Customers can't go into Whitney's farm store but can order and pick it up outside.
CHESHIRE, Mass. — When the commonwealth shut down non-essential businesses last month, nurseries and garden centers were classified as essential.
That could be an understatement. If anything, they're more important than ever.
"I've taken, I'd say, 10 times the phone calls about people wanting to start vegetable gardens this year," said Martha Tanner, the greenhouse manager at Whitney's Farm Market and Garden Center. "People are really interested in growing their own food and starting their own gardens.
"I totally encourage people to grow everything they can to eat. I think it's really cool. If that comes out of this, that's awesome. If people are growing their little victory gardens at their home in the city, that's great."
"This" is the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home advisory that goes along with it.
"Victory gardens" were a staple on the homefront for Americans through two world wars in the last century. The biggest national crisis of this century had The New York Times speculating as early as March 25 that, "Food Supply Anxiety Brings Back Victory Gardens."
Whether as a hedge against potential food shortages or an outlet for long days bottled up on one's own property, enthusiasm for gardening appears to be high.
"People do want to garden this year," said Greg Ward, co-owner of Great Barrington's Ward's Nursery and Garden Center. "It seems like the energy is high. It is one of the few things you can do. That's probably why I'm thinking that."
Whitney's and Ward's, two of Berkshire County's largest and best-known garden centers, stand ready to help satisfy that yen to garden.
But it has taken some adjustments to keep their retail locations compliant with state guidelines and make sure their customers feel safe.
At Whitney's, the open-air nursery is still accessible to the public, but the rest of property -- including the greenhouse, farm market, bakery and deli -- is not. Everything they normally sell is still available, but customers have to order it and have it delivered to their cars at the curb.
"It's a whole new way of doing business for us," Tanner said. "Not allowing customers in has been hard. Picking out flowers and walking through a greenhouse is a really nice thing to do. It's a really relaxing environment here. I think it's a peaceful place to be.
"It's tough to see them standing outside the door."
At South County's Ward's Nursery, customers still can come inside the doors, but many are opting for curbside pickup or delivery, Greg Ward said.
"We have a large space, so fortunately we can move things around," he said. "We can separate our checkouts so there is lots of room, and we continue to do that. One-way traffic flow is now our latest project as we get further into the busiest season.
"It's been an evolutionary process over the last several weeks."
Ward's has about 20,000 square feet of interior space and about three or four times that outside the building. Ward said he can comfortably accommodate about 20 customers at a time inside the building. He has not had to enforce a limit on the number of people in the store yet, but said he likely will.
And employees are asking all visitors to the shop to wear masks and providing them to any customers who come without.
"If someone has not yet reached the new social distancing guidelines, we ask them to follow through," Ward said.
Another change at Ward's has been a slight reduction in hours -- opening a little later and closing a little earlier to give the staff plenty of time to clean the inside of the store.
Ward said he has not had a problem maintaining the workforce he needs to keep up with the extra deliveries that the store is offering during the COVID-19 crisis.
"We've always had the delivery option," he said. "It's always been there, but we have stepped it up so we could do it more frequently. It was available on limited days in the past.
"We are very lucky in that pretty much everyone who was working with us seasonally … came back in the spring. They have returned and are able to work."
Staffing has been a little bit more of a challenge at Whitney's.
"We're running on a skeleton crew right now," Tanner said. "A lot of people who typically come back to work in the spring are not coming back, mostly out of concern for their families, and we totally respect that. We have a lot of single moms and families trying to home-school their children.
"For some people, it's not feasible to come back to work yet. The whole world is crazy. It's difficult to get everyone on the same page. And we understand that."
Fortunately for both nurseries, the global pandemic has not impacted their supply chain.
"Thankfully, most of the product we get in the beginning of February, and a lot of the stuff we grow ourselves," Whitney's Tanner said. "Before all this hit, we had most of our supplies in stock, which is really good.
"We pre-plan for the spring in October. … In the farming world, you plan everything ahead of time."
One thing you can't plan: the weather.
And even though there may be a lot of enthusiasm about getting out in the garden, the frigid April nights -- and occasional snow -- may have kept some Bay Staters with green thumbs sitting on their hands. But still there is plenty of work to be done.
"Business has been steady, but it's still so early because it's been cool," Ward said. "You can cultivate, you can mulch your garden, you can plant a new garden, you can plant some veggies that are more weather-tolerant -- lettuce, kale, onions. But you can't plant a tomato for another month.
"You can plant a fruit tree or a blueberry bush."
And with temperatures appearing to be on the rise over the next 10 days, Ward is expecting plenty of interest this weekend.
"Saturday, I think it's going to be busy," he said. "And after that, the weather is finally looking like it should this time of year. We're not going to have the extreme cold nights. … You can get out and find where those perennials you planted last year are."
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