Essential Nurseries and Garden Centers Remain Open and Vibrant

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Nurseries and Garden Centers Remain Open

Governor Roy Cooper has stated that agriculture, and in particular, commercial nurseries, either container or field grown ornamentals, as well as both independent and corporate mass retail garden centers are essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. These businesses can remain open as long as proper sanitation guidelines are followed to provide increased worker and consumer safety. In the past five years, Eastern North Carolina nurseries have experienced two major hurricanes, a devastating winter freeze and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Each crisis has been a billion dollar environmental disaster for the region. The Green Industry are determine to weather this disaster with the same dedication, hard work, strategy, and a little bit of luck as they have all the others.

From some of the nurseries contacted, they indicated continuing to sell ornamentals both within state and out of state. Some instate sales include those to other nurseries to purchase liners for future planning and planting for sales in coming years. Additional sales to garden centers, rewholesale centers and landscapers continues as before. Out of state sales, for example, to upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Long Island, and the Mid-Atlantic area are continuing but on a slightly smaller scale. Cancellations have occurred, as well as transport problems due to traffic detours within states with stay at home orders.

Growers have indicated there is a fine line between remaining open, pushing forward with sales and plant management and keeping both employees and customers safe. Even though there is a push to sell plants now, growers want to keep an eye on the backside of the pandemic and position themselves to be able to sell high quality plants in large numbers when transportation and commerce begin to align with health and safety. Plants available right now were produced years ago, so production cannot simply stop until plant demand is recovered because gaps in available plants will occur in future years. “They must push on cautiously, yet not crazily:),” one said.

Here are other tips for remaining open, safe, and selling during the stay at home orders.

Simply maintaining plant material in a nursery without the possibility of sales is important to prevent pest outbreaks, maintain weed populations, manage growth, and keep plants irrigated. This can occupy many employees that do not have sales responsibilities even without the threat of pandemic. Even though employees work outside on these tasks, it is important to maintain physical distance and prevent the spread of disease. There is so much uncertainty about how the virus is spread, that growers have just been crossing off all variables with a “maybe” designation and putting them in the “do this” category for preventative measures.

Maintain best management practices for sales and prohibit spread of the virus in order to model good behavior to policy makers to prove their decision to denote nurseries and garden centers as essential was correct, important, and impactful to their constituents.

Maintenance

  • Prioritize continuing to maintain preemergence herbicide applications. Weed control is probably the main priority in container grown plants because weeds have demonstrated exponential growth in the nursery if left to themselves. Though skipping preemergence herbicide applications in containers might save money now, especially with uncertain sales and labor cost challenges, continuing to apply them is the definition of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If weeds get out of control, getting back on schedule with herbicide applications requires hours of laborious handweeding and in some cases use of post emergence herbicides if left too long. Plants may also require more time to get cleaned up before sale losing valuable time to replace lost revenue from the spring and summer.
  • Plant material destined for spring 2020 sales may have a few fates depending on the nursery.
    • If nurseries are primarily liner producers or propagation, sales might be delayed until the nursery has enough labor to ship and the end nursery is ready to take shipment.
    • Shift 1/3 of plants up prematurely to the next size container used in production or to a nontraditional size [shift #1 to #2 (instead of #3), or #3 to #5 (instead of #7)].
    • If plants are still “can tight” from overwintering, leave them in place and try to maintain quality by applying a less expensive, shorter lasting fertilizer to hold plants for summer or fall sales. Fertilizer can be applied with a belly grinder or some other application to spread it over the close containers and save labor of applying individually to each container. These fertilizers contain high amounts of urea nitrogen and organic nitrogen that may release more quickly and only last 2-3 months. Apply them when foliage is dry and daytime temperatures are cool <72 F to avoid burning the foliage. Delay spacing plants as long as possible that doesn’t affect overall quality. Plants may need pruning and pesticide application after spacing.
    • For plants not destined for sale until fall 2020 or spring 2021, apply the normal rate of controlled release fertilizer.
  • Integrated pest management may suffer because fewer employees are present to inspect plants while doing normal daily tasks of pruning, potting, moving, spacing, pulling orders, and loading trucks. Therefore, pest populations might increase unexpectedly. During this time, deliberate scouting is important to determine where the hot spots are located in the nursery for pesticide applications. Because there might be fewer pesticide applications overall, beneficial or predatory insect populations might be higher and perhaps help manage total pests present. If possible check to see if they are helping to manage pests before applying broad spectrum pesticides on a schedule. Cosmetic damage to foliage might be tolerated since plants could grow out of it before sale.
  • Irrigation management may change depending on how it was managed previously.
    • Valves turned on or off manually are still going to require someone to perform this task. There are a few management techniques to try and free up time for managers.
      • Try an intermittent reduced watering schedule. For example, water 100% on day 1, then 75% of normal volumes on days 2 and 3, then 100% on day 4. This will save labor and costs for pumping water. This technique can also be used with any mechanized irrigation controllers.
    • Valves on a timer might be controlled from a mobile application on a smart phone. This allows to control for rain, cooler weather, or extremes in temperatures and wind. Rain shut off gauges can also help installed to decrease the volume of water applied if irrigation systems were turned off previously manually when rain was imminent. Of course, have redundancy to determine if irrigation was applied after a rainy day shutoff.

