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Anchorage

For many Anchorage residents coping with pandemic, gardening becomes ‘almost a necessary enjoyment’

Holly Fisk works in her garden May 19, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

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Like many other Anchorage residents following the COVID-19 “hunker down” order, nurse practitioner Holly Fisk suddenly found herself stuck working mostly from home. Fisk and her two young children soon grew restless.

“There’s only so many puzzles you can do,” she said.

Fisk, a new homeowner, was already considering planting a garden. But the hunker down order solidified it. So she took her kids to Dimond Greenhouses and together, the family picked out some vegetables — beets, broccoli, snap peas, carrots and lettuce — to get a small plot started.

“I’m finding hobbies are one way to help with all of this weirdness in the world right now," Fisk said. “I think being in the middle of an unprecedented time really forces you to sit down and think of what your priorities are.”

For Fisk, that meant exploring activities new to her that were once fundamental to her grandparents, like planting vegetables. It’s her first time gardening.

Six-year-old Jonah Fisk helps his mom, Holly Fisk, work in her garden May 19, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

“The garden has been such a neat way to become more connected,” Fisk said. “My family is taking part in an activity that has been around since the world began.”

Gardening, already popular in Alaska, has become even more so lately, said Saskia Esslinger, an Alaska-based online gardening instructor. The state and city have eased pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and social gatherings in recent weeks, but life is still far from normal. As the pandemic drags on, many more Alaskans are turning to growing and tending to plants as a way to cope.

“Gardening is certainly one of those things that Alaskans enjoy doing normally,” said Nicole Syren, assistant manager of Bell’s Nursery and Gifts in Anchorage. “This year, with everything going on, it’s almost a necessary enjoyment.”

It’s usually a busy time of year for the plant industry. But local nurseries are experiencing what seems like a busier-than-usual spring season. Many, including Syren, attribute the extra surge to a pandemic-induced spike in gardening.

At Bell’s Nursery, vegetable starts and seeds are “flying out the door,” Syren said. She’s had trouble keeping things like organic seeds and soil in stock. The demand for vegetable-growing products has spiked nationwide, causing backups as suppliers struggle to fill orders as rapidly as they get them, Syren said.

More families are turning to soil and plants as a way to root themselves in a sense of normalcy and shake the boredom of isolation, she said.

On Saturday afternoon, a long line of customers wrapped around the side of Alaska Mill and Feed’s red barn building. Each stood six feet apart while waiting for a turn to shop at the popular Anchorage gardening center.

In the nursery area, most customers wore face masks as they browsed through green rows of vegetable starts and pots of blooming flowers.

COVID-19 precautions have changed a lot of things about the store’s operations, said marketing coordinator Brooke Shortridge. It is now offering delivery and curbside pickup options, limiting the number of customers it allows inside at a time and suggesting everyone wear a face mask.

But unlike other retail industries clobbered by the shutdown, the garden store hasn’t seen a big drop in business. If anything, business is good, Shortridge said.

Even the city’s composting program has felt the uptick in interest. Anchorage residents picked up more finished compost in the first week of the season than ever before, said Suzanna Caldwell, recycling coordinator at Solid Waste Services.

Many families are looking for safe, socially distant outdoor activities, said Esslinger, the online gardening instructor. Some people have canceled summer travel plans and just want to dig into a new hobby, she said.

“With the pandemic, at first there was this vacuum; everything went quiet. People were readjusting to new kind of life,” Esslinger said. “Then all of a sudden people were like, ‘Spring is coming, I need to plant a garden.’ It was just a huge burst of interest.”

Holly Fisk laughs at son Johah while she works in her garden May 19, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Other people saw empty shelves at grocery stores over the last few months and became worried about access to fresh food, Esslinger said.

Syren with Bell’s Nursery said some are concerned about contamination in grocery stores and are growing their own vegetables this year.

“I think a lot of people realized how fragile our food system is," Esslinger said. “It’s either traveled thousands of miles up the highway or it gets barged in.”

That rings true for Fisk, who is starting small with her home garden for now: "My goal is to keep one thing alive — and eat it.”

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