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Local garden centers are seeing a jump in sales as people go from cooking to planting

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
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Early in the pandemic, we cooked, seeking relief from a world gone out of kilter by kneading flour and stirring soups.

But with arrival of warm weather, there's been a great rush outdoors. Everyone, or so it seems, has ditched the kitchen in favor of the garden -- cooking up comfort food of a different kind, if you will, in the midst of an anxious global crisis.

Rob Lee, of Oak Park, does his garden shopping at English Gardens Thursday. Demand is up at nurseries ever since the governor let them reopen April 24, with many reporting blockbuster sales in May.

Closed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer until April 24, garden centers report record-busting May sales, a surge of new enthusiasm for vegetables, and difficulty keeping some items in stock.

"Our May sales were record-breaking. It was an amazing month," said Ellen Veselenak, general manager at Turner's Nursery in Ann Arbor. "The most popular items seeing big increases were seeds, vegetables and herbs."

Veselenak reports their main supplier has been overwhelmed and run out of many items.

"What happened was we had to kind of cancel everything we’d pre-ordered," she said, "because  we weren't sure if we were going to be allowed to reopen. Once garden centers were allowed to open, naturally they saw a huge surge of orders."

Doing her best to deplete supplies one recent weekend was White Lake's Marion Christiansen, owner of Magical Michigan Tours who, like so many of us, suddenly has a lot of free time on her hands.

"I bought $413 of stuff from Bordine's," she said.  "At the cash register, I thought, 'Alright – here we go!'"

Christiansen says two months ago, she was up to her elbows in her family's Italian tomato sauce.

"When I'm nervous or unsettled," she said, "I make sauce." But once spring beckoned, she got hold of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog and let her imagination run riot.

In March, White Lake resident Marion Christiansen was making her family's Italian tomato sauce like nobody's business. Now she says she's gardening all the time.

"I'd been planning on putting in a garden anyhow," she said. The lockdown and pandemic just made it all the more appealing.

So instead of conducting her wine-and-lighthouses tour this summer, on hold for the duration, Christiansen's tending her first vegetable garden in 17 years. On the menu? Tomatoes, sweet peppers, Italian beans, Brussels sprouts, squash and lots of cucumbers.

"I got the basics so I can do pickles this fall," Christiansen added. "I’m excited."

At the six English Garden stores around the metro area, company President John Darin says they've bumped into a number of shortages, though are doing their best to keep supplies adequate.

"Soils are selling like there’s no tomorrow," he said. "We've seen record sales in that and mulches, and all of our what I’d call our problem solvers – fertilizers, organic control for insects. All those things are doing very well."

Like Turner's in Ann Arbor, Darin says May sales were off the charts.

"When we opened up at the end of April," he said, "we saw a big surge in pent-up demand. May was way better than average, so we’ve been able to make up for most of what we didn’t get in April. People are just anxious to get stuff done."

At Turner's, Veselenak reports much the same thing, with some items on order backed up to July or August. "We’re out of a lot of mulches and compost," she said, "and stupid things like tomato cages. But we’re doing our best to hunt things down."

For her part, Veselenak thinks boredom and lack of options has a lot to do with the gardening surge.

"People are stuck at home, with nothing else to do," she said, "and nowhere else to shop. So they think, 'I might as well go to the garden center and start a garden.'"

C.J. Harrison cooked like crazy in March, but is now fully immersed in her Grosse Pointe Farms garden.

In Grosse Pointe Farms, avid gardener C.J. Harrison also reports making the transition from cooking up a storm -- her skillet cornbread was a favorite -- to gardening.

"We started seedlings under grow lights in March," she said, "a little too late, actually. I have my tomato plants and seedlings ordered from Tennessee. And I had a whole itinerary laid out to do as soon as possible – clean up, do this, do that."

In Birmingham, Mary Schwark -- a past president of the Troy Garden Club -- got an early start on her garden, which is heavy with hostas. "The first decent weather we had," she said, "I was out doing a lot of clean-up. I don’t mind going out in cool weather if it’s not rainy."

She acknowledges the comfort that both cooking and gardening bring, though she said she cooked in March and April "mostly because I was hungry," and not for emotional balm.

"But I do see the similarity between the two," Schwark added, "because if you do it right, at the end you have something really great."

Detroiter Deborah Coklow, left, waits to pay for her hanging flower baskets at English Gardens.

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

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