Landscaping, nursery and gardening center workers are considered nonessential workers and will not be exempt under the March 27 update to Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 emergency order.
Still, the overall impact of the current shutdown of local garden centers, nurseries and landscapers isn’t clear.
“This is way too early to tell,” said Chris Hagen, owner of several local gardening and landscaping businesses, including his newly acquired The Mustard Seed Landscaping & Garden Center in Chanhassen, Brookside Garden Center and Hagen Lawn and Landscape. Former owner Mark Halla sold The Mustard Seed to Hagen last fall.
“We’re still not sure what we’re allowed to do and what we cannot do,” Hagen said. “We don’t know and we’re working day by day to figure it out. There are all kinds of safety measures to think about. It’s hard, we don’t know how to plan. We’re only getting a two-week picture at a time from the governor’s office and there’s so much other stuff going on. I know that lawn and irrigation services are shut down for another two weeks.
“One new restriction is that garden centers are only allowed to deliver plants," Hagen said. "So we’re trying to be good by updating customers on social media.”
According to Tim Malooly, president of the Minnesota Landscape and Nursery Association, nurseries and garden centers may, at their discretion, continue to deliver garden products like mulch and soil if they feel they can do so while in adherence to the spirit of the governor’s stay-at-home executive order.
"It's subject to some interpretation," Malooly said, by phone Monday. "The exact wording of clarifications received from the governor did not include the words 'mulch' and 'soil,' but focused on perishable products like seeds, woody and herbaceous plants. In the spirit of the governor's order, garden center retailers might choose to conduct sales via delivery. Examples of delivery might include curbside like restaurants are doing. Or having their trucks deliver materials to customers at their doorstep, or using delivery services to transfer the goods.
"In the absence of specific guidance — the words, 'mulch' and 'soil' — it's up to the individual company whether they choose to leave bags of mulch, or load up a customers' truck with mulch or other planting supplies," Malooly said.
"Our industry, known affectionately by some as The Green Industry, is much deeper in scope than people think. For example, our industry is a key source of the growth, sale, transfer, planting and management of millions of trees each year in parks, private and public spaces. Building on the example of trees in the landscape and thinking springtime bare-root-style tree planting, the next three weeks is a very important time for the millions of bare-root trees that have to be shipped and planted before buds break on the leaves.
While Halla has sold his business, his long tenure with the family-owned enterprise has the community still asking him questions about the upcoming gardening and landscaping season due to the COVID-19 restrictions on businesses across the country.
“The unknown is much more scary, but these are times we’ve never seen before,” Halla said. “The good news is that the month of May is when 48-49% of annual sales take place. So it’s a big deal and they’ll need customers to come in. As for social space, that’s not as big a concern. There’s less social space in a grocery store than in a nursery."
Still, Halla said, customers may be wary of not knowing where plants and trees are being shipped from out of state. Operating garden centers, nurseries and landscaping businesses may also be affected if there are changes to work permit policies to legally bring in immigrants on guest worker programs.
“That’s huge in our industry,” Halla said. “There are not enough U.S. citizens willing to do work that needs to be done. That will shake up our economy. It will affect the country’s vegetable producers, tomato growers. They all need workers, and they may not have them. That’s what they are fretting over.”
Laura Wood owns the boutique retail garden center The Garden by the Woods in Chanhassen, and By the Woods, a landscaping and design business.
“Our landscape operation is still doing mulch delivery,” Wood said. “Our retail isn’t open, but we are delivering mulch and soil to customers. People are getting antsy and they’re ready to get out. Lawn and garden cleanup is on everyone’s mind, getting the soil ready for planting directly.”
She cautions homeowners not to be too aggressive cleaning up their garden beds.
“Be gentle,” Wood said. “Ground cover plants like pachysandra and creeping phlox may look like a scraggly brown mass, so don’t accidentally pull the plants out.” Instead, Wood said this is the time of year to mulch, to pick out the larger chunks of debris, and to clean up garden and lawn edging. “The good thing is that the ground is still so soft and the lawn hasn’t reestablished itself,” Wood said.
As for vegetables, “It’s a little late to start seeds indoors,” Wood said. “It’s almost better to wait and direct sow, but if we don’t have a long Minnesota summer, plants like eggplant and tomatoes might not have a long enough season. But you can direct sow, carrots, beets, peas, and lettuce for a spring crop of vegetables. What you can start indoors are herbs and perennial seeds like coneflowers and monarda for butterfly gardens.”
There’s plenty of time for community garden enthusiasts to plan for the summer ahead.
The city of Chanhassen’s Olson Community Garden and the Chaska community gardens don’t open until mid- to late-May. And while COVID-19 may be a factor this year, Jill Sinclair, Chanhassen environmental resource specialist, doesn’t think it will be an issue as “it’s kind of rare that there are a number of gardeners there at one time. The first week may be busy when everyone wants to put in their plants, but we (the city) haven’t discussed any specific procedures about that yet.
“But it is a good time to start seeds at home,” Sinclair said, “although this is the latest you’d want to start things. And you can always buy a few plants at the garden centers by mid-May.”
The Olson Community Garden has 52 10x10-foot garden plots which residents can rent for $25 each. Sinclair said that while all have been are spoken for this year, people can put their name on a list with her. Next year, they’ll have the first chance to sign up for a plot.
Chaska has two community gardens, one located near Winkel Park with ten 10x10-foot plots; the other is at Bavaria Road with six plots. As of last week, three plots at the Bavaria Road garden were still available, said Kevin Wright, Chaska communications manager.
“With our plots opening in mid-May, we have a little bit of time to see how state and local guidelines develop on social distancing," Wright said. "But, really with those plots, they’re big enough to do social distancing. If anything were to change because things are so fluid, we’ll let the public know."