Until this spring, Brent Graham’s to-do list never included a backyard patio.

The coronavirus pandemic shifted priorities for the Cape Elizabeth dad with two kids in college and a third in high school. Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 put an end to most indoor social gatherings.

Brent Graham of Cape Elizabeth lays out paving stones while building a backyard patio last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“My kids wanted a place where they could sit out and have friends over,” he said. “It’s not something that I normally would have been into, but in a way it’s been relaxing and has sort of replaced some of the other spring and early summer activities that we would have done.”

The pandemic has not been kind to many industries, including retail, but one sector that is thriving from so many people spending more time at home comprises the businesses that cater to do-it-yourself projects such as landscaping, gardening and creating livable outdoor space.

For the past month, Graham and his children – Matt, Susie and Charlotte – have spent an hour or two on weeknights and much of their weekends on their backyard project. They had to dig out concrete posts and level a 16-foot-by-12-foot area for paving stones they purchased through Genest, a Sanford-based manufacturer and retailer of concrete and masonry products.

Their project is one of many underway this spring as Mainers following stay-at-home orders took stock of their surroundings and decided to spruce things up a bit. Pandemic-related restrictions may have disrupted other areas of life, but DIY is A-OK.

“It’s a sector of business right now that has weathered very well,” said Rob Chermak, Genest’s sales director. “Anybody you talk to throughout this industry is experiencing the same thing.”

Chermak said Genest recently sent a truck laden with 55 fire pit kits to a Connecticut dealer who had picked up 30 the previous week. Another 80 steel fire pit inserts arrived Tuesday in Sanford from a fabricator in southern Maine. Genest makes the concrete blocks that complete the kit.

“They are going out as fast as we can get them,” said Chermak, who declined to provide internal data other than to say sales of fire pits and DIY materials are “up considerably” from this time last year.

Brent Graham of Cape Elizabeth hands a paving stone to his daughter Susie as they work together on a backyard patio. He said the do-it-yourself project “has sort of replaced some of the other spring and early summer activities that we would have done.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unlike industries that have cut back production or laid off staff, Genest has ramped up manufacturing and hired more workers, Chermak said. In March, uncertainty clouded the immediate future. Now, he said, it’s a challenge simply to keep up with inventory.

“At the same time, we have to be humble and realize how lucky we are, given the other businesses that might not be so lucky,” Chermak said. “I try to remind people of that all the time, to really be empathetic about how diverse the economy really is. Right now, certain sectors are flourishing and others are struggling, and it’s important to acknowledge both of those.”

Patios, decks, fire pits and raised beds for gardening have been sprouting around homes this spring like never before, fueled by homeowners with time on their hands and fewer options to distract them. The pleasant weather hasn’t hurt, either.

Terry Skillin, president of Skillins Greenhouses, said he figured it was going to be difficult to keep up with demand for vegetable seedlings, both for experienced and new gardeners. That turned out to be true.

“What we didn’t really have a handle on was the whole ornamental side,” he said. “We just did not anticipate the flowering stuff to sell as well as it did. But people are home. They want their decks to look great. They want their patios to look great.”

Hanging baskets, trees and shrubs have all been big sellers, he said. Skillins’ locations in Brunswick, Falmouth and Cumberland already have sold as much in bulk products such as loam and compost this year as in all of 2019. Spending so much time at home has given people the opportunity and motivation to tackle their “someday” projects.

Brent Graham of Cape Elizabeth works with his son Matt last week on the construction a backyard patio. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“It’s been our busiest spring ever, and we’ve been in business since 1885,” Skillin said. “That’s a lot of springs to compare.”

Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber, said home improvement is clearly a hot industry this spring, not just in Maine but across the country. His company operates nine lumberyards, one truss manufacturing plant and three sawmills.

“One of our biggest customers is Lowe’s, and their sales of our products across several hundred stores are up dramatically,” Hancock said.

Across the company, sales are up 20 percent over the same time last year at Hancock, he said, and 2019 was a strong year.

Like many, Hancock wondered when the pandemic hit in March whether business would grind to a halt. He wondered if lumberyards and sawmills would be allowed legally to remain open. And if so, would employees feel comfortable and safe coming to work?

“We really weren’t interested in making people work,” Hancock said. “So we took time to have conversations around the mills and stores, asking, ‘What do you want to do?’ It was really inspiring. While nervous, they wanted to work because, at that point, work was not something being done to them, it was something they wanted to sustain.”

Brent, Matt and Susie Graham of Cape Elizabeth build their backyard patio on June 17. Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber, said, “One of the consequences of this pandemic is that home, which has always been important to all of us, has suddenly seemed even more important.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Instead of slowing, a combination of several factors led to the acceleration of home improvement sales, in Hancock’s view.

First, people suddenly had time on their hands because of stay-at-home orders. Looking around, they noticed all the things they had wanted to do for months or years but never started because of busy lifestyles.

Second, news of a deadly virus spreading throughout the world and taking root in all 50 states made one’s dwelling feel more like a sanctuary, more like a place of refuge and safety.

“One of the consequences of this pandemic,” he said, “is that home, which has always been important to all of us, has suddenly seemed even more important.”

There’s a third element at play, Hancock said. You can sit still for only so long.

“We’ve all got this innate desire to do something,” he said. “So channeling that energy into your home has been super common. Now when I look back on it, it makes perfect sense.”

Back in the Grahams’ backyard, where Brent has learned to use plate compactors and string lines, and dealt with gravel and sand, the patio project continues. Creating a level base was harder than anticipated, he said, and figuring out the layout of the stones and keeping everything straight and square is challenging.

“But as far as home improvement projects go,” he said, “with no place to go and no concerts or sporting events, it’s been a really good experience.”

When complete, Graham will add a fire pit he picked up for free on Facebook’s marketplace, as well as a barbecue grill and patio furniture.

“My daughters have set a hard deadline of the July Fourth weekend,” he said. “I think we are going to make it.”


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