Plant catalogs

Gardeners: Expect Mail Order Complications This Spring


Don’t be surprised if your mail order seeds, plants and tools take more time to reach you than usual. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have stimulated an unprecedented wave of interest in gardening. All over the world, it would appear, people facing the possibility of a summer of confinement are looking towards gardening as an ideal hobby that can also bring fresh produce to their table. 

And the word is indeed “produce”: 2020 is “all about vegetables.” There is an increase in interest in flowers, too, but nothing like the huge surge in demand for vegetables, herbs and fruit seeds and plants. Think “victory garden,” as in the 2nd World War, when citizen gardeners converted lawns and vacant lots into vegetable gardens to provide support and sustenance during dark times. We seem to be heading for exactly that.

Supermarkets May Lack Produce This Summer

And you may really want to think seriously about growing a few vegetables for yourself and your family this summer. Even though governments everywhere are claiming that supermarkets will not run out of food any time soon, it’s quite likely that your choice in fresh veggies will decrease over time. There will be vegetables, make no mistake about that, just not as great a variety as you’re used to. Many countries in Europe and North America count on migrant workers to plant and harvest vegetables, yet border restrictions and quarantines due to the coronavirus epidemic mean many seasonal workers are not arriving on time and indeed may not be available at all this year. This is bad news when you consider that the spring planting season has already started or is supposed to start soon. 

Even authorities are letting their concern show. For example, Canada’s Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, while insisting there is no current supply problem and that supermarkets will be well stocked in coming weeks, still said publicly that it’s not a bad idea to plant your own vegetable garden. Hmmm!

Repercussions on Seed Suppliers

The explosion in orders has sent seed companies racing to meed demand. Ill.:

For the reasons above, seed companies have seen unprecedented growth in sales. Some suppliers are claiming seed orders have increased by half or even doubled. In Europe, one report claims overall seed sales have increased by more than 200 percent since March. A friend who used to run her small seed company all on her own has now recruited her boyfriend to help full-time and is looking into asking neighbors for a hand. 

Many retail companies are having to restrict orders: they simply don’t have the staff to handle the demand. A few have ceased taking any orders at all for the rest of the spring or are asking customers to limit their orders to “essentials” (read vegetables and other edibles). Many that once proudly announced your order would be in the mail within three working days are now warning of shipping delays of 3 to 5 weeks. And many seed varieties have sold out entirely for the season.

What Should You Do?

What should you, as a gardener, do? Here are some suggestions: 

Don’t wait! Get your order in now! Ill.:

1. Order early. This is not a year to place your order the day before you need the product. What is it you’ll need a month from now? Or six weeks from now? That’s what you should be ordering right now.

This is the message appearing on the website of Stokes Seeds: just one example of how seed companies are trying to cope with the crisis.

2. Visit the supplier’s Web site for details on how they’re handling the COVID-19 crisis. Most will have some sort of message about this on their home page. If they’ve shut down for the season or for a few weeks, are only handling sales to farmers (a choice some have made), their business hours have changed, they’re no longer handling tools, etc., you need to know.

3. Order on-line rather than by phone. Many companies have temporarily ceased taking phone orders: they need their staff elsewhere. Plus, with much of their staff working mostly from home, on-line orders are easier to handle. Also, many virtual catalogs are set up so that any article that is sold out will automatically be marked “out of stock” right on your screen, allowing you to make other choices. 

4. If you order by mail, expect substitutes: Yes, mail orders are fine, but they’ll take longer. And they also have a flaw. Some seeds that appear in the company’s paper catalog have undoubtedly already sold out, but you’ll only discover that weeks later, when the order arrives. Most companies do, however, offer substitutes of equal or greater value, say a different variety of cherry tomato than the one you had planned on, so you’ll still have something to sow. Substitutes have always been a necessity in the mail-order seed business, but never so much as in 2020.

Your local garden center probably still has a wide range of seed choices. Photo: Jardins de l’Écoumène

5. Turn to your local garden center. I’m not saying that they will have as wide a choice of varieties as seed companies carry, so maybe you won’t be able to get that frizzy red lettuce you wanted, but they’ll certainly carry basic lettuces and a limited choice of pretty much any other vegetable and herb adapted to your climate. In many countries, garden centers and nurseries have recently been declared essential services, so are open for business. But do check before you hop into the car!

It’s time for home gardeners to get their gardening season underway … and ordering seeds may well be your step number 1!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “Gardeners: Expect Mail Order Complications This Spring

  1. Pingback: What Happened to Vegetable Seeds This Spring? – Laidback Gardener

  2. I’m finding that some seed packets this year contain far less seed than the seed packet and its corresponding catalog description claim to contain. To wit, the claim was 200 seeds. Eyeballing the pile in my palm was 85-90 seeds. This has happened once each with two different companies and I am waiting for a response to my inquiries. It’s not much different than food such as potato chips or other dry goods whose packaging is more air than actual product– often for the same price as before.

  3. We are fortunate that the varieties that we grow are the sort that are commonly available at the supermarket, or that were collected earlier. We have plenty for now.

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