Plant of the Week: Gardens and the people who care for them
Our grandchildren will probably entertain their children with stories of the “great COVID-19 pandemic,” and how it disrupted so much in our supposedly stable lives. So far, Arkansas seems to be an island in the epidemic and has escaped the worst ravages of the disease, even though we were one of the few states not buttoned down under a mandatory stay-at-home order. While the restaurant and tourism segment of the economy has taken a major hit, other parts of the economy, including the green industry, have been less dramatically affected.
The green industry – garden centers, nurseries, greenhouses and people associated with maintaining our gardens – has traditionally been considered relatively recession-proof. If you can’t travel and are forced to stay at home, doing home improvement projects and sprucing up the landscape makes a lot of sense. The financial crisis of a dozen years ago bore this out and was generally good for the plant and garden related industry. The stay-at-home ethos of the covid-19 pandemic seems to be having similar results this time around, at least judged by the number of cars I see at local garden centers.
The character of this surge of garden activity will probably change from that seen in past calamities. Interest in vegetable gardening has been increasing amongst Arkansans, many of whom have had no prior personal experience other than perhaps walking down a garden patch with a grandparent. The motivating factors for this decade-long resurgence in interest seems to center around better nutrition and concerns about food safety. Now, fear of possible food shortages and a desire to have more control over our own lives seems to be driving the bus.
Most of the people who work in garden construction and maintenance are independent contractors. The lawn care industry often works under the umbrella of a national franchise, but individual businesses are privately owned. The mowing crews you see dashing around town with zero turn lawn mowers on a flatbed trailer behind their truck are small businesses in the purest sense; a working boss and one or two hourly workers who mow, blow and go, often making 20 or more stops in a day. The gardeners who plant and maintain flower beds for clients often work alone and string together enough jobs to make a steady, but modest, living.
Because Arkansas was never completely shut down, the nursery plants continued to be watered and planted, the lawns mowed and garden construction projects completed. Gardening and garden maintenance are outdoor activities, making it easy to meet social distancing requirements. Whether keeping the lawn mowed and the flower beds well maintained is an essential service or not is a judgement call, but letting them go without maintenance will add another layer of stress in an already stressful time.
The pandemic and the economic devastation it will visit upon us presents a unique opportunity to reexamine our economic system from top to bottom. The lawn mowers and gardeners may have dodged the bullet this time, but in reality, they’re in the same low wage economic boat as the Uber drivers, housekeepers and other independent contractors who struggle to provide for their families. Hopefully this opportunity will not be squandered as we move into an age where self-driving cars, increased automation and supercomputing will put even more pressure on low wage workers.
For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.uada.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.