Michelle McLaughlin of Southwest Harbor works in a client’s garden in Bass Harbor on Saturday. Grateful for the mild spring and warm weather, McLaughlin said working at a distance from people while outside is just part of the job.  ISLANDER PHOTO BY SARAH HINCKLEY

Gardens gaining ground on MDI

BAR HARBOR – We are all being told to wash our hands as much as possible to combat COVID19, but the mild spring weather has more people playing in the dirt than usual 

Creating and/or planting a garden is one way to adhere to the rules of social distancing. In doing so, people are still allowed to go outside, work in solitude and get a little exercise.  

Many professional gardeners here have been able to start their season, for the most part, on track. But, as several local gardening centers and hardware stores will attest, more people in general are starting to grow seeds in anticipation of establishing a home garden this year.  

“Everyone’s decided to grow a victory garden,” said Brent Hutchins, who has been helping his wife, Vicki Salsbury, at Salsbury Hardware and Organic Garden Center in Town Hill prepare items ordered for curbside pickup.  

Victory gardens, also known as wartime gardens, were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown in backyards and public parks during the World War I and II. Without a clear indication of how sustainable the world’s food supply chain will be during this pandemic, people are taking matters into their own hands, or into their own yards.  

“Seeds have gone out and now we’re ordering again,” said Tom Brown about the seed stock at F.T. Brown Mercantile and Marine Chandlery Co. in Northeast Harbor. “This is the first time we’ve done this this early, a re-order, and that was a week ago.” 

Maine-based seed company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, stopped taking orders from non-commercial customers for a week on the last day of March because their volume of sales was so much greater than previous years. According to a report on Maine Newscenter’s 207, online orders with the company are up 300 percent and half of those are from new customers. Filling non-commercial orders was scheduled to resume this week.  

Melissa Frost of Frost Farms Garden Center and Landscape on Route 102 is waiting on an order of seeds she recently placed and was told would be delayed by a couple of weeks.  

“I think we’re going to see quite a surge in veggie seedlings and vegetable starters,” she said. “Our seed order is bogged down because across the U.S. everything is craziness.” 

Frost opened for the season in mid-March, just before an executive order was issued by the governor urging businesses to limit in-store customers, enhance curbside pickup and delivery services and implement physical distancing measures to protect customer and employee health. Strangely, that hasn’t slowed business. 

“Compared to this time last year, we are up in sales,” said Frost, noting the recent launch of the company’s website. “People are home and want to get outside … We’ve been selling a lot of soil amendments. Folks seem to be starting a lot of raised beds.” 

With children home from school, Brown has also seen more of them getting involved in gardening.  

“We’re seeing a lot of small peat moss kits and flowers and veggie kits [sell],” he said, adding that more people seem to be interested in backyard chicken coops as well. “We’ve been selling a little more equipment for that, which we’ve never done before.” 

While many people around the state are facing employment uncertainty, commercial gardeners working around Mount Desert Island have been largely able to continue their regular services. Although some have faced a few hiccups.  

Kathy VanGorder, who has been gardening professionally for 35 years, has only had one of her 20-plus clients say they aren’t having a garden this year, so far. Another client, for whom she grows vegetables, has asked that she increase the number of edible crops in their garden. While the majority of her clients live on MDI, VanGorder has four properties on Islesford. Getting to them may be a challenge, she said in an interview. As a precaution because of COVID19, a limitation has been set for the number of people traveling via ferry to the outer islands, which focuses mainly on transporting residents 

“One of our properties was going to be on the garden tour and that got cancelled,” said Whitney Granholm who has about a dozen clients. “One other said to dial back … Other than that, I haven’t heard from any of my clients not to go ahead with what we normally do.” 

She and gardener Jody Sargent both submitted, and were granted, an essential service designation request from the state that allows them to continue operating their businesses 

Sargent says she has had to strategize a bit more to ensure properties are getting their typical start of season attention. Warmer temperatures have helped. 

“We can’t always get out into gardens this time of year,” said Sargent. “We’ve already been out there… Only one out of my five (clients) is really on the fence about how much work we’ll do this year. 

While her small crew is working to remove winter mulch covers and ready the soil for the flower seedlings she is starting, Sargent is scaling back a bit to make it manageable. 

“Usually I get a load of compost,” she explained about supplementing the soil at each of her gardens. “We’re not going to do that this year. It’s just not possible.” 

A large focus of her business is growing flowers and much of that is done from home. 
“I’m on my property getting all the dahlias started,” said Sargent. “We have a utility room in our garage where we start seedlings.”  

One of her biggest concerns is how to keep members of her crew apart, which is often made easier by sending them to separate properties.  

“We’re trying not to bring anyone onto our property,” said Sargent, who has two children home from school. “I’m just trying to take it day by day.” 

On Monday afternoon, Granholm was in her greenhouse regrouping at the end of the day. 

“I feel really fortunate that I have something that I can do that feels normal,” said the Southwest Harbor resident who has been gardening for 18 years.  

Each of the businesses listed is taking orders either via phone or online, their websites offer more information. Curbside pickup is available from all of them and some are offering delivery as well, which makes it easy to get a garden started without leaving home.  

Not having customers in the store can be tough for some of the businesses that count on sales from foot traffic. 

“Their getting stuff to start their gardens, we’re missing out on incidental business,” said Hutchins. “People are doing their darndest to stay busy and stay apart.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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