Nature’s Herb Farm manager Aaron Way waters succulents in the "longhouse" greenhouse. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When Ben Acovio went to Walmart soon after the pandemic forced him out of a job, he was looking for pepper, cucumber, and tomato plants to start a garden in the backyard of his Southside home. 

What he found was a lot of empty store shelves and shoppers as green as he was. 

“There were a bunch of people, and we just looked at each other in the aisles and said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ and we’re like ‘No,’” he said, laughing at the memory. 

That didn’t faze Acovio, who was determined to learn by trial and error and is now getting ready to plant his third garden for fall.

“I’m enjoying it because I want to see results,” he said. “I want to finally get corn that I can eat.”

Acovio is one of an estimated 16 million U.S. residents who have joined the garden “club” since the pandemic began, according to a survey by the National Gardening Association that appeared in the trade publication Garden Center. Many are younger – less than 35 years old. But another sizable group of new gardeners, and the biggest spenders, are in the 35 to 44 age bracket.

Ben Acovio uses the three sisters method in his backyard garden to plant corn, beans, and squash. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The trend recalls the victory garden movement that began during World War I, when food resources grew scarce and Americans were called upon to grow their own. This time around, the interest in gardening began with anxiety over food security but has grown into something more.

Spring is always the busiest season at Rainbow Gardens, a family-owned plant nursery with roots in San Antonio going back to 1976. Now with two locations, the nursery sells a large selection of perennials and annuals, shrubs and trees, tropical plants and succulents, pots, and potting soil. 

Partner Brandon Kirby said Rainbow Gardens also specializes in helping customers determine what to plant and when and has a loyal customer base. After a week or two when business ground to a halt during the coronavirus-related lockdowns, customers came in droves, he said, “probably just to get out of the house.”

Then, an interest in gardening seemed to grow among first-timers. Sixty to 70 percent of all Rainbow Gardens shoppers in the past few months have been new customers. 

“These new customers really propelled the business forward, and it continued since March and hasn’t slowed – if anything, they’re coming out in more numbers,” Kirby said.

Many plant shoppers are saying they have never done any gardening work before now, but there’s a renewed interest in growing food since the pandemic began, he said. Fruit, vegetables, and citrus trees are in demand, but Rainbow Gardens was ready.

“We had projected a disruption in the supply chain for food locally,” Kirby said. The nursery stocked up on edible plants and increased its workforce by 30 percent.“Luckily, the local food chain wasn’t disrupted terribly by COVID, but people definitely felt the sentiment.”

Other customers are looking for plants to do landscaping projects, despite the summer heat that imperils new plantings and makes yardwork less desirable. House plants also are popular with millennials now, he said. 

“If it has roots on it, people are coming to buy it,” Kirby said. 

Locally, however, suppliers have been able to keep up with the demand. Kirby said Rainbow Gardens sources most of its plants from growers in the San Antonio area, such as Nature’s Herb Farm, a 36-year-old wholesaler that got its start in a homemade greenhouse.

Succulents grow inside the “longhouse” greenhouse at Nature’s Herb Farm. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Today, Nature’s Herb Farm advertises over 300 varieties of plants, has 280,000 square feet of growing space, and supplies 288 H-E-B stores and other nurseries throughout the state. The $2.5 million operation said it has seen orders increase 22 percent in recent months. 

“I would have been up maybe 40 percent more if I’d had [more stock],” said Shane Dunford, president of Nature’s Herb Farm. “Some plants you just can’t make overnight.”

But Dunford foresaw the demand and was ready to supply everything from flowers and shrubs to vegetable plants and herbs. He has seen it before, after 9/11 and during the recession in 2008, when his business grew by about the same percentage as it has during the pandemic. 

“I’ve been in this industry for 25 years,” he said. “When tragic things happen, people turn to plants to make them feel better. Plants make people happy.”

Shane Dunford, president of Nature’s Herb Farm, poses for a portrait in the shade area. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Where there are plants, there is soil, rocks, mulch, and decorative landscaping materials like those sold by Stone & Soil Depot, which has four locations in and around San Antonio. 

Manager Chelsea Aguilar said spring is always a busy time for their business, especially with many homeowners in the area. 

“We have special spring hours specifically for that, but given the pandemic it’s definitely extended … all the way through the summer, which is usually a slower time because of the heat,” Aguilar said. “But it really hasn’t slowed down.”

At the Shades of Green nursery, co-owner Roberta Churchin said the store has been busier than usual for the past several months and the phone rings all day with customers calling for planting advice or looking for a particular plant. For one thing, the gardening trend has caught on among many young people, she said.

“I think the other thing is that people can shop outside,” Churchin said. “There’s no crowding. It’s easy to keep social distancing and there’s fresh air and lots of oxygen. It’s been wonderful. We’ve just enjoyed all the enthusiasm and excitement – people just love having a place to come that’s peaceful and beautiful.”

Churchin said she stocks plants from local growers and tropical plants from producers in California and Florida. But products from those areas are getting harder to find.

The “green” industry in Bexar County employs almost 15,000 people and contributes $1.8 billion to the local economy, said David Rodriguez, county extension agent and horticulturist. 

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This year has been a record-breaking one for the industry, he said, “because people need something to do.” Many are turning to the video series Rodriguez produces for the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service on topics such as turf and lawn maintenance, ground covers, and fall gardening. 

In addition, participation in the San Antonio Waters System’s water-saver rewards programs, which give people coupons to use at nursery retailers in exchange for replacing turfgrass lawns with planting beds, is 10 times higher than it was at the same time last year. Many are newcomers, enrolling in the program and its online educational events for the first time, even in the heat of the summer.

“I do think we had a bit of a captive audience in that people were at home,” said Karen Guz, SAWS conservation director. “They’re looking at their yards. They’re not going anywhere. They’re willing to give these virtual education things a try.”

Ben Acovio works on his backyard garden. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For new gardener Acovio, cultivating plants has become a way for him to keep busy after the pandemic caused his social media business to go under. Persistent problems with black mold growing on some of his plants and pests eating away at others haven’t discouraged him.

“These are the lessons learned in a garden that I’m learning to treat and manage,” he said of the hobby he never was able to pursue growing up in a frequently relocating military family. 

“I’m hoping with this third crop, I get corn finally.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.