We did it. This past spring season was an incredible experimental rollercoaster for my plant nursery, Victory Gardeners. We proved that the model of running a plant nursery from a suburban backyard could be done during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the last five years, we have run a plant nursery, eCommerce seed store, and local farmer’s market booth called Victory Gardeners. Each spring we started about 5000 plants in our kitchen window in small plug trays. We germinated our tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and herbs to sell them at the local farmer’s market, earth day, and regional plant festivals. We are known for our focus on heirlooms, rare local family strains, and locally adjusted seeds. We have had the widest varieties at our local market for five years running and pride ourselves on an incredible selection.
The 2020 plant season, for our family business, started before we had given any consideration to the word’s pandemic or covid-19. In December we picked our strains and started gathering seeds, planting materials, and containers. We made lists and considered where we were going to do our big plant grow out. In the past, we had grown out our plants in a rented greenhouse space about 25 miles to the south.
About the end of February, we heard the first rumblings of pandemics and felt the change in the wind. Our website where we sell seeds, teas, and ointments, started to get more traffic and sales. People were buying more seeds than usual as they considered that protecting their food supply might be a good idea as things were getting stranger and stranger each day.
We started to realize that to grow out our plants were going to have to get creative and do it much closer to home. We scrambled for a plan B. We considering building a new greenhouse on another friend’s property but even that became impossible as social distancing and stay-at-home orders went into effect.
We had 5000 plants that needed to be transplanted and the soil and plastic to do the job. The problem was we did not have a greenhouse big enough to do the grow out. All we had was our suburban backyard with a 9 X 12 greenhouse build-out of reclaimed windows. No matter how creative we got with shelves there was no way this was going to work with the facilities we had.
We found a greenhouse online that could be delivered within a week. It was a 12 X 20 X 8 hoop house. We had taken down our above-ground pool in the fall leaving a 20-foot flat elevated pad empty and ready for use. We leaped and for about $1000 we ordered our own hoop house. While this seemed like a lot of money to spend, without a greenhouse we were not going to have a plant season. I ordered the greenhouse putting it on credit and hoping for the best.
The greenhouse arrived and with the help of my neighbor and his nephew, my husband, and my oldest son we got the greenhouse built. We went out and got a bunch of plastic shelves and a propane heater. We started putting plants in the greenhouse and heating it to keep them happy.
As the plants started to prosper, we started to get the bad news about our biggest planting festival the Baker Creek Planting Festival, being canceled. This represented 30% of our sales. Then in quick order, the Columbia and St. Louis Earth Days were canceled or postponed to the fall. There went another 30% of our revenues. While these changes were shocks to the system, we figured that we had to keep going forward as in a pandemic people needed to grow food more than ever.
In a hushed nervous conversation with my husband one evening, after the kids had gone to bed, we brainstormed about what we were going to do. We felt very strongly that we did not want to endanger our customers or ourselves but that we had to get these plants sold and grow food for people in our community. We also knew that without the income from the plant season we were going to be in trouble. Considering our markets were disappearing we had to get creative.
My husband, Todd, suggested we sell our plants online through our website and deliver in town or do curbside pick up to our house. I did not know if people would buy plants sight unseen. I had always been rather picky about seeing my plants before I grew them, I wanted to make sure they did not have a disease or were the right size or the soil was healthy. I was not sure if people would buy our plants this way. Yet, people were ordering groceries, shopping on Amazon, and doing curbside pickups. So we decided to give it a try.
During the day we wore our farmer’s hat and continued to transplant our beautiful plants into bigger containers. My husband would put soil in the cells and my son and I would transplant the starts into their larger containers. At night I stayed up late and added about 140 products to our eCommerce site. Every product needed pictures, descriptions, and inventory management. The website needed a new page for plants and additional programming. Luckily, one of my many side jobs was to build websites so the technical side, while a lot of work, was within my skill set.
On April 1st we launched the plant sales and started doing Facebook ads targeted in our area. The traffic on our website and Facebook page showed that people liked the idea. Within a couple of days, the orders started to come in. People were more than happy to pre-order plants to be picked up or delivered later. The average order was larger than in years past showing that our selection and the delivery option were resonating with people.
We had grown plants based on our previous year’s demand. Being rather analytical I had records of how many we sold of each type for the last five years. I had planned based on the previous year’s demand and based on instinct. Seeing the pandemic coming I had planted a variety of medicinal herbs to complement the usual culinary varieties.
Our selection of 42 varieties of Tomatoes, 42 Peppers, and 39 Herbs was far beyond what people usually found in stores. With all but three varieties being heirlooms we had a great lineup. We also offered seeds so people could order their direct sow seeds to be added to their order and delivery. We added some flowers and foliage to compliment the selection. We offered plants and seeds for every growing situation and taste.
The demands this year were very different than in the past. In the past, we always sold out of the super-hot peppers like the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad scorpion and herbs like mints. We live in a college town and the college Gentlemen purchased super-hot peppers and the college Ladies would buy the mint plants. This year we had plenty of mint and hot peppers left as the students had all gone home. Rather quickly, we sold out of medicinal herbs and sweet peppers. The local people were more interested in getting plants that would produce real food over novelties.
Each year we have given away 100’s of plants to community programs, school gardens, veterans gardens, food pantry gardens, and people in need. This year we saw that the need for people to grow their food was going to be even bigger and many were stretched financially to the breaking point. My husband had another great idea to offer our customers an opportunity to sponsor plants for $2 to expand our giving program. We had many customers support this program with over 125 plants being purchased to expand our giving. We were able to expand our donations to anyone who indicated they were in need. This allowed us to set up many people with food-producing gardens that they would not have had the opportunity to have had.
At the end of the season, we had sold over 3600 plants. We had given away to various community programs over 750 plants. To give some perspective the previous year we probably sold about 3200 plants. We sold these plants about 50% locally and 50% outside our community. This year we sold all our plants and seeds in our very own community. This is an absolute win all around. This means our plants and seed helped our community eat and be sustainable through this last summer and fall. We went way beyond our usual local customer base.
Given the necessity to keep our operation close to home, we have proven that this business could be done in a suburban backyard. It was always the dream to walk out of our back door, go down the stairs of the deck, and tend our plants. I always dreamed of being independent of rented space and long drives to tend the plants. I wanted to be the one to water the plants and make sure they were progressing as I wanted them to. This year, in the middle of this horrible pandemic, the dream came true. Out of necessity came invention. Out of crisis and adversity came ingenuity. We were able to work in our yard, whenever we wanted and needed to. We were able to do this without miles on our cars, gallons of gas used, and hours in transportation. We were able to keep our family business alive.
This past year was a total success and we have managed to do it without going to a single market. We did not expose our family or our plants to anyone. This allowed us to keep our plants safe for all our customers. We socially distanced and obeyed the stay-at-home orders. We did this all with a strong homebuilt eCommerce website, an active and supportive community, strong social media, and Facebook advertising. We are very thankful for the support we have been given by our community. Out of crisis and necessity came invention.
Now as we have started planning for this next season, picking our plants, and getting our supplies, we know we can do this and we can do it from our home. We can help our community grow food. Victory Gardeners is still here and we are going to help people with seeds and plants and get people growing their food not bought.