NEW BETHLEHEM — There has been an explosion of home gardening this spring, fueled by concerns over COVID-19. Area residents have fallen back on old skills or developed new ones in an effort to make up for product shortages in supermarkets, avoid crowded public spaces or get some exercise.
With cases of the virus spiking in Florida, California and Texas, there could well be spot shortages of fresh produce on store shelves in a few weeks. Those three states supply the bulk of retail produce throughout the country. With workers sick or unable to travel from Mexico for the planting and harvesting seasons, crops will go unplanted and unpicked.
Worse, growers were forced to dump some of their crops because their hospitality and school markets collapsed during government-mandated business closures. Television news outlets showed tons of squash, zucchini and potatoes being bulldozed into the Florida soil, a disturbing sight for those with roots in the land.
Fortunately, at least in Pennsylvania, greenhouses were exempted from state-mandated closures in March because they were deemed essential agriculture-relate businesses. This resulted in something of a boom in business for them.
Janice Brocious of Kemmer’s Greenhouse and Farm Market, Shannondale, said that her workplace has been very busy this spring.
“We will be closed in July and August,” she said, “and we are out of nearly all our vegetable plants. That is to be expected, but we were so busy in April and May that I would say that we have had one of our best years.”
Periodic visits to various greenhouses, garden centers and hardware stores over the past two months showed dwindling supplies of potting soil, fertilizers and vegetable seeds. By early May, seed racks were nearly empty in most places. Last Thursday, racks at Tractor Supply in Monroe Township, Clarion County, held a few forlorn packets of kale, tomato and pepper seeds, but there were still stacks of potting soil for sale.
Nearby C&A Trees on Route 68 boasted stacks of soil, peat moss and other soil amendments in its parking lot. The owner said that, while there were only a few tomato and pepper plants left, there were plenty of flowers remaining.
First-time and veteran gardeners put all those bags of soil, flats of vegetable seedlings and seeds to good use. While most relied on traditional garden plots, others adopted more innovative ways to grow some of their own food, especially if their growing conditions were less than optimal.
One Hawthorn residence, challenged by a sloping south-facing lawn, opted to use hard-side children’s wading pools as large gardening containers. As of last Thursday, there were flourishing squash, tomato and pepper plants already in bloom along Route 28/Brookville Street in the borough.
In South Bethlehem, Armstrong County, gardeners have converted former flower beds into vegetables patches or tucked a few tomato plants into large pots on the front porch.
But that was not enough for avid gardener Toni Sherman of Hamilton Street in the borough. She and her husband moved their main gardening site to their south lawn this spring. In place of broad expanses of grass, their backyard now boasts a neat 600-square-foot garden, surrounded by a sturdy fence and inhabited by everything from several types of lettuces to dozens of tomato and potato plants.
Tying heroic-size tomato plants to supports as she talked, she said, “I used to work at a couple greenhouses in the area and my husband and I have always had a garden. We decided we needed more space and sunlight this year, so we moved it up here.”
Their former patch is still in production, planted in sweet corn. Most of the action now takes place in the fenced-in and trellised creation.
Overall, area gardeners and greenhouses are hunkered down in preparation for what may be a bumpy year ahead. But the prevailing attitude seems to be one of hope and good cheer.
As one woman said, “We would rather focus on staying positive and hopeful. This, too, shall pass.”