General Work Structure

  • Offices are closed to clients. All paperwork, invoices, and payments are taken care of before clients enter the nursery
  • If greater than 10 employees consider working half of them one week and the other half the next week. Some growers were continuing to pay employees some amount of hours on “off weeks” to maintain their solvency.
  • Many workers of Hispanic descent were already wearing long sleeves, long plants, hats, gloves, and some form of mask to prevent light penetration to their exposed body. Take a cue from them and continue to do this, but provide masks when working near each other.
  • Many duties in the nursery already lend themselves to distancing, like pruning, spacing, and potting. Maintain physical distance and separate trucks when traveling within the nursery. Park trucks in the sunlight with windows and doors closed to “sun sterilize” the cabs periodically, however, continue to sanitize touch points frequently.
  • Employee training sessions conducted online, mobile applications, phone calls, teleconferences, etc.
  • Monitor temperatures of employees before they clock in as a precaution, perhaps making that a daily responsibility of all employees.
  • Make management responsibilities redundant among groups of managers, so if one gets sick, others can perform their tasks.

Shipping

  • Hire bulk carriers or professional truck drivers to transport material over long distances so your employees do not have to obtain overnight accommodations.
  • Try shipping on large shelves using bulk carriers like Fedex, UPS, etc.
  • When delivering locally, let the customer unload material to maintain physical distancing, or,
  • Have only your employee unload the material at the jobsite, garden center or end-consumer. Two people in the back of a truck will be breathing the same air that might transmit the virus between them.
  • If at-nursery pickup is offered to clients, e.g., landscape contractor professionals, have the order pulled already in a safe environment for the client to load themselves or have the customer stay in their vehicle while an employee loads the order.
    • Some of these strategies may not work well with large orders, large container grown or field dug ball and burlap trees, and special types of loading on client vehicles. In these cases there has been critical communication between nursery owner and client prior to arrival and pickup.
  • Continually sanitize common touch points on vehicles especially between drivers and after every use. Discontinue stopping on the road for anything other than fuel while delivering a shipment. Pack a lunch!

