An onslaught of orders engulfs seed companies amid coronavirus fears

The best place to keep vegetable seed packets is in the refrigerator, where they are preserved and stored away from rodents and insects. But this habit comes at a price. I have several dozen half-used packets in the crisper, and there’s no place for the salad greens.

Never mind, because this spring my pack-rat nature is rewarded. Buying fresh seed, while not impossible, is more complicated this year because of the coronavirus emergency.

In sum, there is a rush on seed buying as overnight homesteaders are either seeing the value of growing their own food or feel they are in a dystopia where their very existence depends on getting some beans to germinate. Or both.

The owners of seed companies I've talked to are a bit shellshocked by the consumer frenzy, though they admit there are worse problems to have. They anticipate delays in filling online orders and the sellout of some varieties, but no across-the-board shortage. For those venturing out, retail seed racks may be depleted.

"It's the largest volume of orders we have seen," said Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri. Peak seed-buying season for home gardeners is January to March, but the normal end-of-season decline in orders isn't happening.

Customers are gravitating to vegetables high in nutrients, such as kale, spinach and other quick-to-grow leafy greens. "Spinach is off the charts," said Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of Kitchen Garden Seeds in Bantam, Connecticut.

The other top seller is the bean in all its forms. This is because beans are not only a healthy source of protein, but are also easy to grow and versatile. In the green stage, the pods and seeds are tasty. When left to ripen, the seeds form beans that can be stored and used for soups and casseroles.


Gettle said his company is handling approximately 4,500 orders daily, about twice the usual peak demand of spring. Swamped, he closed his website for three days and stopped taking phone orders to allow staff to catch up with the backlog. He may have to do so again if the volume persists, he said.

His family-owned seed company is known for its unusual heirloom vegetable varieties and has emphasized Asian vegetable varieties in recent years. More than a quarter of the offerings have been sold out. "In some cases, we can get more seed" for the current sales season, he said, "and in others, we cannot." Another challenge is the ability to get fresh seed packets printed as well as mailing supplies - such things as bubble wrap - now that the world has shifted to online ordering and home delivery.

"We are definitely seeing an increase in sales," said Jamie Mattikow, chief executive and president of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in Warminster, Pennsylvania. As with other retail seed companies, Burpee sells seed for herbs and annual flowers in addition to vegetables. "Online we are getting many more customers coming to us, and interest is skewed toward vegetables," he said.

Van den Berg-Ohms, of Kitchen Garden Seeds, said sales are up 40 percent. "More people are planting more varieties," she said. Varieties of vegetables and herbs that are directly sown into the garden, as opposed to started indoors first, "are really going crazy," she said.

Sales were already up noticeably in January, she said, but in the first week of March, "the incremental surge" started and has continued unabated.

The company, which specializes in gourmet varieties for home cooks, is able to meet demand, but some varieties may become scarce or unavailable, she said. "At this point, we are just keeping up with it."

Such sales increases historically follow recessions as people seek to reduce grocery bills by growing their own food - seed sales jumped in 2009 after the Great Recession. Sudden unemployment is part of a new reality for millions of Americans as communities and states across the country have closed down to check the contagion.

Renee's Garden, a seed company in Felton, California, also sells online and through retail seed racks. Its owner, Renee Shepherd, specializes in varieties developed for novices, the cook-gardener and urban dwellers - many are designed for container growing. The normal spring peak is around 350 orders daily; now, it's up to 2,000, she said.

"We are swamped. It's taking us four or five days" to fill orders, she said. "And normally, we would have more warehouse staff and have double shifts, but because of the [employee] safety measures, we can only do what we can do."

Seed companies obtain their stock from a web of sources, including seed distributors and brokers and directly from contract growers. The seed farmers might be in a nearby field, the other side of North America or somewhere around the world, depending on the variety. Shepherd offers almost 1,000 varieties of vegetable, herb and flowers sourced from 50 companies. "It's more complicated for a company like Renee's, because we get a lot of seed from Europe," she said.

Some suppliers have reserves for immediate use, but some varieties will need another growing season to produce a harvest.

Shepherd has her own reserves for sales later in the year to gardeners in mild regions who want a second harvest in the fall. In the current tidal wave of orders, she now has to decide if she wants to dip into those.

Mattikow said Burpee replenishes stocks in retail seed racks, which are found in such places as hardware stores, garden centers and grocery stores - businesses generally exempt from closure orders. For her rack sales, Shepherd said, "the big question is what will happen if they run out and we haven't a clue how many stores will remain open by [April]."

Orders that may have taken a week to arrive will take longer, in part due to pressures on mail and parcel carriers.

"All of us are doing the best we can to catch up," Shepherd said, "but people need to be patient."

Gardening tip:

Emerging spring bulbs can be cut to take indoors to enjoy. Wait until flower buds show color before cutting. Daffodils exude a sap that might be a skin irritant - take care to avoid contact. Change the vase water every three days or so, and re-snip stems to prolong the display.