Nurseries find ways to adapt to COVID-19

By on April 27, 2020

While stores of all kinds are closing their doors across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, as essential businesses, nurseries and other green businesses have found ways to make changes in order to stay open and provide their services.

Food production is considered essential under Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 121, which includes nurseries and other green industry businesses. Just because they can stay open, however, does not mean that those businesses can operate exactly as normal.

Gary Prevost, owner of Atlantic Gardening Company in Raleigh, knows this well. Atlantic serves a wide customer base, from those looking for houseplants and orchid arrangements to spring gardening customers and commercial farmers, especially in the hemp industry. Making sure that Atlantic can continue to provide those services took careful planning ahead of time and quick reactions once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, according to Prevost.

“I kind of saw this coming back in January when we could see what was happening in China, and what we did is take a bit of a risky step and cancel a lot of our west coast orders, which is where we get a lot of the big product in. We postponed those orders and orders from a lot of the large growers,” he said. “Instead, we decided to go hyper-local, meaning we’ve gone much deeper with local growers. We’re buying a lot more from them and supporting them instead of going out of state.

A building at Campbell Road Nursery in Raleigh. The Nursery has moved its register and credit card reader outside and reorganized how customers move around to keep people safe.

One of those local growers is Campbell Road Nursery in Raleigh. Owner Phil Campbell has made some changes to the way customers get their goods in order to keep everyone safe.

“We took an old L-shaped cabinet and put it on the porch of our retail center, and we put the register and credit card machine out there. We’ve put orange arrows on the ground taking people up the ramp and then down the steps on the other side,” she said. “Nobody goes in our cabin, we have everything totally open air. We have about four acres, so everybody has space.”

The changes that both Prevost and Campbell have made encapsulate two major themes in how green industry businesses have had to adapt – large scale business model decisions and more functional, day to day changes in routine.

Atlantic Garden Company and Campbell Nursery have each made both kinds of changes. Prevost said that, on top of strategic decisions like canceling orders and shifting to local growers, there have also been alterations to how customers can move around in the garden center itself.

“A couple of weeks ago we limited the number of people in our retail store to ten people. The new state limit would have that limit be equal to 25 people, but we’re a little more restrictive than that,” he said. “For me, it’s about finding that right balance where everyone is comfortable, but we’re not being ridiculous. Making sure the customers are safe, the employees are safe and we can keep things going in a way that we can manage.”

Keeping things manageable has been more of a challenge than Prevost anticipated.

“This is a whammy for every garden center in the state that I can think of. We have all of our spring crowd that are just coming into the garden center because they want to get out and walk around – that’s great. That keeps us busy enough,” he said. “Then, as soon as you put the phone down it rings again. The phone rings nonstop all day. We can’t keep up with the voicemails. And then you add the number of people who are emailing us and messaging us on social media, we can’t keep up. It’s impossible.”

Greenhouses at Atlantic Garden Center in Raleigh. The business has reduced seasonal staffing and changed ordering practices in order to continue operating during the COVD-19 outbreak.

To help handle the influx, Prevost has even enlisted the help of an outside friend who works in the software industry to help monitor and direct emails. That strategy has worked so far, he said, but the end of isolation can’t come quickly enough.

“I’m assuming it’s going to come to an end, and my belief is that it’s going to be very different after Memorial Day weekend. My message to the staff is ‘we’re going to get a break, it’s going to be in about six weeks, so let’s see what we can do to get there,’” he said. “We’ll just stay the course for now.”

Over at Campbell Road, things are relatively close to business as usual. Campbell said that the nursery has room for more business if people want to come visit, and she has been pleasantly surprised by how few orders have been canceled. She credited her partners at Fidelity Bank for helping the nursery get its federal small business loan in two days, which has made a major difference in keeping the doors open.

One thing that Campbell and Prevost agreed on – people are much more interested in buying vegetables nowadays.

“I’m planting more as fast as I can, but that’s been good and I’m not surprised by that,” Campbell said. “We were planning on that, and I’m happy that’s happening. We’re planting more and more every day.”

A garden path at
Atlantic Gardening Center in Raleigh.

Once the quarantine is over and life returns to normal, business owners across all industries will need to evaluate what worked, what did not and what, if anything, should change going forward. Prevost has learned some lessons that he intends to apply moving forward.

“I’ve been a big advocate of ‘grow your own’ when it comes to vegetables, and with the way things have gone this year I think we’re going to do more when it comes to vegetable starts,” he said. “We’re also just going to focus less on trying to be everything to everyone, and more on doing a few things really well.”

Atlantic Gardening Center and Campbell Road Nursery are both still open for business. You can learn more about them at https://www.atlanticgardening.com/houseplants and http://campbellrdnursery.com/ .

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