The Portland Water District sold roughly twice as many rain barrels to homeowners this spring as it usually does.

The Cumberland County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension has had as many questions from Mainers to date this gardening season as it had last year through Oct. 1, “and we’re not even into the thick of it yet,” said Pamela Hargest, a horticultural professional with the Cumberland office whose duties include answering the glut of inquiries.

O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham is struggling to keep up with the demand for plants. “The supply is very thin,” said owner Jeffrey O’Donal. “There are too many people who want the same plants, and plants don’t just come off the factory floor. You have to grow them.”

Gardeners also may encounter shortages of bulk bark mulch, some fertilizers and pelletized chicken manure.

These are just a few of the signs that the heightened interest in gardening, in Maine and nationwide, sparked last year by the pandemic – and resulting in a national seed shortage last spring – hasn’t yet abated.

Mike Skillins, co-owner and treasurer of Skillins Greenhouses in Brunswick, Falmouth and Cumberland, didn’t even need to hear the question before saying whether his business is still exceedingly busy.

“Yes! Very much so!” he interrupted excitedly, “all through even the fall season and winter. Winter, we had the best houseplant season we’ve ever had. That’s indoor gardening. Spring has picked up right where last spring ended.”

He paused to reconsider: “Not quite as extensive as last spring,” he corrected himself. “I think last spring will be one of a kind in my lifetime, but still very, very good.”

BARRELS OF FUN

In 2006, the Portland Water District began an annual program to sell rain barrels to homeowners as a way to encourage water conservation. The barrels store any rainwater that runs off rooftops, which homeowners use to water their lawns and gardens when it’s sunny out. Most years, the district sells them at a more or less steady clip each spring, typically, between 250 and 350 barrels. This spring, the district sold 708, “definitely the highest number we’ve ever sold, for sure,” said Kirsten Ness, a district water resources specialist who handles the orders.

“As the numbers kept going up and up and up, I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness,'” she said. The district, which supplies water to 11 towns in Greater Portland, trucks the rain barrels in from Vermont. “We typically get one tractor-trailer load,” Ness said, “and this year we had two almost full loads.”

To advertise the annual sale, the district sends out a bill stuffer to its customers and touts the rain barrels on its Facebook page, “but I can’t think of anything in our advertising that has shifted enough to cause that increase,” she said. Noting that she was speculating, she ascribed the 2021 sales bonanza to two factors: the region’s increasingly commonplace spring and summer droughts, and the many Mainers stuck at home last year who either planted their first garden or doubled-down on an existing one.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association can’t point to hard data about the number of new gardeners last year, either, nor how many have renewed their new gardens this season, said Anna Libby, the nonprofit’s community education director, “but just thinking of my experience this year and last year, I do think a lot of folks are sticking with it. They had fun last year, learned some lessons, and are excited to do it again.”

A series of programs MOFGA launched last year in response to strong interest have “been really popular all throughout last season and this one, too,” Libby said, with some 325 people signing up for the most recent program, which was on planning a vegetable garden.

Janice Russo at her home in Falmouth in late June. She began learning to garden last summer in part because with the pandemic canceling so many activities, she finally had the time. “I thought I would enjoy it, but I’m enjoying it more than I imagined,” she said. She’s continued to garden avidly this year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

OVEREXTENDED

Hargest, with the UMaine Cooperative Extension, didn’t have time all week to talk about how busy she was because of how busy she was. She had been “inundated with calls,” she said when she was finally able to return a call at 5:01 on a Friday evening.

“We do a lot of tracking of the impact of our work. I track every single call, Facebook interaction, walk-in, social media, email, all forms of communication,” she said. “We’ve answered at least 700 gardening questions this year. That was about our number (for the entirety of the gardening season) last year,” which, per the agency’s record-keeping, ends on Oct. 1. “It just goes to show how much people are out there gardening and want good, reliable information to make good choices.”

The scope of her own job, Hargest went on to say, has changed as she struggles to stay on top of the questions, on subjects that range from lawn and tree care to mulch, fruit tree injury to plant disease problems – and everything in between. “All of our extension offices are dealing with that, not just Cumberland County. Many others are being swamped with questions right now,” she said. “We definitely ask people to be patient with us.”

