At Broadway Gardens Greenhouses in South Portland, sales are up for seeds, vegetables and soil but down for perennials because fewer people are shopping in person and there are limits on the numbers of people allowed in the greenhouses at one time. (Portland Phoenix/ Jordan Bailey)
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On an overcast afternoon, Caitlin Aceto checked the rhubarb plants growing in one of two raised beds in her Douglass Street yard. A mound of soil was ready to add to the other bed, which could be covered in plastic when it is warm enough to plant the tomatoes, dill, and zucchini she has growing indoors from seeds.

“I’ve always been an ornamental gardener,” Aceto said. “Vegetables are kind of a new thing.” 

She said the shift to growing vegetables from seeds was influenced by the coronavirus pandemic and food supply concerns. 

“Since I can’t really go to the store, and who knows what’s available, I just ordered seeds this year,” Aceto said. 

Caitlin Aceto checks the raised beds in her backyard on Douglass Street in Portland April 16. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Many others are doing the same, some simply as a way to pass the time at home, some as a way to supplement their family’s nutrition while grocery shopping has become risky, and others to build up a stronger local food system as the pandemic threatens global food supply chains.

Garden suppliers are scrambling to keep up. 

Maine seed supplier Johnny’s Selected Seeds reports an “extremely high backlog of orders” on its website. As of April 20 it was accepting orders only from commercial farmers shipping to the U.S. and Canada, and estimated that it will resume taking orders from home gardeners April 28. 

“On Friday, March 13th when the National Emergency was declared we experienced a 250 percent surge in visitors to our website, our phones were ringing, and orders came flooding in,” said company spokesman Joshua D’Errico. “We have also seen a significant increase in visits to the Growing Library on the Johnny’s website.”

He said about 90 percent of the increase in orders was from home gardeners and about half of those were first-time customers who had many questions about gardening.

Cameron Bonsey of Coast of Maine Organic Products, a local compost company, said they have seen a “huge” increase in sales of compost.  

“There’s a high interest in doing raised beds, and victory gardens like in World War II,” Bonsey said. “People want to be in control of their food destiny.” 

Allen, Sterling & Lothrop has been in the seed business for 106 years and stocks seed racks in 60 stores throughout the state. It also sells garden supplies and seedlings from greenhouses at its location on Route 1 in Falmouth. 

“Our phone rings all day – it never stops,” General Manager Shawn Brannigan said. “There’s a huge amount of new gardeners.”

He said tomato and pepper seeds are already sold out. 

An employee at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth drops off a seed packet for curbside pickup on Thursday, April 16. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

The store has shifted to curbside-pickup, which means in addition to answering phones employees are gathering orders. The business is operating with half its regular staff because some employees who are at higher risk for severe illness from contracting COVID-19 are not working.

Brannigan said to avoid tying up phone lines they haven’t been providing as much gardening advice as they would like to new gardeners, and are directing them to Google and YouTube. 

He was hesitant, however, to attribute the increase in demand to the beginning of a local food revolution. 

“I think it’s because (people are) home and they want something to do and that’s a great hobby,” he said.

At Skillins Greenhouses on Route 88 in Falmouth Foreside, Mike Skillin said their staff, too, are “running like crazy.” 

“We’re finding that we’re … out of things, particularly in the seed-starting area, trays and other accessories, also seed packets,” Skillin said. “But our suppliers are doing a good job of replenishing, so we’re finding the frequent stock-outs don’t last too long. Everybody’s really trying to pitch in, I think.”

He said the store has seen its share of challenges since opening in 1885, but COVID-19 is unique. Skillins had had to change its business model on the fly, building a website from scratch and adding approximately 10,000 products to the site one by one. They’re up to 500 so far. 

“That’s with reduced staff and increased customer expectations,” Skillin said. “But that being said the customers have been just great – very understanding – and we really appreciate that.” 

Phil Roberts, owner of Broadway Gardens Greenhouses in South Portland, said they are selling “way more seeds than usual,” and seeing record sales of loam, mulch and planting mix. 

