Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
These are not war times, but they are something like it, with people fretful about loved ones and money and security and how life will look once the enemy virus retreats.
One thing you can count on: If you plant a seed in soil, soak it with water and sun, it will grow. If you dig into the earth, it will somehow ground you, distract you from all you can’t bear, and give you hope.
So when Gov. Jay Inslee last month included nurseries and garden centers as essential businesses, Lyn Robinson, owner of Zenith Holland Gardens in Des Moines, felt validated.
“He came right out in his speech that day and said get out, go for a bike ride, take a walk and garden,” Robinson said, “and I was like, ‘Hallelujah!’ “
Zenith Holland Nursery has seen times like this before — and survived.
It started in 1907 as a greenhouse on the grounds of the Children’s Industrial Home and Training Center, owned by Herman M. “Daddy” Draper and his wife, Annie. In addition to running the home, the Drapers grew snapdragons, to sell at the then-new Pike Place Market, and cucumbers they shipped to Alaska.
In 1945, after the children’s home closed, the greenhouse and one of the houses on the property were purchased by Thys Napjus, an immigrant from Holland who had been a grower as a young man.
Robinson practically grew up on the property. She was a fashion-merchandising student at nearby Highline College and was renting a little house on the property, working at the nursery on the weekends.
“He was an old Dutchman, and I was his cashier,” she said. “He did all the growing.”
When Thys passed away in 1980, his wife wanted to sell the place. Robinson wouldn’t let her.
“I said, ‘Hey! I can do that!’ ” She was 24. At the time, President Jimmy Carter was making loans to families for farms. Robinson got a government loan at 13%.
“It was just one of those things when everything fell into place,” she said. “But I learned.”
Time went on. She married, had a daughter, divorced, remarried. All the while the nursery has thrived. People have come for starts, seeds, plants and garden goods through recession, 9/11 and now a pandemic.
“There’s a history here, but also a perseverance,” Robinson said. She thinks the place has survived because it appeals to our core comforts.
“We, as humans, when we have adversity, we all seem to want to get back to earth and the fundamentals of nature,” Robinson said, “and gardening gives us the independence and the ability to sustain ourselves. So we’re not so dependent on the supply chain.”
People can come in, buy organic soil and seeds, take them home and garden, and in a few months they have crops they can harvest themselves.
“It’s the victory garden attitude we had during the second World War,” she said. “People wanted to take care of their families without having to depend on the supply chain and further burden the war effort.”
When Inslee made his stay-home order, Robinson gave her staff the option of staying home — and many did, at which time Robinson and her husband were running it all for a while. Now, she has a small staff.
Business is double what it was last year. Customers arrive each morning, many driving through to pick up online orders and flowers from Pike Place Market vendors who use Zenith as a home base.
Longtime customers Jeff and Vicki Fann, of Kent, sat in their car, both wearing masks, waiting for peonies, gardenias and a bouquet from Pike Place Market.
“We like to support local stores, rather than big-box stores, and they always have quality flowers here,” Jeff Fann said. “This is what everybody is doing, mowing yards and planting flowers.”
“And then we can sit on the porch,” Vicki Fann added, while her husband nodded.
“You’re in your own park while all the other parks are shut down,” he said. “It makes you less stressed about what’s going on.”
The “vast majority” of customers are coming in to shop, and the place is big enough where people can social distance.
Todd Cossette, of Des Moines, pulled a cart around the nursery, following his friend — and green thumb — Karen Donatelli, who was helping him fill his garden beds at home.
“I’ve never done my yard before,” Cossette said. “I buy things onesies, twosies. And this helps to stay away from what’s going on. Get yourself preoccupied. Do other things.”
Donatelli was loving it.
“This is meditation, completely,” she said. “I stay out for hours. It’s mental therapy.”
Said Robinson, “People are so grateful. Almost everyone comes in and says, ‘Thank you for being open,’ or ‘We need this and we realize it is an essential business.’
“There’s a quote I read recently that said, ‘Garden as if you’re going to live forever. So plant a tree now.’ “