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COVID-19: B.C. garden centres gear up for busiest months of the year under pandemic conditions

A Townhall pub employee works at a popup garden centre outside a closed restaurant in Coquitlam.

COVID-19 appeared to deliver crushing blow to Davronda Nurseries in Langley when wholesale orders for spring seedlings filling its greenhouses were suddenly cancelled.

“We couldn’t absorb those losses,” said the owner, Lawrence Jansen. He said he was worried about losing his business when the coronavirus hit.

Milner Gardens, the company’s small retail store, last year accounted for only three per cent of Davronda sales. Most of its stock — vegetable and flower bedding plants and hanging baskets — was earmarked for garden centres at big box retailers, the bulk of Davronda’s wholesale business.

He hired extra staff, mostly high school students, to fill online delivery and pickup orders, but that would have still accounted for only between 20 to 50 per cent of the stock.

“We had to find a way to get it to our customers,” said Jansen.

Jansen talked to Ryan Moreno, CEO of Joseph Richard Group, who operates a number of restaurants, including the Townhall pub restaurants, businesses that had been closed by the pandemic.

The two, who had previously collaborated on the Glow Garden events at the nursery, came up with an idea of selling plants at pop-up shops in about 10 of Moreno’s restaurants’ empty parking lots.

“For us, it’s great,” said Moreno, who said he was able to offer some of his restaurant staff jobs. “And it’s great to see some of our customers back.”

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “If you would have told me two weeks ago that I would be selling plants, I would have said you’re crazy. It’s awesome that the community is coming together” to adapt to the pandemic realities.

Jansen said he’s selling the plants at wholesale prices and demand’s been great, although he said it was too early to predict how much of his usual business could be salvaged.

Garden centres, deemed essential services, are adapting to a changing retail landscape in the industry’s three busiest months of their year, the revenue from which carries it for the rest of the year.

 Leanne Johnson, president of the Lougheed Gardenworks store. Gardenworks have instituted physical distancing restrictions and are limiting the number of shoppers in stores at any one time.

The Gardenworks chain closed down for a couple of weeks and switched to online orders for delivery and pick up. Its website was hit with hundreds of orders a day.

“That was really so successful, it overwhelmed us,” said president Leanne Johnson. “It’s really demanding, labour-wise. It’s very slow.”

Still, the company projected the online model would have only produced 10 per cent of sales compared to previous years.

The chain is now limiting its online order system to seniors and front-line workers and has reopened its retail outlets. It is capping the number of shoppers and has widened aisles and added signs, arrows and monitors to ensure shoppers observe physical distancing.

On Thursday at the Lougheed Highway store, customers lined up for an hour to get into the store.

“People are really responding well and they are so grateful that we’re open,” she said.

“Our projections look more optimistic,” she said. “Demand over the last week has been encouraging.”

She predicts enough supply to meet demand, though shoppers may not be able to find the same variety of plants they are used to because “growers were a little spooked” and altered their stock.

 Shoppers at a popup garden centre at Townhall pub restaurant in Coquitlam.

Farmer Ron Hung of Bob’s Garden in Richmond said he was uncertain a month ago if he would be able to open his small retail store.

He planted only two-thirds of what he normally grows, but he’s feeling a bit more optimistic now because he has been getting lots of calls from customers. He is reopening soon with reduced hours, wholesale prices and more space in the store.

“Making money this year isn’t too much of a concern,” said Hung. “We are hoping just to be able to sell what we have.”

The demand is there and Johnson said there has been an increased interest in vegetable bedding plants as people choose to grow their own food.

“People have reconnected with their gardens and pace of life has slowed and they’re finding joy again,” she said

Brian Minter: Plants to support important pollinators

Camellias are a great source of nectar and pollen.

Even with the world in turmoil, nature simply carries on providing the normal progression of colour and beauty.

As our birds return and we see hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators back in our gardens, we really need to support them by providing nectar- and pollen-producing plants that open in sequence all through the seasons.

Because much of their habitat has been lost mainly through development, I think it is vital to add more pollinator-attracting plants into our gardens, especially those that begin their blooming cycle early in the season.

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Brian Minter: Tips to get going on growing your own food

Vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers.

With all the uncertainty these days around almost everything we do, many more folks are planning to grow their own food this year, especially vegetables.

The good news is that growing veggies can be done not only in traditional gardens but also very successfully in containers and raised beds as long as you have a space that gets full or partial sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you don’t get a lot of sun, you can still grow crops, but leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard will fare better.

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Brian Minter: The garden as a place of comfort

We have a need to be outside enjoying fresh air and nature, while doing the things we would normally do indoors.

Suddenly, it’s a new reality in our world, our country and our neighbourhoods.

We need to rethink how we do almost everything due to the COVID-19 virus. The key is to be thoughtful and respectful of others by following ever-changing guidelines set out by our health-care officials and professionals.

Social distancing, keeping ourselves and our families healthy, washing our hands frequently, shopping selflessly and being considerate of those who serve us in retail and professional environments are all things we must do. As Canadians, we have values as a nation, and by working together, we can minimize the infection rate to assist each other and our medical experts who deserve so much credit for their dedication and their courage to help all members of our society.

