Are "doomsday gardens" here to stay?

With little to do, Americans spent more on gardening during the pandemic. Was it a fad?

Published March 22, 2022 5:23PM (EDT)

A little girl looking plants growing in raised beds in a backyard (Getty Images/Cavan Images)
A little girl looking plants growing in raised beds in a backyard (Getty Images/Cavan Images)

Despite the mini-recession precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a few select industries actually thrived. In particular, for the green industry — plant nurseries, garden centers, and landscaping companies — business boomed. Now, as life returns to normal in many locales, the industry is wondering whether gardening is simply another pandemic fad, like bread-baking — or if Americans all emerged from Covid with permanently green thumbs. 

Alas, new research from the University of Georgia hints that the "doomsday garden" may have been a fad. An online survey from the university's Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics found that one out of three people started a garden in 2020, but a return to normal consumer behavior is likely as pandemic restrictions dissipate. 

In other words, nurseries and greenhouses may want to hold off on building that new wing.

"We're going to see a backslide," Benjamin Campbell, an associate professor, told Salon. "We're going to have a lot of those consumers that entered the market leave."

Historically low interest rates drove some people to landscaping as a means of boosting property value before refinancing mortgages on their homes. According to Campbell, it was the perfect storm for the green industry.

"People were refinancing, pulling money out, and putting it into their yards," he said. "People were at home spending time with their families. What happened was you had this mass buying of plants and things for landscaping."

Compared to the previous year, plants and landscaping supplies experienced an 8% revenue spike from January to July; yet more than half of new gardeners in 2020 had no intention of gardening in the future. Still, one out of 10 people new to gardening in 2020 intended to continue to do so. Millennials and younger individuals, a critical demographic in an aging consumer base, were the most likely to give this response.

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"We saw a lot of younger consumers come into the market because of the pandemic and because they were having to stay home," Campbell said in a statement. "Plants have been shown to help with a lot of different things related to people's psyche. Gardening not only gave people something to do, but it also gave them a little bit more happiness."

According to a University of California, Davis survey of gardeners across the world, stuck at home, many found solace in backyard gardens.

"Not only did gardeners describe a sense of control and security that came from food production, but they also expressed heightened experiences of joy, beauty and freedom in garden spaces," read the report.

Gardening gained widespread popularity during lockdowns, but the University of Georgia study indicated that going forward those who started gardening because of the pandemic may not continue with a return to normalcy.

Just 11 percent of people said being home more was the reason they would plant a garden in 2021. Concerns over potential food shortages were more prevalent.

"Food insecurity was one of the bigger reasons why people started gardening," Campbell asserted. "Think of the shelves during Covid. They were bare in a lot of places. What we had was this group not being able to get enough food. They started buying to plant their own gardens so that they could alleviate that."

Supply chain issues, worker shortages, and economic downturn have exacerbated food insecurity. Empty grocery shelves, stripped of commodity goods may not return to normalcy for some time. The cost of food in general is on the rise as well with inflation and may drive people to start gardening or continue their backyard gardens if the cost of growing remains low.

"If you're going to grow enough for a garden, the issue becomes the amount of money we spend to grow a garden compared to what we can buy at the store," he explained.

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Green industry supply chains are impacted by the same problems, and costs are influenced in part by the global market, especially crude oil, which influences the price of synthetic fertilizer and other supplies produced or transported via fossil fuels.

"It may drive costs of plants up in the short term . . . .  It's going to be more costly to go in there and buy plants or buy seeds that you're going to put in your garden because they have to recoup some costs of these higher gas prices, higher input costs, higher labor costs right now."

Campbell coauthored the study, which appeared in the American Society for Horticultural Science, with David San Fratello, a graduate from the University of Georgia's masters program in agribusiness; William Secor, assistant professor in the department; and Julie Campbell, assistant research scientist in the Department of Horticulture.

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By Eric Schank

Eric Schank is a fellow at Salon writing for science and health. He holds a BA in environmental studies from Oberlin College.

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