their germinator sets online for about $30. In the germinator tray he’s growing bean sprouts, which his kids like; he also got supplies from Johnny’s to grow micro pea plants – the tiny stalks are edible. He is gardening with his wife, Heather, and his children – Lauren, 6, and Spencer, 9. They’ve used a shower curtain to make a little greenhouse tent over lettuce and kale growing in their yard.

 

Spencer 9, Josh and Lauren Pahigian 6, work together to cover up one of their outdoor greenhouses.

Amanda Duquette of Biddeford has three children at home right now – ages 12 to 14 – and has made planning a garden part of their home education, plotting out how much space they have in the yard for a garden and how much space to devote to each vegetable. Their yard near downtown Biddeford is tiny, she says, but they figured they could fit a garden in a cleared 12-by-10-foot space. They have not started seeds yet, but hope to grow a dozen vegetables, including carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, spinach and cucumbers.

Before coronavirus advisories kicked off runs on local produce departments, Duquette had thought starting a garden this year would be simply a fun project for her and her family. Then it took on a certain urgency.

“I started getting a little nervous and wanted to make sure we have healthy food,” said Duquette, 42.

Duquette and her husband, Rob Duquette, are both musicians whose company, KindKids Music, plays children’s concerts and holds workshops in local schools. So gardening, at least in a small way, helps them fill the void left when many of their music gigs got canceled.

“We are creative people and we felt like we needed to be creating something,” Duquette said of the family’s planned garden. “And we’ll be doing something to help ourselves.”

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