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Brian Minter: Mints may be invasive, but they make up for it with taste

Picture credit: Minter Country Garden. For 0314 col minter [PNG Merlin Archive]

Mint has the dubious distinction of being considered one of the worst garden scourges and one of our most versatile herbs.

Throughout history, mint has been enjoyed as a medicinal tonic, a culinary value-add to food or an appealing flavour for teas and drinks.

Mint is part of the labiatae family, along with other wonderful herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, salvia, marjoram and winter savoury.  Unlike many of its cousins, however, it is invasive and behaves more like pennyroyal, lamium and ajuga.

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Brian Minter: Citizen-led Butterflyway Project aims for a pollinator revival

Butterflies are great pollinators — some types of butterflies are better pollinators than some bee species.

With the climatic changes taking place, many of our indigenous animals, birds and pollinators have been struggling for survival, and their numbers are falling.

We’re all aware of the many challenges faced by the beautiful monarch butterflies and their decline. The loss of habitat has also taken a toll, but I’m always inspired when Canadians collectively work together to help reverse situations of habitat loss in order to bring back many of our native animals and pollinators. Butterflies are just such a case.

 Winnie Hwo, left, and Butterflyway ranger Lynn at Yale on a butterfly fieldtrip. Pic credit: David Suzuki Foundation.

Thanks to the David Suzuki Foundation’s The Butterflyway Project, a butterfly revival is beginning to take place in the Lower Mainland.

Winnie Hwo, senior public engagement specialist with the foundation, is a part of the movement spearheading butterfly habitat plantings.

The Butterflyway Project started in B.C. in 2017 with two cities: Victoria and Richmond. By 2019, Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver became an integral part of the project. This initiative is part of a larger, citizen-led movement that is taking place across the country.

Riley Park Community Garden at 50 East 30th Ave. Vancouver plants for butterflies and wild bees.

By planting nectar-bearing plants that host butterflies and native bees, the objective is to significantly increase the populations of the 187 species and 77 subspecies of butterflies that inhabit B.C.

Boulevards, greenways, laneways, roundabouts and home, school and community gardens are ideal locations for pollinator gardens.  Even a container on a patio helps. The ultimate goal is to create north-south corridors of butterfly “highways” to aid them on their migratory journeys.

Why butterflies?  Hwo says the broader focus is really on wild pollinators.  Butterflies are great pollinators — some types of butterflies are better pollinators than some bee species. And of course, everyone finds it exciting to see beautiful butterflies, especially in their garden.

 Butterflyway traffic roundabout near Trafalgar Street, Vancouver. Pic credit: David Suzuki Foundation.

How does the program work?  After pointing out that this is truly a citizen-led project, Hwo said: “We like to train people to become what we call Butterflyway rangers.  Over time we hope these rangers will run the programs in each of their communities.  Folks have to apply to be a ranger, and we deeply appreciate all those who apply.”

Official recruitment began Feb. 10 and closes Feb. 28.  The training day for selected new rangers is March 7 at the University of B.C. Botanical Garden, with a one-hour workshop on what and how to plant for wild pollinator populations like butterflies and bees and an opportunity to learn how to be citizen scientists.

Hwo says the foundation is giving out 10 plants grown by a local native plant grower to each ranger to plant as a collection in order to have the broadest appeal to butterflies and other pollinators.  Some of the plants she recommends are native salal, asters, western yarrow, native strawberries, coastal kinnikinnick, nodding onions, Pacific bleeding hearts, goldenrod, camas, ocean spray, and hardhack.

These varieties are key to attracting butterflies in May and, more importantly, during the first two weeks in June when they are most needed by these plants, which provide both nectar and pollen.

I asked her about native milkweed.  Hwo said it is great but often hard to find. She encourages rangers to plant showy milkweed, the only local species in B.C. Many other native species work well, too.

 Mitchel Elementary Butterflyway rangers in Richmond celebrating the start of the 2019 season. Picture: David Suzuki Foundation

How are the butterflies tracked in these butterflyways?

Hwo explained that it’s a complex issue and their resources are always stretched.  She said they set up a BIMBY (Butterflies in my backyard) iNaturalist Project in 2019 to document the butterflies that show up in the province.

The foundation will be adding more science to the citizen science component of the Butterflyway Project in 2020 with help and support from Tara Moreau, associate director for UBC Botanical Garden, and North Shore Butterflyway ranger Stephen Deedes-Vincke.

“We are focusing our resources in three key cities in order to create a critical mass of butterflyways, and we are reaching out to other cities to expand our programs,” explained Hwo.

“In 2020, we hope to have a presence in West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Surrey, Burnaby, and even in Abbotsford. As the backbone of this entire project, our volunteer rangers determine where we go.”

 Via Rail Butterflyway planting at Pacific Central Station at 1150 Station Street, Vancouver. Pic credit: David Suzuki Foundation.

Everyone can help this project succeed by planting pesticide-free native butterfly attractors and by encouraging friends, neighbours and local schools to participate.  It’s also important for all of us to educate ourselves about our local pollinator populations and the relationships between them and indigenous plants. By doing so, you will make a real difference for critical species.

I would like to thank Winnie Hwo, the 151 current rangers and all the volunteers who are working to recreate habitat and bring back butterflies to our region.

Contact Winnie Hwo at winnie@davidsuzuki.org if you would like more information or are willing to help or donate to this important project.

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