First-time ‘panic’ gardeners flood Utah nurseries during coronavirus pandemic

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Madison Denkers gathers plants from the greenhouse for the Wasatch Community Gardens 2020 Spring Plant Sale Fundraiser, Saturday May 9, 2020

Foot-tall tomato stalks and stringy onion stems filled cardboard boxes at Wasatch Community Gardens on Saturday morning, waiting for Utah gardeners to pick them up.

A last name is scribbled on the side of each box in black marker, matching the plants to a waiting owner in a line of cars outside of the garden at 100 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

This is the first time in the community garden’s three-decade history that its patrons ordered online and relied on garden staff to pick the perfect tomato plant for their home plots. In years past, people would line up early outside the garden gates in anticipation ready to make their picks.

But — for this year at least — the coronavirus changed everything.

“Six weeks ago,” said executive director Ashley Patterson, “we were doing the plant sale the same way we have done for 30 years.”

In the era of COVID-19, a lot can change in six weeks. Social distancing means a big gathering of Utahns hand-selecting plants at the gardens was out. Wasatch Community Gardens instead went digital, offering online ordering in late April, with contactless pickups on Mother’s Day weekend.

They sold out in 14 hours, said communications director Katie Dwyer. In total, there will be 1,600 cars passing through this weekend — over 30,000 plants sold.

Many of those who picked up plants were first-time buyers, maybe motivated by extra time at home or a desire to be self-sufficient in fear of pandemic-caused food shortage. Patterson said there were some long-time customers that couldn’t get their starts this year, as newcomers flooded and crashed their website with orders.

Sheriden Hansen, a Utah State University associate professor of horticulture in Davis County, said the influx of new gardeners is a trend they’ve noticed this year, in what she called “panic gardening.” Most of those seeking gardening advice desire to be a bit more self-sufficient in today’s chaotic world, she said.

“We’ve seen a huge demand for information,” Hansen said. “Lots of first-time gardeners, people who want to be able to help themselves if maybe there won’t be food.”

So, if you’re starting a garden for the first time, what should you do?

The professor said to make sure you do your homework. Facebook posts and Pinterest links are fine, but Utahns should make sure they are getting localized information to know what’s best for our area. And hold back on putting on too much fertilizer and avoid over-watering.

“We love our plants,” she said, “so we will spend a lot of time overdoing it for our plants.”

Patterson, with Wasatch Community Gardens, advised first-time gardeners to make sure they “harden off” plants before putting them in the ground, a process of introducing natural sunlight and the elements to greenhouse-born seedlings.

Patterson offered a final pro tip for first-time gardeners: Plant mint and similar varieties in pots or buckets, because they’re an invasive species that will spread throughout your garden if you don’t.

So, is socially-distant garden shopping the future?

Patterson said they weren’t entirely prepared to move a community garden’s seedling sale online — “We’re not Amazon,” she said — but she thinks it could be a possibility next year if social distancing becomes the norm.

“Maybe this is our only option,” she said.