Business

Nurseries gear up for their Super Bowl with a COVID-19 twist

April showers bring May flowers, and with them — nurseries hope — the revenue to keep their businesses flowering.

Mother’s Day, the biggest flower day of the year, is upon us, and the monkey wrench that is COVID-19 has impacted area nurseries in different ways. May marks the unofficial start of the busy season for nurseries and horticulturists who have had to adapt to life under the spell of the novel coronavirus.

Sunday, Mother’s Day, is a big day for producers of flowers and plants. “Huge” was the word nursery operators uttered time and time again.

“You can ask anybody in our industry, Mother’s Day is the biggest day,” said Nancy Leskody, co-owner of Trimble’s of Corchaug Nursery, a retail grower in Cutchogue. “It’s like the Super Bowl.”

Super Bowl Sunday, nursery style, arrives at a most unusual time when COVID-19 has seemingly turned the world upside down. Agribusinesses such as Long Season Farms in Aquebogue are relieved to have been designated essential businesses, permitted to continue operation despite pandemic-related restrictions because of their value to the food supply.

Dylan Jurow, whose parents, Ken and Laurie, operate Long Season Farms, said the Riverhead/North Fork land around Route 25 and Sound Avenue is “probably the biggest area in New York State as far as concentration” for horticulturists. “This is what we do best. It’s a level of production that’s not seen anywhere else on Long Island.”

How that production will fare in 2020 remains to be seen. Nurseries have had to adjust, implementing social distancing and other safety measures while, in some cases, working with smaller staffs because of cutbacks.

Ms. Leskody said the thought that was foremost on the minds of her partner, Anne Trimble, and herself when COVID-19 hit Long Island was, “Will we go out of business?” She said, “We’ve been in business for 30 years and we really thought that we might go out of business.”

Trimble’s is still in business, but traffic has been down.

“What we’ve noticed is that business has been way off,” Ms. Leskody said. “For example, usually we have pretty good Easter sales … It’s not quite as good as Mother’s Day, but it’s a big day and it was really not good at all. I would say we did about a third of [the business] we normally do.”

Trimble’s prepared for the changing business landscape as well as it could, canceling orders for expensive tropical plants from Florida, reducing staff and focusing more on produce. Among the food Trimble’s produces are 20 varieties of tomato plants, a host of herbs, eggplants, peppers, kale, cabbage, broccoli and cucumbers. Trimble’s set up what amounted to a self-service plant stand in a parking lot to limit contact with customers.

“If anything good came out of COVID, if you ask me, it’s that we found out that we have the potential to change our ways of doing things as far as solutions go,” said Ms. Leskody.

The battle against COVID-19 has been equated to a war. Much like on the home front during World War II, victory gardens may be making a comeback. In accordance, Ms. Trimble said her business ramped up vegetable production. “We’ve been selling a lot more vegetable crops than normal,” she said. “We really kind of geared up for that. When we saw [what] was happening, we started making more plans for more tomatoes, more vegetables and basil … We did things that normally we would never do.”

North Fork Boutique Gardens, which delivers most of the materials (perennials, ferns, grasses, woody ornamentals, ground covers) that originate from its 17 acres in Mattituck, looked primed for a promising season before the coronavirus scare, said controller Kathryn Donoghue. Plants have looked “phenomenal,” she said. “We were so prepared and ready for this year.”

And then COVID-19 put a major crimp on things. Orders weren’t coming in.

“The phone wasn’t ringing,” Ms. Donoghue said. “Nobody wanted deliveries. Nobody wanted really anything.”

Since then, Ms. Donoghue has noticed a slow increase.

“We’re always weathering the storm, whatever the storm is,” she said. “… If it was rainy and cooler right now, we’d be in the same situation where nobody would be calling. We’re just dealing with a different storm … I think we just look at it this as this is just another storm that we’re going to weather through.”

Meanwhile, Peconic River Herb Farm, which describes its 14 riverfront acres in Calverton as a “gardener’s paradise,” has seen a buzz of activity. Owner Cristina Spindler said her farm has been “very, very, very, very busy.”

“People are crazed,” she said. “They’re filling giant wagonloads. There’s no questions asked. They’re buying anything and everything because they haven’t bought anything in a long time, I guess. So, they’re coming here prepared to spend and they’re spending. So I would say hang in there other businesses because they’re coming.”

“This past weekend was bigger than in previous years ever,” she added. “If the weather holds out and all goes well, I think we’re going to have a record-breaking week here.”

While gratified by the business, Ms. Spindler finds herself in the odd position of not wanting crowds of people showing up for safety reasons. On its website, Peconic River Herb Farm notes that picnicking, large groups and shopping without wearing a mask is not allowed. A concession to these difficult times: The farm’s indoor garden shop is closed and for the first time in the business’ 32 years, its Mother’s Day tea event has been canceled.

Long Season Farms had an encouraging opening Friday. “We were busy this weekend, which is really positive,” Mr. Jurow said, adding, “It gives us optimism.”

That’s not a bad state of mind entering Mother’s Day weekend, which brings a mix of stress and excitement to nursery operators.

“It’s a nervous energy and you have to be on top of your game the whole two weeks leading up to it,” Ms. Spindler said. “You know, you got to get things in in time and make sure they’re displayed and labeled and that you have enough boxes and bags and wagons and change. It’s like preparing almost for like a black Friday kind of thing.”