COVID-19 sparks Shepparton vegie garden boom

By John Lewis

First it was toilet paper — then it was vegie seedlings.

It began the weekend before Easter. People desperate to grow their own food supply stripped Shepparton district garden nursery shelves of seedlings for anything edible. But the boom didn't stop there. People started buying exotic indoor plants and flowering garden species. The gardening bug was in full swing, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

John Lewis spoke to three nursery operators.

Kialla's Riverside Gardens manager Larry Smith said the pre-Easter rush wasn't just in Shepparton, but across Victoria.

“People came in over the weekend of March 30 and stripped the seedling benches bare. It was the same right across the state,” Mr Smith said.

“We ordered more seedlings the next morning, but our order was cut in half — they weren't able to fully supply us for weeks.”

Mr Smith said the situation remained unchanged up until a couple of weeks ago.

“We had to keep seedlings here for a week before selling them because they were too small. The growers really couldn't keep up with demand.”

It was the same situation at Billabong Garden Complex in north Shepparton.

Complex manager Tracy Lamont said people were rushing in to start their own vegie gardens as lockdown restrictions began to bite.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic started to have an impact, Billabong Garden Complex couldn’t keep up with the demand for vegie seedlings due to people wanting to become more self-sustainable,” Ms Lamont said.

She said along with the demand for seedlings, staff were seeing a general love of gardening start to develop.

“We're seeing rare indoor plants snappped up, and families coming in together to select purchases for their garden projects.

“Our customers have more time for DIY and they're coming to Billabong staff with their project ideas and asking for advice and assistance.

“They aren’t wanting a quick fix or for someone to do it for them; they are enjoying getting their hands dirty and have a real sense of pride in their garden and completing their garden projects.”

At Kialla's Gardens on Archer, Michelle Michel said people bitten by the gardening bug were still coming in for plants and other supplies weeks after the initial buying frenzy began just before Easter.

“It was a surprise for the first couple of weeks, but then it became sustained — and it's still going on,” Mrs Michel said.

“This is what we would normally expect to see in spring.

“At first, people were buying anything that was edible — broccoli was a big seller. That sold out very quickly and our suppliers weren't able to supply for two or three weeks.

“Then it became seeds and then indoor plants.

“It's pretty much across the board now, people are tackling those projects they probably wouldn't have got to until spring.”

Mr Smith said Riverside staff had also been busy handing out advice.

“We're getting a lot of beginners, so we're teaching people how to pull seedlings apart and plant them out. Then they come back for more advice."

He said Riverside had also seen an increase in plant sales generally.

“People are stuck at home and starting their own garden projects. Indoor plants have taken off too.

“There's been a lot research done on the benefits of gardening for stress relief and mental health. That's certainly come to the fore during this time.”

Mrs Michel agreed.

“There's been a lot of people new to gardening — and we're hoping it will be a mild winter so people have lots of success in their gardens,” she said.

All the nurseries The News spoke to are now doing home deliveries on a regular basis — more than they would have done previously.

“We're out there pretty much every day doing free local deliveries for any purchase above $30,” Mrs Michel said.

Meanwhile, Mrs Lamont said Billabong was branching out for Mother's Day by offering "plant and cake packages" for delivery.

“We are finding people want to stay connected so we have adapted our operations to ensure local mums receive a beautiful delivery on their special day,” she said.