Every month I start a new ledger. I keep up with the daily temperatures and rainfall. I keep up with how many customers come into our store and the average ring up on our cash registers. What a difference a year can make. At this time last year, I was still the gatekeeper, only letting in 15 cars at a time so people could shop while distancing. I was handing out flyers on mask protocol, and we were sanitizing our carts, credit card machines and basically everything that people handle all day. We were trying to be as respectful of others as we know how, so everyone would feel comfortable shopping for their plants.
Last year, there really was not a shortage of things for us to have available for gardeners. But, this year, due to the loss of workers for all kinds of reasons, there are shortages of most things in our business. Everyone knows that pine straw is hard to get this year. I think that is about to get better, but it’s been a real challenge. I’ve been horse trading and swapping to keep pine straw available. I’ll find one guy who is willing to sell me 800 bales, but for double the price we are accustomed to paying. I’ll find one guy who can spare a few hundred, but I’ll have to drive a truck and trailer pretty far to pick it up, which causes the price to go up even more. I’ve managed to keep pine straw most of the season, but it’s a hustle that I hope we never experience again.
Just about everything we sell at a garden center is stopped up somewhere. Organic soils have been difficult. House plants, shrubs and trees have been a crapshoot, and even gifts and what-nots are clogged up at some port between here and China. I think if you walk into a garden center you might not be able to tell that there has been some frantic dancing going on behind the scenes by the people who work there. We are trying to make the shopping experience as normal feeling as we can.
There are definitely more people gardening this year. I think with people staying home more last year the love of gardening has come back. All the garden centers met many new faces last year and, thankfully, they are back for more this year. I guess that means we have done our job.
This past week I had a great opportunity to go to Oregon to visit some garden centers and farmers. I was in the Rogue Valley of Oregon, where everything is growing in that wonderful climate. It was cool at night and piercing sun during the day, my favorite climate. I couldn’t deal with the lack of water and the threat of fire though. Just like we know a hurricane is coming our way eventually, they know that fire is most likely headed their way. The best-case scenario for them is that if the fire doesn’t burn their farm down, they will still have to deal with the thick smoke that comes with it. One of the farmers said that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces it was so thick. They are breathing that air for weeks or months. I guess they love it out there so much that they are willing to take the risk. It must be like telling a southerner to stay away from the Alabama and Florida beaches because there might be a hurricane. We won’t hear of it, because we love our beaches.
I did sneak off of my itinerary for a day. My buddy and I got up to 9,000 feet around Crater Lake. Luckily, I had enough clothes to get through that, because there was still 15 feet of snow on the ground, and more fell while we were up there climbing around.
We drove down from there to Mount Shasta in California. Mount Shasta was still pretty covered in snow which is a good thing to see for the farmers in that valley. The more snow late in the spring, the more water they will have to work with later in the season when the fires begin to rage. I didn’t go up Mount Shasta but I did a little homework on the route I would take to the summit. I told Mimi about that when I got home, and she told me to have fun doing that one solo. Climbing Mount Shasta is not Mimi‘s idea of a good time. When we finally got back on track to visit these farms and nurseries, we were down low some of the time where it was downright hot. We were on the east side of the Cascades, where it’s basically desert with low growing trees and shrubs barely alive from the dry conditions. In the countryside there were so many kinds of sages blooming that it was a kaleidoscope of colors.
Driving through the little towns where the streets were landscaped with gorgeous color and towering spruces and maples, I saw a lot of Kniphofia, better known as red hot poker. This is one of my favorite plants that does well here in very dry conditions. Red hot pokers can have a dozen yellow, orange and red spikes that are around three feet tall. We’ve been growing Kniphofia for 25 years in our greenhouses because they are perfect plants for people who love to go to the beach and want their plants to still be alive when they get home.
Because so much that is grown in the Rogue Valley is for consumption, most farmers are using organic methods. I was surprised to see Espoma products were widely used for this purpose. This is a product that we started really pushing last year since so many people started gardening. We want people to eat their produce safely, so organic methods are the way to achieve that. I went to one farm where all they did was produce organic soils and teas for farmers to buy on a large scale. Some of it was good and stinky with bat guano, earth worm castings, crunched up stuff from the sea and all kinds of things that make plants happy. You can get all of this in a soil product that most garden centers sell in bags called Ocean Forest by Fox Farm. It’s all I go home with now when I’m planting anything. The difference in the health of the plants is undeniable.
Of course, the farm to table restaurants in the valley were incredibly fresh and wonderful. There are so many vineyards around there that wine lists were long, and the cheeses and meats were locally produced. The scenery at these outdoor dining places was just amazing. Peonies were in full bloom. They were striking with their giant blooms. There were waterfall maples everywhere. I’m a fool for maples and we were in maple country. We couldn’t get very far without stopping to take pictures. Luckily, my buddy is also into plants, so we were like kids in an Xbox store.
The most surprising difference I encountered on this quick trip is that the West Coast is still masking, distancing and sanitizing like it was June 2020. They are still basically shut down and are very strict about all that stuff. I had completely let my guard down and quit masking a while back. I had no idea that this part of the country was still going at it. I got reprimanded more than once when I would forget to mask up before going into a building.
The economy really got hit hard being shut down for so long. Most of the little shops, cafés and restaurants were shuttered, probably for good. It’s a sad thing to see. Relatively, we Mississippians were spared from the worst, as far as that goes. Staying locked down too long has done some permanent damage to lots of businesses and families out west… just another good reason why I love our little pocket right here in Mississippi.