Ann Swanson of Cape Elizabeth picks out daisies for her garden at Broadway Gardens Greenhouses in South Portland April 16. She said gardening is what keeps her sane these days. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Broadway Gardens delivers soil to people’s yards, and can hardly keep up because they are operating with about 60-70 percent of their usual staff, Roberts said. Some vulnerable employees chose to stay home and they try to keep fewer people on the schedule so they can spread out when they work in the greenhouses. 

Despite the increase in sales for some items, Roberts said sales overall are down about 30 percent. While there is a lot of demand for vegetables, he said, they are not selling  as many ornamental plants, because people like to pick those out for themselves. Fewer people are shopping in person, and there are limits to the number of people permitted in the store and greenhouses at a time. 

He said he considered doing only curbside pickup, but is glad he decided to keep the store and greenhouses open to customers, even with limits.  

“We had people come in so excited just to walk around, thanking us,” Roberts said. “People literally in tears just so they can look at plants.”

Ann Swanson of Cape Elizabeth was choosing various types of berry plants for her yard last week at Broadway Gardens. She said gardening has been what keeps her sane during the crisis. 

“The fact that we can go into our gardens and be in a safe zone is a wonderful thing,” Swanson said. 

Building up local food systems 

Although it is still a little early to plant vegetables outside, those without yards of their own in which to garden have also been anxious to get started working in community gardens, said Anna Tracht, CSA manager at Cultivating Community.

She said she anticipates food security concerns will bring an increase in purchases of community-supported agriculture shares.

“I think people are seeing CSAs as a really viable alternative to going into the grocery store,” Tracht said, “so we’re hopeful that we’ll have increased participation.”

Other groups are also working on getting people access to land. Portland permaculture group Resilience Hub has teamed up with Land in Common, based in Greene, to develop a land-sharing program. 

They put out a call on April 8 and by April 17 had already received 40 requests and 52 offers of land from people simply volunteering a plot in their yard to farmers willing to mentor new gardeners and provide tools and tilling. 

Ethan Miller of Land in Common said the idea of a land-sharing system has been bubbling up in different groups for a while but COVID-19 pushed the organizations to team up to get it started. 

“There’s a lot of urgency for people around food security,” Miller said. “They’re nervous about what’s going to happen with the larger food system, and how reliable our grocery stores are and it is scary to go to the grocery store for a lot of people.”

In addition to land, people can offer resources and services such as the use of tools or tilling a bed. Information on offers and requests are collected online and the organizations match them by location and specific needs. Miller said they prioritize groups impacted by structural injustices, such as people of color, the poor working class, and new immigrants.

He said some requests come from people looking for land not just to meet their own family’s needs but to produce a surplus to share with the community through food pantries or other distribution systems. 

“Since our beginning we’ve wanted to build stronger local food systems that are very community connected and that have equity as a part of how they think about distributing,” he said. “And, this feels like a moment where a lot of people who maybe cared about that before but it wasn’t a huge priority are suddenly seeing it rise to the top of the list.” 

Presente! Maine food brigade volunteers pack food for distribution April 19. (Source: Facebook)

A group that is working on the distribution side of the local food systems is Presente! Maine, founded in September 2019 to address needs of the “Latinx” community. Latinx is the gender-neutral form of Latino or Latina. 

The group’s president, Crystal Cron, said when Maine reported its first case of COVID-19 she urged members of the community not to go to work because most work in close quarters in seafood processing. She kept getting the response, “If I don’t work, I don’t eat.”

So the organization started ordering food in bulk to bring to the community. Cron said the first day they distributed food to 50 families. Now she said they are distributing about four days’ worth of food to around 700 people on a weekly basis, and are trying to expand that to cover all their food needs during the crisis. 

The newly formed “food brigade” is delivering to many of the poorer neighborhoods of Portland, including Parkside, St. John/Valley Street, and Riverton. Cron said that they have begun leaving food at the doors of non-Latinx people in the neighborhoods because they understand that most residents are in the same boat. 

The brigade started out with a few volunteers but has grown to around 40. They are purchasing the food rather than tapping into the food pantries, Cron said, because those systems are already at capacity. Furthermore, much of the food available at pantries is not culturally relevant to Latinx people. 

