A tomato patio planter was just one way greenhouses sold veggie plants to customers this spring – when supplies lasted.
Photo by Gail March Yerke

by Gail March Yerke

When it comes to vegetable plant sales this season, it’s been a wild ride for greenhouse growers, retailers and suppliers alike. Suppliers are scrambling to find product for reorders and retailers are selling through early, only to be left with empty benches in their vegetable departments. The same story played out across much of the U.S. this spring.

Greenhouses that grow their own vegetable plants and herbs found themselves replanting as the first crop flew off the benches. “We have re-seeded some of our vegetable varieties four times this spring,” said Bruce Sadowski of Groth’s Country Gardens of Cedarburg, WI. The retail greenhouse also grows tomato plants in large containers for decks and patios. He said some of their customers, including young families and older people, had never planted a garden before, much less a vegetable garden.

Mike Backus of Prospect Hill Garden Center had a similar story. “We sold about 15% more vegetable plants than last year, yet we were sold out of most vegetables early, by the third or fourth week of May. Everything just flew,” he said. The New Berlin, WI, greenhouse and garden center starts much of its vegetable crop themselves and supplements it with shipments from Michigan growers. “We always get additional plants from a few Michigan greenhouses and this year we were told they were all sold out. It was crazy,” he said. He added that their customers shopped early this year and many were first-time vegetable gardeners. In business since 1982, Backus said that their overall spring sales were “huge.” “One Saturday was our best on record, beating the best day by $10,000,” he noted.

On the East Coast, Nunan Florist & Greenhouses of Georgetown, MA, saw a dramatic increase in vegetable sales too. “People were tired of staying at home and came out and bought plants for their own personal vegetable garden. They spent their restaurant money on all the vegetables and flowers they could find,” said owner Steve Flynn. “Our vegetable plant sales were about three times what they were the year before.” The 100-year-old florist and greenhouse family business has 45 employees, with Flynn working alongside his two sons, his sisters and his grandson. “We are so glad that greenhouses were considered essential businesses,” he added. As long as their vegetable plants were 10% of their total sales, they were included in that category and could stay open. “It has been unbelievable,” he added.

One of the drawbacks of the selling season was the pandemic’s disruption of the supply chain for much of the greenhouse industry. If you usually brought in vegetable plants from wholesale growers, you were disappointed with availability. If you were a wholesale grower that cut back production because of cancelled orders early on, you were also disappointed. In short, demand was much higher than product supply.

The bright spot in all of this is that new customers have been introduced to vegetable gardening. It’s similar to the Victory Garden movement from World War II, when Americans grew vegetable gardens in their backyards to supplement food for their families. With today’s awareness of COVID-19 and how it has affected everyday life, some refer to these as “Doomsday Gardens” or “Survival Gardens.” No matter what you call it, people definitely want food security and want to know their food source as well. There’s hope that once they taste the fresh veggies from their own gardens this summer, vegetable plant sales should be just as strong next year.