ROCHESTER, Minn. —Students of Robin Fruth-Dugstad, horticulture professor at Rochester Community and Technical College, have T-shirts that say: Horticulture is not just a career, it's a post-apocalyptic survival skill.

"Who knew we probably should have put post-pandemic survival skill," said Fruth-Dugstad, who said her students have adjusted to school under quarantine. One class was sent home with a flight of plants to grow, opposed to growing in the greenhouse, but her arboriculture students are missing out on climbing actual trees.

On April 8, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that garden centers had been added to the list of critical industries exempt from the state's stay-at-home order. Fruth-Dugstad agreed with that decision.

"I think it's essential, and I think we can definitely practice social distancing within that industry," she said. "Gardening is important for therapeutic affects, and there's psychological benefits to it."

Cara Passentino and her 13-year old son, Kellen, check out plants at Sargent’s Garden’s North in June 2019. Passentino brought her two sons to help shop for plants at the garden center on 18th Ave Northwest in Rochester. (Noah Fish / Agweek)
Cara Passentino and her 13-year old son, Kellen, check out plants at Sargent’s Garden’s North in June 2019. Passentino brought her two sons to help shop for plants at the garden center on 18th Ave Northwest in Rochester. (Noah Fish / Agweek)
Nick Sargent, owner of Sargent's Garden in Rochester, said the pandemic has led people "very strongly" to the gardening industry. Sargent is the fourth generation involved with the business that next year will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Aside from curbside pickup, delivery and the actual growing of plants, Sargent said it was difficult when they closed for two weeks after the governor's first stay-at-home order.

"Every year in our business is unique, but this one even more so," he said.

Sargent said that management used the day after Walz's Wednesday order to finalize precautions and procedures for a reopening. They were open by Friday, but he said a few older employees and employees with underlying health conditions were "choosing to sit out".

For precautions, Sargent's requires every customer inside to wear a mask, and postings on the ground are marked for where people should wait in line. Outside, signs are posted for correct social distancing and heavier items that require more than one person to be loaded into vehicles are not being sold. For Sargent's landscaping side, the rule is one person per vehicle and no customer contact.

While it's still early in the season, with May tending to be the peak for the industry, Sargent said there's been a steady stream of customers since re-opening. As for what people are buying, he said there's been a "big rush on edibles", with a movement of more people wanting to grow their own food

"We're seeing this comeback of the victory gardens," said Fruth-Dugstad, referring to gardens grown in the U.S. in World War I and World War II. "So people growing their own food even though we don't have food shortages going on."

Sargent said that houseplants are obviously another hot item for them right now. But he said pretty much everything they offer is "something healthy for people to spend their time and money on right now".

"Gardening is something they can put their money towards and be outside and healthy doing," Sargent said.

Sargent said the two-week shutdown resulted in the company laying off 19 employees. But he said, like a lot of businesses, Sargent's is looking to come out the other end of the pandemic stronger than when they went into it.

"Short-term challenges, but long-term, we're optimistic," he said.

Robust gardening ahead

From all the trade newsletters and journals she's read, Fruth-Dugstad said there are many garden companies who will see great business come of people reacting to the pandemic.

"Just with the idea that people can't go anywhere, so let's stay on our yards and try to grow something," she said.

There are compact vegetable varieties that can be grown in a 12-inch pot on a patio or deck, said Fruth-Dugstad, which would be a good start for beginner gardeners.

"Start small, and rely on the independent gardening centers to help you out with which appropriate seed and materials you might need," she said. "Many are going to have transplants, so it's not like you have to start your own seed necessarily."