Presente! Maine is crowdsourcing funds and has enough so far to keep going as the crisis continues. Cron said the effort has made her think about ways her people can have control over their food in the long term, as they had in their home countries where many had farms or backyard vegetable gardens. Here people do not have the time to garden because of their long working hours, she said, or they live in an apartment building without a yard they can use. 

“This is not a new thing; people have been in crisis for a long time,” Cron said. “That connection to land and growing their own food is so essential and then they come here and they don’t have that.” 

The group is stocking up on seeds and working with Resilience Hub and Land in Common to find places for people to grow food. 

“How can we get back to the land, and how can we be in charge of the food we put in our body?” Cron asked. “The food pantry model is very vertical, like charity. It’s you giving me something. But if I can do it for myself then I’m empowered.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated April 22 to incorporate comments received after deadline from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Laura Heinlein of the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District collects a soil sample along Commercial Street in Portland to test for lead. (Courtesy CCSWCD)

Free soil testing for high-lead neighborhoods

Very high lead concentrations in some Portland neighborhoods has prompted the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District to launch an education campaign about the dangers of gardening in lead-contaminated soil.

The district is offering free soil testing in those neighborhoods. 

Between 2005 and 2007, Portland city staff, University of Southern Maine researchers and the nonprofit group Cultivating Community partnered on a project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to collect and test more than 1,000 samples at 104 residences in the East Bayside, Bayside, Parkside and West End neighborhoods.

Average soil lead levels ranged from 1,333 parts per million to 1,487 ppm, with individual samples in the Parkside neighborhood as high as 25,100 ppm.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection defines soil concentrations of 375 ppm or more as lead-contaminated in bare soil “play areas,” while the EPA defines 400 ppm or more as contaminated. 

The conservation district received EPA funding to educate people about lead in soil and what can be done about it. The organization states that naturally occurring soil lead tops out at 50 ppm, and anything above 100 ppm requires safe gardening techniques. 

Dust from lead can be inhaled when playing or gardening in contaminated soil, or ingested from vegetables grown in it, and lead exposure is particularly dangerous to children. It can affect their growth and development and can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing damage and language or speech delays. For adults, lead exposure can cause cardiovascular issues, increased blood pressure, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.

Any area with older housing stock could potentially have lead contamination from paint and other building materials. The four target neighborhoods have higher levels partly because of their industrial pasts, and because ash from the Great Fire of 1866 settled in those areas. The Bayside and East Bayside neighborhoods are built on debris from that fire that was dumped into the Back Cove. 

Damon Yakovleff, environmental planner with the district, said there still are relatively clean areas within these neighborhoods, but that it is hard to know whether a potential garden plot is contaminated without testing. 

For that reason, the organization is offering free tests for residents of those neighborhoods. There is a sign-up form on the organization’s website where tests can be requested. A staff member will then test the soil, help interpret the results, and provide guidance on what can be done to garden safely. 

Yakovleff said people can still garden if they have lead contamination. One of the best ways is to build raised beds filled with clean soil, with a barrier between the bed and the soil below.  

He said certain types of plants absorb lead more than others. Plants that are good sources of iron, such those in the brassica family, for example, absorb metals well. Spinach, cabbage, kale and broccoli are risky to plant in lead-contaminated soil, Yakovleff said, whereas those that are technically fruits, including tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, are generally safer because they have membranes that prevent most of the lead from passing into the part of the plant that is consumed. 

The district is also working on creating flyers in different languages and developing partnerships with organizations that work with immigrant communities to provide education and help people without access to the internet sign up for testing. 

As part of the two-year grant the organization will follow up at tested sites to determine whether mitigation techniques help diminish lead levels in plant tissue. 

Residents of the target neighborhoods can sign up for the free tests at https://tinyurl.com/FREESoilTest. Yakovleff recommended that gardeners in other neighborhoods have their soil tested, too.  The Maine Soil Testing Service offers a basic soil test for $18. 

— Jordan Bailey