Coronavirus: Bay Area nurseries, home gardeners rejoice over eased shopping restrictions

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The cleverly named rose bushes at Almaden Valley Nursery told the story.

After COVID-19 restrictions dealt a “Shock Wave” to the garden center industry in mid-March, just as the spring planting season was starting, the Bay Area’s nurseries reopened Monday to home gardeners set to “Jump for Joy” at the opportunity to indulge in one of “Life’s Little Pleasures” — planting varieties like “Rouge Royale,” “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunset Celebration,” along with summer vegetables and trees.

But “Easy Does It” was the motto at this South San Jose business, with staffers maintaining strict social distancing and allowing only a handful of mask-wearing shoppers at a time to wander the open-air rows — and then for only 20 minutes each.

“Helga to the front. Your 20 minutes is up. Mike, your time is up. Thank you,” a voice announced over the loud speaker.

The socially distanced line formed well before the 10 a.m. reopening and remained long as customers jockeyed for spots in the small parking lot.

“We’ve been waiting for this,” manager Nick Esquivel said between answering customer questions and delivering bottles of water to employees loading bags of potting soil and monitoring the line. “It’s been a struggle doing delivery only.”

Other Santa Clara County nurseries have been struggling, too, with sales restrictions harsher here than in other Bay Area counties. While their counterparts in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties were allowed to sell to curbside customers and, in some cases, in-person shoppers, the South Bay garden centers have been limited to delivery only — a costly and time-consuming alternative, and one that threatened to put them out of business.

Community members had hoped to win some parity for local nurseries, with more than 13,000 people signing a petition titled, “Please keep Santa Clara County nurseries in business,” but there was no easing of local limits until Bay Area-wide changes for May 4 were announced.

The three SummerWinds nurseries in Palo Alto, Campbell and Cupertino reopened Monday morning. Yamagami’s Garden Center in Cupertino was able to reopen a week ago, after receiving an exemption as a mixed-use/hardware store.

“I’m glad we were able to open, not only for the financial stability of the business, but also to allow our clients to get back into their gardens and beautify their surroundings — which they are stuck in while SIP continues,” said Matt Lepow, who has worked at Almaden Valley Nursery for 28 years and owned it for half that time. “It’s good for people’s mental health, and it’s a great time to teach your children about growing edible crops.”

San Jose resident Cathy McKeever arrived early at Almaden Valley and was wheeling two of her favorite trees — the redbud, with its heart-shaped leaves and pretty spring blossoms — to the checkout. One is destined for her house, the other for her daughter’s.

“I couldn’t wait for them to open,” McKeever said.

Hundreds of feet away, Frederica Stearns was looked for a rose with apricot-colored blooms called “Just Joey,” and found it among the hundreds arranged alphabetically in neat rows. “I’m so excited,” the agronomy and botany expert said.

In Lafayette, the jubilant owners of Orchard Nursery said on their website: “We are thrilled to be opening our nursery for self-service!” and thanked customers for participating in the curbside pickup service over the last few weeks.

They have moved all garden decor items outside to the front porch and are strictly limiting the number of cars in the parking lot. To make sure that social distancing rules are followed, only cars with one or two adults will be allowed to park.

Livermore’s Alden Lane Nursery is taking what they call a “very conservative, no-frills approach,” with similar limits on cars and customers — and the amount of time they spend shopping. “We want you to soak up the beauty but not linger while you gather your veggies, fruit trees, grapes and berries, and more,” the website says.

Two San Mateo County nurseries have opted to wait to expand their operations.

Chris Takemori, whose family owns the Golden Nursery on Second Avenue in San Mateo, said they have decided not to fully reopen this week despite the new exception, mostly due to a lack of staff. Some of their employees are concerned for their health and safety, he said.

“We’re trying to respect their choice to shelter in place. We don’t want to tell them otherwise,” he said. So his brother, father, aunts and uncles have stepped in to keep the business operating as a drive-through nursery.

In Redwood City, Mark Wegman of Wegman’s Nursery on Woodside Road, which has been around for 60 years, said they’re hoping to reopen the outdoor portion of the nursery on Wednesday or Thursday. “We didn’t want to open unprepared,” Wegman said, noting they will have to figure out the socially distancing logistics, from how many people will be allowed in the outdoor area to how to run transactions if customers aren’t allowed inside.

Like Golden, they’ve been offering curbside pick-up, facilitating orders online. Despite hundreds of online orders, not all has been smooth with getting credit card information or customers following up for their pick-up.

Wegman said they haven’t had to lay anyone off on their staff, but they’re operating at about 60 percent less than normal for this time of year with a “skeletal crew.”

“We’re really excited to open up. Gardening is therapeutic for people stuck at home. We’ve gotten so many compliments from people happy to be gardening at home with their kids,” he said.

And many of those home gardeners said they are happy to be purchasing from independent, locally owned nurseries.

One of Almaden Valley’s first customers Monday was Jon Bender, whose nearby home features trees grown from root stock he purchased from this nursery more than 20 years ago. He was loading his vehicle with blueberries and other plants.

“I want to see them survive,” he said. “I’d rather support them than Amazon.”

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Author: Linda Zavoral, Angela Ruggiero

Mercury News Business