Fear of shortages driving rush to buy seeds

Seed sellers and gardeners in Ottawa are reporting early demand as COVID-19-weary gardeners plot their spring strategy.

Newbies, gardening veterans alike seek to avoid last year's drama

Catherine Wallenburg prepares seed packs for customers of Northern Seeds in Farrellton, Que. (Emilie Lemieux)

Last year's seed shortage has translated into an early rush as gardeners seek to stock up before growing season and avoid last spring's seedy drama, when demand outstripped supply. 

CBC talked to local gardeners and seed sellers about the big race to acquire proto-veggies, fruits and flowers.

Catherine Wallenburg

"It's definitely not business as usual," said Catherine Wallenburg of Northern Seeds in Farrellton, Que. "I'm packing seeds right now."

Wallenburg is already seeing a rush as experienced gardeners attempt to secure the seeds they need. "Definitely, orders have come in strong and earlier in the season than expected," she said.

She's already hearing about seed companies temporarily shutting down their online ordering sites to keep up with "unprecedented" orders in a bid to avoid a backlog.

Seeds grown, harvested and ready to package at Northern Seeds. (Catherine Wallenburg)

So far, Wallenburg is keeping up. She ramped up her seed production during last year's growing season and hopes to have enough to meet this year's demand.

"It might just be a perfect hobby in pandemic times. It's at home. It's outdoors. It's a great way to engage kids. There's even research to show that gardening is therapeutic and relieves stress and anxiety," said Wallenburg. 

Greta Kryger

Greta Kryger of Greta's Organic Seeds is already busy. "Oh God, yeah," said Kryger, who's already getting between 50 and 80 online orders a day. 

Like Wallenburg, Kryger's clients are ordering earlier than ever. "Definitely. January is like March last year," said Kryger. "They're scared that they won't get them if they don't order early enough."

Some of her most popular seed varieties are already running out. "I'm just packing everything I have, and then when I'm out, I'm out. That's it."

Greta Kryger says there are three times the number of gardeners this year, but cautions newbies to temper their expectations for a bumper crop. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Kryger struggled to meet orders last year.

"The whole thing exploded," she said. "I closed down last year in mid-April because I couldn't keep up. There was no point in shipping things out because Canada Post couldn't keep up, either. I had orders that I shipped out in mid-April, they got them in mid-July."

Mary Reid

Mary Reid, owner of Green Thumb Garden Centre in Ottawa, says many of her hardcore gardening clients placed their seed orders back in November and December. 

Her business grew by 50 per cent last year as the pandemic prompted families to dig in, sow and reap. Her suppliers say they ramped up seed production during last year's growing season to meet anticipated demand, but Reid expects there will likely be seed shortages again in 2021.

"You'll be able to get your seeds, but certainly order early," she advised.

Reid predicts this year will be less frantic than last, when families isolating at home "had hit the desperate stage and [were looking for] anything to give them a little bit of spice of life in the dark and gloomy springtime weather."

Gardening newbies and veterans alike are snapping up seeds earlier than ever to avoid shortages many experienced in the spring of 2020. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Tom Marcantonio

Gardening educator Tom Marcantonio agrees with Reid's advice to order early. "There's huge demand. You can't lose by ordering early. You can lose by ordering late," he said.

"Why wait if you know what you want?" asked Marcantonio, who promotes urban food production and shares advice on the Edible Ottawa Garden Group on Facebook, which doubled in membership last spring during Phase 1 of pandemic gardening.

But Marcantonio points out there's another source for seeds if your favourite veggie seeds grow scarce: ask a veteran gardener in your neighbourhood.

"Many of us have extra seeds. We always buy extra because the catalogs are so seductive and the write-ups are so compelling, we'll buy seed that we don't need," he said.

Mohamed Ibnkahla stands in the shadow of a prized plum tree in his Riverside South garden last spring. (Mohamed Ibnkahla)

Mohamed Ibnkahla 

A word of caution for newbies from longtime Riverside South gardener Mohamed Ibnkahla: Don't jump the gun and start your hard-won seeds too early in a bid to get a head start on the growing season.

"They will find themselves in March with very tall plants," said Ibnkahla, who admits to learning this lesson the hard way. "You cannot take them outdoors, it's too cold. You lose your plants and you waste your money."

Ibnkahla sees psychology at work, driving people to panic-buy seeds. "When there's a shortage of something, you try to buy it early," he said. "I saw some websites are out of seeds already."

But Ibnkahla understands what's driving people to embrace gardening, and even hoard seeds, during the pandemic.

"It's a remedy for the heart, for the soul and for mindfulness."

Manish Kushwaha of Ottawa's Gaia Organics submitted this picture of a bunch of early seed orders heading out the door. Demand is "3-to-4 times the normal order range." (Manish Kushwaha)

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