A Look Into Yelm’s World of Gardening

By Daniel Warn / [email protected]

Whether it’s a mad rush to the local greenhouses for vegetables or a mounting interest in the Yelm Community Garden, it’s safe to say that thumbs have been turning green all over town in today’s landscape of pandemic and uncertainty.

Ashley Witherow, the office manager at Jason’s Greenhouse wholesale division, illustrated this garden fever by detailing just how hopping the greenhouse has been since spring 2020.

“It’s definitely been crazy, a chaotic crazy,” Witherow said of the pandemic-era. “A lot of people started gardening for the first time, or they started back in on gardening, like they hadn’t done it in a long time and picked up the habit again.”

Kellie Petersen, owner of Gordon’s Garden Center, echoed these sentiments.

“We were busier, definitely busier, for sure.” Petersen said. “We’re seeing more customers. They have more time. They’re probably not going on vacation so they are spending that money not just on their gardens, but I imagine home improvement centers are busier as well.”

According to both Witherow and Petersen, the growth of business in the gardening world had a lot to do with food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There has definitely been more vegetable gardening, more eatable gardening, anything that people could do that produced food was probably our number one selling product.” Witherow said. “I heard a lot of people say they didn’t trust the food chain, or the supply system.”

Petersen saw a similar shift in purchasing habits.

“I would just say that the most significant difference is an uptick in veggie gardening,” Petersen said. “After the initial shutdown, and in the midst of shortages — and stalls in all other supply chains — I think people were really concerned about food security. Many families who had never grown a garden before were suddenly compelled to garden.”

This mounting concern for food security in the region led Gordon’s Garden Center to donate all the plants and seeds that nonprofit organization Bounty for Families needed for its Yelm Community Garden, which took off this year.

The garden already has a growing stock of broccoli, spinach, lettuce, kale, radishes, potatoes, rugola, herbs, beans, peas, beets, carrots and more, with tomatoes, squash and zucchini coming when the time is right to plant them.

Heidi Smith, the secretary for Bounty for Families, said it also boasts native plants like wild strawberries, lupin and mock oranges, among others.

“We’re still figuring out where the food will go, but we think there will definitely be a piece where people can just come out and take what they want, not more than they need, but if you need some produce, yeah, that will be an option,” Smith said. “It’s all about meeting the needs of food insecurity in our community.”

The Yelm Community Garden really got rolling last November, when Bounty for Families partnered with the Thurston County Conservation District, after wanting to facilitate a garden in Yelm for years. The conservation district brought on another partner — non-profit organization Garden Raised Bounty — and also provided expertise and funding for a dedicated individual to consult with Bounty for Families to make the garden happen.

The Nisqually Tribe gave Bounty for Families $12,000 to increase access to the garden, and individuals like Josh Baumann, a contractor, donated their time and labor to create the infrastructure needed for the garden to operate. Baumann’s contribution, in conjunction with folks from the Yelm Farmers Market, was a garden shed, constructed last month. In addition, Yelm High School students planted the native vegetation and dug trenches along the garden’s perimeter.

And thanks to the city of Yelm, the garden has a home, free of charge, in Yelm City Park.

“Once we got it going there has been more enthusiasm and collaboration and it’s just growing and growing,” Smith said. “We’ve had a lot of folks just show up to help.”

Next up for the community garden is a search for a garden manager and an application for a $50,000 urban agriculture grant.

Petersen said that while all the interest in veggie gardening at Gordon’s has caused people to feel more secure in their food supply, it has also caused people to take more joy in their food.

“The result is that they learned that not only did their veggies cost less, they also tasted better,” Petersen said. “Your veggies are going to taste sweeter when you pick them right out of the ground — or right off the vine — and cook them or eat them raw. They’re certainly more nutritious going from the garden to the table.”

It’s all well and good to get fresh produce from one’s own garden — or a community garden for that matter — but it would all be for naught if people don’t know what to do with the food, Smith said. She noted the community garden is going to provide services to address that disparity for the young and old alike.

“This garden will serve multiple purposes,” Smith said. “One of them is to work in conjunction with our Power of Produce kids club, which is part of the farmers market. … And we’ll have some cooking classes out here. It’s no good to grow the produce and not know what to do with it once it’s grown.”

Back at Jason’s Greenhouse, Witherow said the increased interest she has seen in gardening has filled more needs than simply providing food for the community. It’s given people something to do in an era of closed gathering halls, limited public events and shuttered businesses.

“People were kind of stuck at home and wanted to beautify their yards and do something together,” Witherow said. “I think it’s great. I mean, it’s something to do, something to get you outside, something that families could do together. … I think a lot of it was family time, and a lot of it was people wanting to branch out and do a new hobby. You can only Netflix for so long, you know?”

She also said customers have indicated they want to revive a tradition of working the land that has been lost in their families over the generations.

“I just heard a lot of people say, ‘My grandma used to do this and now we’re stuck at home and I want to do it, and I want to teach my kids how to do it,’” Witherow said.

In fact, according to both Witherow and Petersen, greenhouses and garden centers across the entire industry have seen an uptick in gardening, a trend they believe will be sustained in the years to come.

“A lot of people, I think, got into gardening last year and I think they enjoyed it, to be honest with you,” Witherow said. “It’s something that I think, as an industry, I think we are going to be busy for a while, and it’s great. It’s kind of a renaissance to the gardening world. It’s brought people back to their roots and I think it’s so awesome to see.”

Petersen went on to say that people found a passion they didn’t know they were capable of, a passion that will endure.

“They’re really excited, and I think it’s a lot of young families who never thought to garden before,” Petersen said. “It’s really been probably the most beneficial, and probably the biggest difference since COVID. I think it’s going to be retained, where people will continue on that (path) and have it not be just a trend, but a lifestyle.”

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