Cost of Living

Gen Z and millennial Canadians are really digging gardening right now

Mary, Mary, quite contrary: how does your garden (centre) grow? Gardening has grown in popularity so much that one seed company had to temporarily halt online sales to deal with the backlog of orders. So why are many younger Canadians suddenly interested in growing their own food?

Garden centres, seed companies report huge spike in demand during pandemic

JC Ingram from the Cobblestone Garden Centre in Calgary says customers as young as teens are buying seed starter kits (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Gardening — a hobby once associated with grown-ups or senior citizens — is trending hard among young Canadians. At least, according to some vendors who have temporarily suspended sales to deal with a backlog of orders. 

Make a call to the company that describes itself as Canada's largest mail-order gardening outfit, and you'll be greeted with the following recording:

"Thank you for contacting Veseys," said a female voice. "Due to the overwhelming demand for seeds during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing an increase in orders, emails and phone calls."

A business fixture in Prince Edward Island since 1939, Veseys Seeds is easily one of Canada Post's largest private-sector customers in all four Atlantic provinces. 

John Barrett of Veseys Seeds shows flyers sent across Canada in this 2018 file photo. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Even so, the company's director of sales John Barrett says he's never seen the kind of boom he's seeing now — not in his own 25-year career, or Veseys ​​​​​​81-year history.

"Nothing to even come close to this whatsoever," Barrett told CBC Radio's Cost of Living. 

"There was a bit of a blip toward the end of 1999," said Barrett, recalling the Y2K millennium bug fears of the time.

"A lot of people thought the world was going to come to an end and we even had requests to buy all of the brown bean seeds. So there was a bit of a buying frenzy but nothing anywhere near close to what we've been seeing since March [2020]."

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Barrett said orders have increased by about 450 per cent, compared to the year before. The spike was so unexpectedly high, Veseys had to temporarily stop selling all seed items on its website, halting online transactions while employees worked overtime to clear the backlog.

"We've added double shifts to our picking, gathering and shipping department," said Barrett. "We increased the wages to all hourly employees by 25 per cent because of the additional strain that they're under both due to the volume and because of the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation."

Younger customers driving growth

The Veseys website has been back up and running at full capacity since May 9. The company told The Cost of Living that according to Google Analytics, the largest cohort of their digital buyers now falls between 25 and 34 years of age. 

PEI-based Veseys Seeds had to temporarily halt its online sale of seeds due to overwhelming demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by John Barrett/Veseys Seeds)

"Typically your mail-order gardening customer demographic follows in that 50- to 65-year-old age group, and the second most popular group might even be 65-plus," said Barrett, adding he hopes the younger generation will fall in love with this new hobby.

It's been people even as young as their early twenties and late teens that are coming in and they want to buy seed starter kits.- JC Ingram, Cobblestone Garden Centre

Garden centres that largely remained open through March and April, in provinces where they were deemed an essential service, also say they're witnessing a surge in interest. 

"We've had actually one of the busiest seasons to date," said JC Ingram, whose family runs the Cobblestone Garden Centre in Calgary.

"We've just been flooded with new gardeners and a new demographic," he said. "It's been people even as young as their early twenties and late teens that are coming in and they want to buy seed starter kits."

People want to grow both food and flowers

Both Ingram and Barrett said the pandemic has triggered a growing desire among Canadians to grow their own vegetables.

"I would say a customer favourite right now is definitely our tomatoes," said Ingram. "We've actually cordoned off an entire section of our greenhouse just for tomatoes."

What Barrett said surprised him was a similar demand he said was almost insatiable for spring flowering bulbs among Canadians. 

"I think it's a reflection on people deciding to spend more money at their home in their garden in their yard because they probably wouldn't be going anywhere this summer," said Barrett. 

Fundraisers lose out

While Barrett is excited about the sudden uptick in gardening, he said there is a dark side to the current trend in that community organizations are missing out on fundraising opportunities.

Staff work to fulfill online and telephone orders at a Ritchie Feed and Seed garden centre in the Ottawa area on May 2, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"One of the programs we run here at Veseys is a nationwide fundraising program where groups, primarily schools, across the country receive catalog collections from us that they sell and keep 50 per cent of their sales," said Barrett.

"It's a tremendous fundraiser, but now with schools being closed and social distancing, people are not able to go door-to-door. It's unfortunate for these organizations that depend upon our fundraising program to raise the money they need every year."

Produced by Tracy Fuller. Written for web by Falice Chin.
Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear this segment, or download the Cost of Living


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