Peas and quiet? In times of turbulence, Americans turn to gardening

From Washington, D.C., to Washington state, Americans are — perhaps counterintuitively — interspersing their rigorous hand-washing with digging in the dirt.

As people shelter in place and worry about the cost and availability of groceries, many have found reassurance and relaxation in the timeless ritual of planting, watering and tending gardens — even if there are a few detours along the way.

“We’ve seen a tenfold growth in daily active users over the past couple of months,” said Seth Reed, co-founder of GrowIt, a gardening app.

Reed said the questions people post on the platform are an indication that many of the recent member signups are new — very new — to gardening. “It’s very basic, like, do I put them in a pot or [in the] ground?” he said.

“We were trying to think about ways we could save money … and it’s a way to eat healthier without having to go the grocery store and further run the risk of exposure.”

“I have no experience with gardening,” admitted Christina Berry, a wedding coordinator who lives outside Tacoma, Washington. The pandemic prompted her and her wife — who also works in the hard-hit events industry — to consider ways to practice social distancing and become more self-sufficient.

“We were trying to think about ways we could save money, because we don’t know what’s going to happen with regard to work, and it’s a way to eat healthier without having to go the grocery store and further run the risk of exposure,” said Berry, who is at elevated risk for COVID-19 complications because of a pre-existing lung condition.

“We were going to pull up the grass and jump in with two feet,” she said. But then her fledgling plants started to wilt. “I’ve got all these salad greens, and I was like, oh, these need shade.”

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The e-commerce data analytics firm Klaviyo found that online sales of home goods and garden products grew by 63 percent from mid-March to mid-May, and according to a consumer survey conducted by the market research company Numerator, more than 1 in 4 people who bought gardening tools and supplies in March said their purchases were the result of the pandemic.

The online plant seller ShrubBucket said its sales jumped 13-fold over last year, with demand for vegetable plants up by nearly 1,200 percent on a year-over-year basis.

The uptick in sales of garden-related equipment and supplies is a rare bright spot in an otherwise forbidding economic climate, with overall retail sales plunging by a record 16.4 percent last month.

The increase in sales of garden-related equipment and supplies is a rare bright spot in an otherwise forbidding economic climate. Although overall retail sales measured by the government plunged by a record 16.4 percent in April, the category that includes gardening supplies and equipment was roughly flat year over year.

Home Depot’s quarterly earnings report Tuesday reflected the two-pronged economic narrative: Although same-store sales jumped by 6.4 percent and the company beat revenue expectations, profits fell as health- and safety-related expenses soared.

First-time gardeners like Melissa Hubbard have contributed to the modest boost for beleaguered retailers. “Because of coronavirus, we’ve tried to just stay home,” said Hubbard, 54, a retiree from Tacoma, adding that she worried about the health implications for her husband, a Boeing employee who was sidelined for two weeks but has since returned to work.

“We’re going to the grocery store as little as possible,” she said, but she found that vegetables spoiled too quickly for her goal of twice-monthly trips to be feasible. Her first solution — stocking up on root vegetables — left her craving more variety as the weeks stretched on, she said. “We’ve been eating a lot of turnips.”

Hubbard estimated that she and her husband spent $400 on materials to build raised beds and fill them with soil and seeds, because their soil holds residual contamination from a nearby smelting plant that shut down 35 years ago. “I’m sure it’ll end up being more expensive than buying vegetables at the grocery store for the first year or two,” she said. But, she conceded, it was still better than endless turnips.

Joseph Feldman, senior managing director of Telsey Advisory Group, said the increase in sales of items like trowels and topsoil isn’t entirely unexpected, given the large number of Americans who have been under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders over the past several weeks.

“It’s one of the few things you see people doing outdoors while you’re home more and have more free time,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere else — there’s no youth activities to take your kids to, and it’s a fun thing to do with a family.”

Growing potatoes, onions and other vegetables was a welcome distraction for Giovanna Jones, 49, a health care worker in Washington, D.C., who contracted COVID-19 and has been out of work since April 3.

Mostly recovered but with a lingering cough that has kept her sidelined, Jones — who lives alone — was searching for a way to alleviate the tedium of being stuck at home. “I always wanted to have a garden,” she said, so despite being a self-proclaimed “thrifty person,” she spent around $150 on dirt and seeds to start growing vegetables.

The expense was worth it, Jones said. “I think I would’ve considered it a loss if I hadn’t enjoyed it, but I was surprised. I enjoyed working out in the yard, because I don’t consider myself an outdoorsy person,” she said. “It allowed me to pass the time.”

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For Cristina Woo, a cancer survivor who lives in Austin, Texas, the health risk posed by COVID-19 made her reluctant to leave home, but her plants and the friendships she has forged online have helped mitigate the isolation. “I’m social distancing big time,” she said.

Woo, 59, a former human resources consultant, said the idea of growing herbs and vegetables had always appealed to her but had never been feasible with her schedule. “With this lockdown, it’s a good opportunity for me,” she said. “My plants have all my time right now.”

Woo immersed herself in online gardening groups and message boards, rare outlets of interactivity through weeks of social distancing. “It’s so nice, because there’s a community out there,” she said. “We exchange ideas. I can ask basic questions. They don’t judge.”

Being able to focus on her garden, she said, was also a welcome antidote to current events. “It affects your mental well-being. My refuge is to go back to my yard.”

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