And while it’s “so early to say” with certainty whether last year’s gardening craze was just a passing pandemic fad, Hargest believes that “a lot of people caught the gardening bug, and I think it will continue. A lot of people are looking for ways to escape and be outside, and gardening is such a great way to do that. People are realizing the multiple benefits they get from gardening.”

GOING STRONGER

Case in point: Falmouth resident Janice Russo.

When Russo was a girl, her grandmother had a large, beautiful garden, something that as an adult both “inspired and intimidated” her. But last year, she decided to give gardening a try. “My husband is an ER physician,” she said. “When the pandemic started, I felt like it was a tsunami waiting to hit us, watching it move across the country.”

The garden, she said, mostly just prep work and research last year, brought “stress relief, something else to focus on” besides the pandemic. “Everything unfolded in the right time for it to happen. It was something I always wanted to do. But with things slowing down, I had the opportunity to do it.”

In a sometimes difficult and frightening year, gardening brought her joy, “seeing something flower and bloom and be successful,” Russo said. So this season she’s stepped it up, shopping regularly at Skillins in Falmouth with photographs of her yard in hand and “100 questions every week,” she laughed.

When, on Mother’s Day, her 7-year-old son drew her a picture “of him and me in our vegetable garden,” she first thought to herself, “but we don’t have a vegetable garden,” and then further thought, “‘Well, I’ve got to do it. Here we go.’ So I picked up a tomato plant and I picked up a cucumber plant. They’re looking good.

“You know, beginning gardening is intimidating,” she went on, “but I think I’m going to go for it.”

Amanda and Rob Duquette record a video of themselves singing their song “Time to Grow” in their garden at their home in Biddeford earlier this month. The two started gardening at the start of the pandemic and increased the size of their garden this year. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Amanda Duquette, a musician who lives in Biddeford with her children and musician husband, also was drawn to gardening last spring, despite the “tiny, tiny little yard” at the home the couple had bought a year earlier.

Last year, the couple told the Press Herald they were starting a garden to give their three teenagers an educational pandemic project, to give themselves a creative outlet since their music gigs had dried up, and to furnish themselves with a supply of healthy food at a time that grocery store supplies were sporadic.

Some 15 months later, Duquette was still overflowing with enthusiasm, saying the garden “went really awesome.” Last year, the family raised chickens and grew sunflowers, herbs of all sorts, “lots of potatoes” and more. This year, they’ve added strawberries, garlic and beets.

“It was such a tiny little plot of land, I couldn’t really imagine doing what we did,” Duquette said. “Now you walk in and it’s like a little oasis right in Biddeford. It was only because I had the time and the sort of desperation: ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have to feed ourselves because it’s the end of the world.'”

“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she continued.”Having strawberries to pick in the morning to put on your pancakes? It is so great. Or the kids are picking peas on the way to violin class? Everybody is benefitting.”

Last year, the Duquettes recorded themselves singing the same song in the small plot behind their house where they had planned to garden. In fact, they raised backyard chickens in that spot last summer, and moved their garden to the side of the house, where they renewed their garden this spring. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

COMPETING INTERESTS

Maybe not everybody. After “an overwhelming amount” of early sales in December, January and February, seed sales at Fedco are much closer to normal now, 10 to 20 percent higher than in a typical year, estimated Heron Breen, research and development coordinator at the Clinton-based cooperative. Some of that could be that anxious buyers in 2020 bought twice as much as they needed, so are planting the leftover seeds this year. Some might be that “once people realized their summer might not be so restrictive, maybe they decided to do a little less gardening and a little more pent-up socializing,” he speculated.

That’s true for Westbrook resident Erik Schineller, who last year told the Press Herald that after growing nothing but wildflowers for years, he’d turned to vegetables. He repurposed an old trampoline into a raised bed in part “to have something to do” planting potatoes, lettuce, green beans, green peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. This year, though, “yeah, we’re gardening. We’re not as heavy into it as we were last year, because of work and all that,” Schineller said. “Plus, I’m throwing two music festivals. We’ve got stuff going on. We’re not all on full lockdown, so that has really changed things.”

But professional growers, who are often garden evangelists and passionate gardeners in their free time, too, hope that while the pandemic itself has waned in Maine, the pandemic-spawned enthusiasm for gardening continues to grow.

“We love the idea of more gardeners,” Breen said. “We love the idea of selling more packets of seeds to folks who are going to use them. We are hoping for a renewed sense of sustainability and food sovereignty.”


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