Make your pandemic garden bloom: Free resources, online supply stores and more

Plant starters are for sale at Greensgrow Farm in Kensington. (Greensgrow)

Plant starters are for sale at Greensgrow Farm in Kensington. (Greensgrow)

The Newtown Square farm where Owen Taylor cultivates seeds is closed, and his office at Bartram’s Garden is too. But that doesn’t mean the founder of Truelove Seeds is letting the coronavirus pandemic stop him from getting his grow on.

“It’s a great way to spend our time at home,” Taylor said. “And a lot of us are having a hard time, even harder than usual, accessing healthy food from grocery stores and … a safer way to get your food is to [grow] it.”

Taylor isn’t the only one keeping busy at home in the garden. While Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency shutdown orders closed garden supply stores in Pennsylvania, there are still safe ways to buy plants, seeds, soil and other tools, and those selling — often operating online with pickup or delivery options — are experiencing record demand.

Truelove Seeds, which offers vegetable, herb and flower seeds grown by Philly farmers, reports sales have more than tripled in recent weeks.

“We’re selling out of varieties a year ahead of time,” said Taylor, who is filling online orders from his Germantown home. “We’re having to shut our website down a few days a week, just to catch up on orders.”

Like Truelove, whose employees are filling seed packets from home, bigger companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Burpee, and Hudson Valley Seed Co. are all taking online orders.

And although it’s a little late to start tomatoes, peppers or eggplants from seed, now it’s actually a great time to get seeds to plant later in May and June, such as beans, corn or squash.

There are plenty of resources to help get your garden blooming. In Philly, Bartram’s Garden moved its traditional spring plant sale online.  But if you want to buy from the nation’s oldest botanical garden, you better act fast.

Bartram’s Garden is selling plants from its nursery online for curbside pickup. (Provided by Bartram’s Garden)

Already, three of the Southwest Philly nonprofit garden’s pick-up dates in May are sold out, and there are only a few slots left for June 13. Pre-orders for plants and seeds close May 10.

“The response was immediate and enormous,” said LJ Brubaker, Bartram’s communications and marketing manager. “It’s been under a week that the sale has been out, and we’ve sold over 70% of the stock that we had available.”

Greensgrow, a nonprofit organization with two urban farms in the city, closed its West Philly location, but its Kensington site is offering a “plants at a distance” service. The farm is open Wednesday to Sunday with pick-up options through May and June.

Another option for novice growers is the Cooperative Gardens Commission, a national group with a hub in Philadelphia. The group aims to connect those with food-growing resources to those without them. People are currently offering land, seeds and guidance on how to plant  though Craigslist posts using the hashtag #coopgardens.

Other plant stores offering curbside pickup or delivery in Philly are City Planter (Northern Liberties), Urban Jungle (South Philly), Secret Garden (Roxborough), Germantown Kitchen Garden, Good Host Plants (North Philadelphia), and box stores like Lowe’s.

Outside the city, Collins Nursery in Glenside and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope are operating. People can also find starters in some supermarkets and grocery stores.

But some nurseries, like Primex Garden Center, one of the main plant suppliers in the area, are struggling. Owner David Green said although demand is “off the charts,” there’s only so much they can do with limited staff and a new, overwhelmed online system. His shop is not doing curbside pickups, and only delivering to some areas. He’s hoping they’ll get 20% of their usual sales in April.

“It’s really awful,” Green said.

Right next door in New Jersey and Delaware, nurseries and garden centers are considered essential. Green wishes Gov. Wolf would reconsider and allow businesses like his to stay open.

More free online resources than ever

Just like schools and museums, local and national horticultural and gardening centers are moving their classes, workshops and other resources online.

They say people are flocking to their websites in unprecedented numbers.

“There’s definitely a buzz, a bigger buzz this spring than ever before,” said Julianne Schrader Ortega, chief of programs at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Gardening has multiple health benefits, Schrader Ortega said, from decompressing to providing food and beauty for your family and your community.

In stressful times like the ones we’re living in, people who have been gardening for a long time recognize those values, and those who haven’t want to give it a try.

But garden rookies may feel like they don’t know where to start. That’s where institutions like Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Penn State Extension are trying to make a difference.

PHS is offering a huge range of online resources, for beginners and more experienced gardeners. Local experts and staff members are posting step-by-step information to start planting food and ornamental plants, in raised beds and containers or on windowsills, through their gardeners’ blog and on social media.

They have live Q&As, webinars (Mondays at 4), multiple videos — from making a smoothie with your greens to watering and fertilizing houseplants to transplant seedlings — and kids’ activities such as “garden bingo” Wednesdays at 1.

Curious gardeners can also check out ebooks and online subject guides.

“We’re trying to work to figure out how we can virtually hand-hold people and connect them with other gardeners to support them through their gardening journey,” Schrader Ortega said.

Penn State Extension also offers a bunch of free online agricultural courses. The school’s Master Gardeners program offers a way in for those just starting to grow during the pandemic.

Two webinar series currently ongoing: The Victory Garden Reinvented, covering best practices for growing vegetables, and Garden Hotline LIVE!, where educators and experts answer gardening questions.

“It’s never too late and it’s never the wrong time to start learning about plants and gardening,” said Erin Kinley, area coordinator for Penn State Extension’s Master Gardener program.

Kinley recommends starting to grow vegetables in containers — it’s easier and more accessible because it requires less space. She said the key to success is choosing the right container, soil and plants, and that two of people’s usual mistakes are either watering too much or too little, and forgetting that plants need food too.

“If you want your containers to pull double duty, plants like nasturtium and Swiss chard Northern Lights mix are both beautiful and edible,” Kinley said.

And if you don’t want to leave your house to pick-up starters or order seeds online, Bartram’s Garden’s Brubaker and Truelove Seeds’ Taylor say no worries.

“If you have like onions or garlic or potatoes or cabbage or kind of anything that has that little bit of rootstock on it, you can put those in the dirt and water them, and a lot of times they will continue to grow,” Brubaker said.

And you can save your own seeds.

“It’s really a modern problem to have to go find seats outside of your garden — they’re all there for you,” Taylor said.

With all the resources available online now, you can learn how to do it.

“If you’re not killing plants, you’re not trying hard enough as a horticulturist,” Kinley said. “We all do it. That’s how you learn.”

And there’s a Garden Hotline for those who hit a roadblock, such as plant diseases or pests  — just send a question or a photo and an expert will troubleshoot the issue for you.

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