ORLANDO, Fla., April 21 (UPI) -- Large numbers of Americans have started vegetable gardens while staying home as the coronavirus pandemic complicates grocery shopping and interrupts food supply chains.
University extension offices in Oregon, Florida and other states reported a surge in the volume of questions and signups for gardening programs, and seed companies reported booming sales.
The attraction of gardening is a combination of a distraction at home with the ability to eat fresh food without going out, experts said.
"We have over 29,000 registered for the free, online vegetable gardening course. Normally we might get 20 or 30 registered all year," said Gail Langellotto, professor of horticulture at Oregon State University and statewide coordinator of the master gardener program.
Novice issues, such as where to find the best place in a yard to plant, what grows on a shady balcony and why do plants look wilted or unhealthy dominate what is being asked of program volunteers, Langellotto said.
"Our volunteers are usually at county fairs, farmers markets or stores to answer questions," she said. "Now, we are totally online, offering [virtual] consults to home-gardening clients in some counties."
Parents with children stuck at home use gardening as a distraction for the whole family, Langellotto said.
That's one motive behind vegetable gardening for Katinka Merritt of Ocala, Fla., about 75 miles northwest of Orlando.
"I started gardening with my kids. Mostly it was to keep them busy since they are home from school," Merritt said.
She also joined a Facebook group called Victory 2020 Garden, established by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension. She was one of many writing on the page about switching from flowers to vegetables.
"I just joined, and I'm already learning more about gardening and hearing about what other people are planting," Merritt said. "I have seven kids, so it has helped them learn about food and where it comes from. The kids get super excited."
Erin Harlow, commercial horticulture agent with the University of Florida, named the Victory 2020 Garden program as a reference to victory gardens planted by Americans during World War I and World War II. Members can sign up for an online class on how to grow vegetables.
"I expected to get maybe 40 people, but it's over 1,000 now and growing," Harlow said. "My intent was to also encourage social distancing connections."
The program received a $4,500 grant from the University of Florida to send free seed packets of corn, beans and squash to new members.
Seed companies like Gurney's, based in Indiana, and Botanical Interests in Colorado posted messages on their websites to ask customers for patience as they dealt with tremendous demand.
"We've seen a 600 percent increase in sales over last year," said Judy Seaborn, co-owner at Botanical Interests. "It's all for vegetables, or leafy greens, which makes sense."
Her company announced a pause for a week in taking new orders online due to a two-week backlog.
She split her workforce into two shifts to keep them more distant from each other, and narrowed the selection of each type of vegetable to focus on volume.
"I'm really proud of gardeners for getting out there and planting. I think we'll need it, and the mental break it provides," Seaborn said.