Saratoga County

More time at home spurs bumper crop of backyard gardeners

Mary Bufkins stands among her backyard garden on Northern Pines Road in Wilton. Sept. 9, 2020.
Mary Bufkins stands among her backyard garden on Northern Pines Road in Wilton. Sept. 9, 2020.

WILTON — Since Mary Bufkins’ father died, the fenced-in garden plot in her parents’ yard had grown thick with weeds and brambles. One pandemic and a metric ton of compost later, Bufkins and her mother, Diane, are seeing cucumbers, parsley and pumpkins come up in the backyard.

In the Capital Region and nationwide, the coronavirus pandemic lockdown forced many to find new hobbies to pass the time at home. One pastime that has the added benefits of providing tasty food and saving you money at the grocery store is vegetable gardening.

Bufkins, a mother of four from Wilton, has been growing vegetables for her family in her own garden for years. Before the pandemic, she would be busy driving her kids to Saratoga Youth Symphony on Sundays, and violin lessons and soccer practice during the week. But now, things are different.

“We’ve had more time as a family, and all the unimportant things are just temporarily gone,” said Bufkins, who has home-schooled her kids since last September.

This summer, the whole family has taken five or six trips out to grandma’s house in the Catskills to pull weeds, lay down compost and plant seeds in a 600-square-foot garden plot.

Now the garden is producing catnip, echinacea and sage, as well as more traditional garden favorites such as zucchini and swiss chard.

But Bufkins and her kids aren’t the only ones spending more time in the soil this year. At Hewitt’s Garden Center in Clifton Park, new and old gardeners have been snapping up plants and supplies at a quick clip.

Denise Yocum, the store’s manager of 42 years, estimates their sales are up 30 percent during the year of COVID-19.

“We’ve sold more seed packs, we’ve sold more annuals, more perennials, more of everything,” said Yocum

Usually, the spring rush slows down around Father’s Day at Hewitt’s, but new customers hungry for hardy hibiscus have kept the store busy. Hewitt’s even sold out of some starter vegetable plants.

“We were selling so many vegetables that even the growers ran out. We probably could have sold more,” said Yocum.

In turn, local gardening expert Angie Tompkins said she is seeing much more interest in growing food than in prior years.

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Tompkins is the master gardener coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, an organization dedicated to educating the community about agriculture, nutrition and energy. She leads a group of 45 volunteers, each of whom has extensive gardening knowledge. If you can’t figure out why tomatoes will never grow in your vegetable patch no matter how many years you try, that’s a perfect question for the master gardeners.

This year, they’ve been staffing a hotline every Monday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon. Even with the reduced hours, Tompkins says the number of gardening inquiries they’re getting has doubled from last year.

“They answer all sorts of questions, but really, vegetables has been a big one this year,” said Tompkins.

Experts and enthusiasts wonder if the pandemic and subsequent time spent at home will spur a new generation of vegetable growers.

In the face of a food crisis in Europe during World War II, the National War Garden Commission pumped out posters encouraging Americans to “plant a garden for victory” by growing their own veggies. Millions of Americans planted “victory gardens,” learning from government pamphlets the best times to plant everything from kale to kohlrabi, according to the University of California Master Gardener Project of Sonoma County.

Many from the “Greatest Generation” learned to garden, but the hobby hasn’t had the same amount of interest in recent years — until now.

“With my grandparents’ generation, there was a large group of people who learned that skill and were really good at it, and then somewhere in between, somehow it got skipped a generation of people who didn’t have that interest,” said Tompkins.

The pandemic could be sparking a gardening craze in that skipped generation. Yocum said many of her new customers this year at Hewitt’s are in their 40s, buying seed packs for the first time and making some common mistakes such as not watering enough.

“You’ve got a lot of these people who have never grown a vegetable plant before and now they want to try it. It’s going to be trial and error anyway, and that’s how you learn. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot more gardeners next year,” said Yocum.

For more information and tips about home gardening, stop by the Sustainable Living Center in Schenectady’s Central Park or call the master gardeners at 518-708-9567.

Categories: Fall Home

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