Retail Sales

  • Some container and field nurseries have discontinued retail sales that were begun after the Great Recession. It requires too many employees and the arrival of consumers cannot be controlled.
  • Established garden centers have reduced hours to allow greater control and flow of consumers while shopping to maintain safety.
  • Offer curbside service
    • Consumers call ahead to have their order pulled. This may take 24-72 hours depending on client number.
    • Allow for no-contact credit card only purchasing prior to arrival or at the site.
    • Open early for them or have a dedicated time for elderly people to shop during the day.
  • Marketing by posting catalogs or availability online or on websites and allow customers to browse and choose and make online purchases then arrive and pick them up at a specified date and time.
  • Reduce or waive delivery fees to homeowners.
  • Hire a security detail or have some local law enforcement help with enforcing social distancing during peak shopping times.
  • Consider mandating cashiers and employees wear masks.
  • Sanitizing shopping carts during the day, computer keyboards, and bathrooms to make customers feel safe.
  • Offer gloves for customers to wear while they are shopping to prohibit spread from them to plastic containers (virus may live on plastic for three days and still infect), hardgoods, and plants.
  • Have customers bring one time use bags or provide one time use bags at sales counter.

Operating Guidelines for Mid-Atlantic States and New England (states below partially referenced verbatim from Greenhouse Management Magazine)

Delaware. On March 22, Gov. John Carney ordered non-essential businesses to close at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 24. Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production are considered essential and can remain open. Lawn and garden equipment and supply stores can also remain open.

Maryland. Nurseries, greenhouses and independent garden centers are considered essential and may remain open. Retail businesses that remain open are strongly encouraged to modify their operations to conduct as much business as possible remotely, and to limit in-store interactions where practicable (e.g., by making products available for delivery or curbside pick-up to limit in-store browsing).

Massachusetts. As of March 24, Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order deemed that “Farm workers and support service workers to include those who field crops; commodity inspection; fuel ethanol facilities; storage facilities; and other agricultural inputs” were classified as essential. Businesses that produce or manufacture agricultural and infrastructure equipment may continue to operate as well.

New Jersey. In general, businesses are closed, but hardware stores, farmer’s markets and food producers are on the state’s exempted list. That includes greenhouses, garden centers and nurseries.

New York. Update April 1: At this time, horticulture is designated as a non-essential business ((with the exception of nurseries/greenhouses selling food producing plants.) Guidance issued on March 24 is no longer applicable.

Ohio. As of March 25, there is a stay at home order in place for the state. Production agriculture is specifically listed as critical/essential, and nursery and greenhouse production is federally classified as agriculture, indicating growers should be able to remain operational at this time. The Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association says landscape, lawn care, and landscape irrigation companies require “careful discretion.” Construction and public works projects may be considered isolated from the pubic and relatively safe. Critical trade and other service providers who are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences are mentioned in the orders. Some landscape projects and services may fit under this category. Although the order’s essential business guidance does not clearly call out garden centers, many garden centers offer fruits and vegetables to customers for home gardening, and sell firewood, pet supplies, and other household essentials.

April 2, 3:01 p.m. EST: Gov. Mike DeWine announced the stay-at-home order will extend until May 1, and some new rules were announced. Stores must set and post maximum amounts of numbers of customers who can be in their businesses, and garden centers received special recognition in that they are allowed to be open.

Pennsylvania. As of March 25, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stay at home order and the list of counties includes: Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton and Philadelphia counties. Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production operations, as well as landscape service companies, have been deemed essential/life sustaining and may continue to operate, according to the Pennsylvania Nursery and Landscape Association (PNLA). PLNA has submitted an exemption for retail garden centers.

  • UPDATE from Greenhouse Management Magazine: Governor Wolf denied this exemption request, therefore, Independent, Family-Owned Garden Centers in Pennsylvania will not open this spring 2020.
  • It also applies to garden centers attached to large retail chains (e.g., Lowes, Home Depot).
  • Online orders and and delivery are not prohibited even without a waiver to conduct business
  • Curbside pickup is prohibited unless the business received a waiver to provide this service, because it is considered in-person operations.

Virginia. As of March 23, lawn and garden equipment retailers meet the criteria that deems them as essential and may remain open during normal business hours.

Please contact with any changes or updates avlebude@ncsu.edu