On a recent Sunday, after I’d completed my pushup challenge, counted my rolls of toilet paper and sketched out a new work-from-home schedule that I would eventually abandon by midday Monday, I looked online in search of something that my pandemic-addled mind had decided overnight was essential: seeds.
Crises can release memories, and as I entered my third week of social isolation, a half-remembered fragment of “Candide” resurfaced from high school French class. I must, the voice demanded, cultivate my garden. And, as it happens, I have a weedy patch of backyard that I can turn, if not into an Eden, then at least something slightly less weedy and more nourishing.
Despite one disastrous deck garden (I blame questionable soil), I have a reasonable track record of messily coaxing food from the earth. I grew up with a backyard garden, spent a summer working on farms in Vermont and worked for three seasons in a botanical garden.
I knew firsthand how calming gardening can be, especially when you’re not dependent on the food for your immediate survival. Time slows down a little, thoughts meander and a feeling of flow can arrive, even when the land you’re cultivating is a tiny patch within earshot of a bus stop.
But as I searched for seeds to grow beautifully swirled red and white Chioggia beets, fiery peppers and enough basil to start my own pesto company, website after website warned that my vegetative dreams may be delayed.
“It feels like we are selling toilet paper,” Mike Dunton, founder of the Victory Seed Co., a small seed company focused on horticultural biodiversity, told me via email. (He was too busy filling orders to come to the phone.)
I’d been searching his company’s website for glass gem corn, a popping corn that originated with Carl Barnes, who was a part-Cherokee farmer in Oklahoma. In recent years, the corn has become internet famous because of its kaleidoscopic jewel-like appearance. My pandemic prep included buying 4 pounds of standard yellow popping corn; glass gem corn felt like a way of stepping up my game.
But the website cautioned that all buyers were agreeing to abide by “pandemic ordering terms,” and warned that the shipping backlog was 18 to 24 days.
Clearly, I was not the only person who thought the best path through the pandemic was to panic-buy a bunch of seeds.
“We have called nearly everyone who has ever worked here and is already trained to do the job, and added a couple of new faces,” Dunton said. “These are crazy times.”
The impetus to grow things right now is not limited to those with yards.
“It’s been crazy, the amount of uptick we’ve seen in the past two weeks,” said Bryce Nagels, founder of Nutritower, a hydroponic gardening company. (According to Nagels, the system lets people grow the equivalent of a 30-square-foot garden inside their home.)
Ordinarily, the company’s customers are schools — it’s a way of bringing gardening into the classroom. But in recent weeks the buyers have been home growers. Nagels said that most start with produce like lettuce and herbs, but “I’m growing eggplant right now and a ton of cherry tomatoes.”
Gretchen Krusyman, co-chief executive of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a large seller of organic seeds for home gardeners and farmers alike, said of the demand for seeds: “Every day it just increases. We think it’s going to slow down, and there’s no sign of it slowing down.”
The company prides itself on getting all orders placed by 1:30 p.m. out the door that day. But now, “we just can’t keep up,” Krusyman said.
When I checked the company’s website last week, seeds for Genovese basil, the classic Italian basil used in a lot of pesto, and sweet Thai basil (which in the United States gives a dish called drunken noodles their characteristic taste), were back-ordered until the end of March. But holy basil, which is less well known in the United States but is also used in Thai cooking and smells like heaven brought to earth, was still in stock.
Phew! I ordered all three.
“It really started going up on Friday the 13th,” Kruysman said. That week, Johnny’s Selected Seeds sold twice as many seeds to home growers as it had during the same week last year.
March 13, by the way, is the date that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency because of the new coronavirus.
Seeds aren’t the only food item in short supply, of course. Good luck finding yeast, flour or a bread mill these days! But those other sudden rarities can produce food right away, while seeds are fundamentally forward-looking.
Why the rush then? It had to be a near-universal urge to garden, I decided. For me, the need to buy seeds and garden felt like part of the broader suite of practices I’d taken up — running, meditating, jump roping — to stay calm.
But then I talked to Jamie Mattikow, president and CEO of Burpee, the huge seed seller whose packets are ubiquitous at hardware stores. His company has seen an uptick, too. (It started as early as December but really ramped up over the past month.)
Mattikow told me that people aren’t buying just any old seeds. “I would say vegetables are driving it,” he said, distinguishing the demand from flowers and other plants. “There’s a really, really high interest in vegetables.”
His comments had me eyeing the flower seed packets I had ordered — blush pink snapdragons, vibrantly yellow marigolds, deeply purple pansies — a bit differently. All of these flowers are edible, you see. Perhaps, subconsciously, I wanted to have my flowers and eat them, too.
This isn’t the first time in recent years that there has been a run on seeds.
“When the market crashed in 2008, there was a big increase in people starting to grow their own food,” Kruysman said. But that uptick was more gradual.
Noah Schlager, the conservation program manager of a nonprofit seed seller called Native Seed Search, said: “I was talking with a colleague who was saying that a lot of elders lived through the Great Depression, and they remember times like this.”
“They’ve been saying, ‘This is the time to be saving these seeds and making sure that we can feed ourselves,’” he added.
The mission of Native Seed Search is to promote and conserve the crop biodiversity of the arid American Southwest. (Native Seed Search is responsible for bringing attention to glass gem corn.) The company sells seeds to the public, “but our priority is seeds for indigenous communities,” Schlager said, pointing out that the Navajo Nation is suffering because of the coronavirus.
“They’re oftentimes the last place where real aid, or FEMA support or anything really gets handed out to people,” he said.
The uptick in sales was affecting Native Seed Search’s ability to serve native communities, even as this particular moment had led to a larger interest among native growers. That, coupled with concerns over the size of some orders, suggesting that some buyers were hoarding seeds in a doomsday bunker, led the company to close the Native Seed Search shop until April.
“So much of our seeds today come from indigenous communities — corn, beans and squash,” Schlager said. “I want to make sure that people feel respect and reverence for that.”
Still, it’s not all seed hoarding. The Burpee website has an advice section for growers. Referring to increased web traffic to that section in the past month, Mattikow said: “Interest in our advice has gone up 75%.”