Northland garden centers are seeing an influx of customers this season as people wish to expand their food sources and also seek activities families can enjoy while isolating.

Rows of pristine green tomato plants lined the tables inside Hammarlund Nursery in Esko on Friday, soldiers in the fight for food security. A barrel of organic, natural fertilizer, or “tea,” as owner Ken Hammarlund described it, emitted the not-so-subtle smell of a minnow bucket.

The nursery has seen this year’s customers flocking to fruit trees, such as apple, pear and plum, and vegetables such as tomatoes. Hammarlund said he about tripled the number of plants available this season, including 400 tomato starters.

The nursery opened April 15, and staff are spending their days preparing for the busy months of May and June.

“We’re very lucky and thankful that we were deemed an essential business,” salesperson John Rembold said.

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Hammarlund Nursery owner Ken Hammarlund (left) and salesperson John Rembold stand beside rows of tomato starters inside the Esko greenhouse Friday. (Beverly Godfrey / bgodfrey@duluthnews.com)
Hammarlund Nursery owner Ken Hammarlund (left) and salesperson John Rembold stand beside rows of tomato starters inside the Esko greenhouse Friday. (Beverly Godfrey / bgodfrey@duluthnews.com)

His thoughts, of course, were on the pandemic and subsequent shutdown of nonessential businesses in the state. Like everyone else, they’ve given thought to how to create a safe shopping environment. Rembold sat in an office to the side of the greenhouse and quickly put on a face mask when he saw a customer come in. Hammarlund explained they have a specific traffic pattern planned for people to navigate the greenhouse. The men agreed that customers seem to be quite settled into the routine of social distancing.

Duluth's Spring at Last greenhouse doesn't open until Friday, but that hasn't slowed down customers who are placing orders for pickup. They're mainly interested in vegetable plants, with some having questions about perennials, shrubs and more.

"There's a little bit of everything," owner Jennifer Couillard said.

To minimize congestion when Spring at Last does open, Couillard said they've made aisles into one-way lanes, and customers will be allowed to enter through only one entrance. They're also asking customers to wear gloves and face masks when possible, and to leave their children and pets at home.

"We are expecting it to be busier than normal," she said.

Rembold said industry rumors coming from wholesalers and suppliers point to a higher demand for fruit and vegetable gardens as families aim to supply their own food. Even dirt has attracted attention.

“People say, ‘Hey, I’m starting a vegetable garden. I need soil for a raised bed,’” he said.

Laura Palombi buys plants at Gordy's Gift & Garden Center Sunday. Area greenhouses are seeing an increased interest in gardening this year as people are staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Laura Palombi buys plants at Gordy's Gift & Garden Center Sunday. Area greenhouses are seeing an increased interest in gardening this year as people are staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Gordy's Gift and Garden Center operates year-round in Hermantown. The business is seeing more customers than normal, likely because people are seeking solace in gardening and are looking for things to brighten their homes, co-owner Tammi Beier said.

"Gardening in the dirt is super therapeutic," she said. "I've had customers come in and actually cry because we're open. I mean, that's where they're at. We're ready to lose it."

There are murmurs that greenhouses may run out of seeds this year, but Beier said she doesn't foresee that happening at Gordy's.

Gordy’s Gift & Garden Center co-owner Gordy Beier waters plants Sunday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Gordy’s Gift & Garden Center co-owner Gordy Beier waters plants Sunday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"I'm optimistic for a good, strong season," she said.

Hammarlund said he suspects part of the uptick in business is people just wanting to get out of the house.

“People are home, and they’re really getting bored and they need an outing, and this is an outside place,” he said. “You’ll notice, there’s no doors to open, so you can come and roam around our nursery, and there’s really not even an obligation to buy anything.”