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Pandemic growth spurt: Interest in gardening still trends upward in Baltimore County

Jeff and Ginger Wanko have been gardening more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. They grow vegetables and even sell excess produce in their own "farmers market" on Sundays in front of their Catonsville home.
Jeff and Ginger Wanko have been gardening more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. They grow vegetables and even sell excess produce in their own "farmers market" on Sundays in front of their Catonsville home. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Even with more optimism surrounding where the COVID-19 pandemic is headed, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight to the gardening boom that began in March 2020.

For many people, gardening is a perfectly natural way to follow social-distancing protocols while participating in a healthy activity for mind and body.

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That’s why folks — even those without green thumbs — are plying the earth for its bounty and easing their stress levels at the same time.

Rachel Rosenberg Goldstein, an assistant professor in the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is hoping to better understand the relationship between gardening and mental health through a survey she started last June.

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She added that she has received over 1,000 responses to the questionnaire and will continue to take responses until this June at https://bit.ly/UMDGardeningHealth.

“I find my personal garden to be a great stress reliever,” she said. “So I am hoping to help others by finding strategies to deal with stress during the pandemic. For me and my family, especially last summer, gardening was a way for us to be outside together and find something positive to focus on.”

Moreover, a study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on how exposure to natural surroundings in an increasingly urban landscape may be beneficial from a physical and mental health perspective.

The findings concluded that “relatively brief nature experience” and “access to natural environments could yield important benefits for the ‘mental capital’ of cities and nations.”

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If that’s the case, providing a green oasis for urban and suburbanites alike, from full-fledged large gardens to small patios with potted plants, could be just what harried folks turn to for stress abatement during troubled times.

Peggy Atkins, who has been an avid gardener for many years, still taps into her avocation on her Lutherville townhouse patio.

She has several favorite places to buy flowers and plants, including Valley View Farms and other Baltimore County destinations, including Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Maryland Flower & Foliage in White Marsh.

Even though Atkins no longer tends to large home flower and vegetable gardens, which she had in her previous residences, she said that “this time of year, I go a little crazy” with a plant-buying spree that her husband of 52 years, Rich, said makes their patio “look like Valley View Farms.”

And that’s just how she likes it after bringing home 30 assorted plants recently.

“Every nice day, I try to go out on the patio,” Atkins said. “I’ve been champing at the bit to get the plants in pots and small surrounding beds. This spring represents such a season of hope.”

Atkins became a member of a horticultural garden club while she and her husband raised three children and regrets that the members haven’t been able to meet for the past year. Though she no longer has the energy to take care of a large plot requiring more attention, nurturing her house plants — including a dozen orchids — works well these days.

“I just really like making things grow, and watching many of them come back the next year,” she said, nodding toward a pot with a large bleeding heart plant that she harvested from the wood line near her last home in Ruxton. “Gardening keeps me active and gives me so much pleasure.”

Garden centers, landscapers, florists and nurseries that supply the home gardening advocates are enjoying the fruits of the trend that has gripped gardeners like Atkins for years and is playing to a much wider audience during the pandemic.

According to Brian Brannan, the garden shop manager at Valley View Farms, sales have increased at the popular Cockeysville business an impressive 40% in the first quarter of 2021 when compared to a similar period last year.

The jump has affected all aspects of the operation, he said.

“[Sales of] houseplants have been through the roof,” said Brannan, a 33-year employee. “Patio [furniture] has just been insane and [sales of] pottery and containers have been up substantially as well. People are concentrating on things that they didn’t have time for before [the pandemic]. They’re doing more feel-good things.”

Valley View Farms, which opened in 1962 as a modest produce stand on York Road and has grown into a thriving year-round destination for area vegetation lovers, features 80 full-time employees selling an assortment of trees and shrubs, vegetables, flowering annuals, perennials and a variety of planting accessories.

Even though the business closed entirely for two months during the lockdown last spring and was plagued by a lack of product and limited labor supply, it has bounced back in a big way.

Valley View Farms cultivates a 120-acre tract in Hydes that helps to keep plants and vegetables well stocked, Brannan said.

Because he anticipated a post-lockdown surge in demand for potting soil, soil conditioners and mulch, Brannan said that the business has enough of those products to keep gardeners well supplied.

And customers have been gobbling up the items with gusto, including folks with more land to cultivate than most home growers.

Jeff and Ginger Wanko have taken their gardening on their half-acre Catonsville residence to an impressive level.

They boast at least 11 raised garden beds, with more than 300 square feet of land to grow lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, carrots, sorrel, rhubarb, horseradish, peppers, eggplant, squash, beets, turnips, herbs, leeks and onions — a “smorgasbord” of produce, Jeff Wanko said.

Although he has installed cow fencing to keep deer from decimating his crops, the OSHA engineering director added that “nothing keeps the squirrels out.”

While working from home during the pandemic, the self-taught grower, who learned many tricks of the trade on YouTube, said he has more time to keep an eye on his crops that yield enough produce to sell to neighbors and passersby from the end of his driveway.

His wife grows many plants from seeds in the basement under racks of grow lights to get things started every year, he said.

The most time-consuming work, he said, happened when clearing the land and building beds as opposed to the daily chores.

“Managing the garden only takes an hour, or two at the most, a day,” he said. “Once the growing starts, it’s pretty easy.”

Jason Sersen, the general manager of Kingsdene Nursery in Monkton, said that the projection for gardening is that it will continue to grow in popularity in the coming months and years.

“When we opened in mid-May after the shutdown and ‘stay at home’ order, people turned to gardening as a source of comfort that they could do at home,” he said. “Sales increased impressively as gardening became a newfound hobby for many. Families shopped with us just to be outdoors and discovered beautiful new ideas they wanted to try at home. Our outlook is that many people will stick with this new, rewarding hobby.”

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