Clutching a brass-etched pot and a bag of potting soil, Morgan Dewalt heads for her car.
On a mission to breathe new life into her houseplant, Dewalt feels satisfied and renewed after chatting with John Kish, owner of Somewhere That’s Green, a tropical houseplant shop tucked into the Ninth Street Village.
“Plants brighten the house,” Dewalt said. “I’m going home to repot a plant I bought a while ago. I have more time now.”
Digging in the dirt has never been so rewarding. Gardening is getting grounded in a time when COVID-19 has left life unsettled.
The pandemic has brought out the visceral need to garden, and people are planting COVID-19 victory gardens with extra rows to share with neighbors or taking care of straggly house plants.
With trips, travel and sporting events canceled, more people need something they can do at home. Buy a plant, put it in the ground and hope that it doesn’t get pelted by golf-ball-sized hail or triple-digit sun from the wide weather swings of Central Oregon.
Kish has seen his business triple in the past three months. In fact, come next month he’ll be moving to a space in the Old Mill District that’s triple the size and will allow him to add employees.
“I’m super excited about the jump,” Kish said. “I’m sure I’ll have some growing pains. I’ll be going from one person to four and tripling my space and product.”
As the pandemic spreads around the globe and disrupts supply chains, growing food becomes more vital. At the start of the lockdown of the COVD-19 pandemic, Moonfire and Sun Garden Center on 27th Street in Bend had a run on vegetable seeds.
They weren’t alone, and wholesalers soon ran out. At one point in the rush to plant and grow, customers would line up before the store opened and still be shopping well after closing time, said Jennifer Curtis, nursery manager.
“The amount of people who came here this year was like nothing we’d seen before,” Curtis said. “We had a 300% increase in seed sales this year over last. People seem to be worried about food supply.”
While it’s too late to start vegetable plants from seeds and expect to harvest before the end of the short Central Oregon growing season, it’s not too late to plant already started plants, Curtis said.
“I guarantee we’ll be well over our sales on plants,” she said. “I can’t keep gardening gloves in stock. We’ve been having a hard time keeping our soil in stock.”
There’s a psychological benefit of digging into the dirt, of feeling the soil crumble, said Lisa Flexner, Oregon State University-Cascades assistant professor of physical therapy.
Gardening allows people to social distance, yet still be outside soaking up Vitamin D without worrying about the coronavirus, Flexner said. It also allows people to do physical work. Mostly it empowers people and makes them feel self-reliant, harkening to the days of homesteading and World War II Victory Gardens.
“There’s an element of control,” Flexner said. “There’s good research on the mental health benefits of digging in the dirt and gardening. Watching things grow in this time of unknowing also has benefit.”
Plant a pea in the ground and watch it sprout, provided the cold nighttime temperatures don’t kill it, she said.
It was no surprise that the Facebook group Central Oregon Gardeners grew its membership by 2,000 followers in the span of March to May, said Stacy Kent, founder of the online group that supports novice Central Oregon gardeners.
Kent has an edible garden, an ornamental garden and a native plant garden in her yard.
“When you’re gardening, it’s impossible to think about something else,” Kent said. “It’s all about the plant, the weed, the soil. It puts you in a place where you can forget about everything else.”
Surrounded by a variety of tropical plants, Kish talks to a customer recently about how to care for a ZZ plant, zamioculcas zamiifolia, to be more precise. During the pandemic, most weekends had shoppers checking out Kish’s store, he said. Most of the shop’s advertising was done on social media, where followers would ask about a picture he posted and he’d wind up selling the plant.
Those orders helped him stay in business during the governor’s eight weeks of stay -at -home orders, closing only those businesses that were deemed essential. For some young businesses, this would be the death knell, but for Kish it launched expansion after more than a year in business.
He closed his Ninth Street shop on Saturday to start the move to the Old Mill District. Kish plans to open his doors at the new location in early July.
“There are health benefits to plants,” Kish said. “They clean the air, and they provide a sense of peace. Gardening gives you a sense of purpose, but are not as much work as a kid or a dog.”