David Green had just hired seasonal staff last week and received shipments of plants and supplies for the big spring kickoff at the Primex Garden Center, when he was instructed to close his Glenside store because of the coronavirus pandemic. With thousands of dollars of perishable inventory already in place, the news was like a gut punch for Green.

Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency order, "lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores” were categorized as nonlife sustaining businesses, and ordered to shut down. For Primex, where the next three months typically generate 60% of annual sales, a prolonged shutdown will cause disastrous financial harm.

“This is survival,” said Green, whose family has owned Primex for 77 years. He laid off most of the staff, agreeing to pay the full-time employees for two weeks, and to cover their health benefits for a month. He encouraged them to file unemployment claims.

Businesses across many sectors have been hurt by the virtual shutdown of commerce — more than half a million Pennsylvanians filed new unemployment claims during the last week. But independent garden centers say that because of a bureaucratic quirk, the pain is being inflicted unequally across their industry.

While many smaller stores shut down, some garden retailers, including those attached to large home-improvement centers, continue to operate in Pennsylvania under a provision that allows hardware stores to remain open.

Owners of neighborhood garden stores fear that the coronavirus crisis may further accelerate the culling of their industry, already thinned in recent decades by a shift to online businesses and big-box chains. Unlike the giant stores, they say, small stores are better able to manage customers to curb the spread of the coronavirus and should be allowed to stay open.

“You’re going to have hundreds of people in those box stores compared to tens of people in our store, and our store is mostly outdoors in open air,” said Kevin Camp, who owns Main Line Gardens, in Malvern. “It’s easier for us to keep social distance and be safer.”

“You’re putting more pressure on the small guys, who are already at a disadvantage, and now the big stores are allowed to continue to operate," said Camp.

Bothers Mark (left) and Tim Ott with geraniums at Cleveland Ott & Son, a Collegeville-based wholesale nursery that sells its flowers and plants to smaller garden centers in the region, most of whom are closed.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Bothers Mark (left) and Tim Ott with geraniums at Cleveland Ott & Son, a Collegeville-based wholesale nursery that sells its flowers and plants to smaller garden centers in the region, most of whom are closed.

The Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association (PLNA) has asked the state to exempt garden centers from Wolf’s order, though its request is caught in a logjam of 15,000 waiver requests now being considered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

“Independent, family-owned retail garden centers carry seeds, vegetable plants, and other gardening materials that people rely upon to plant their home gardens, so important in this time of an uncertain food supply, sheltering in place, and employment insecurity,” Ted Ventre, the association’s chairman, wrote in a letter to Dennis M. Davin, the state’s secretary of community and economic development.

Some small garden centers have managed to get state approval to open because in their waiver applications, they emphasized they sold “life-sustaining” vegetable plants, said Cathy Corrigan, executive director of the PLNA. She read from a letter to a Lebanon County garden center from DCED, saying that because “your business appears to be within a life-sustaining business sector that contributes to the health and safety of Pennsylvanians, you do not require a waiver exemption to remain open for the business.”

“There’s a lot of confusion over this,” said Louis Holod, the third generation of his family to operate Holod’s Nursery and Landscape Supply in Lafayette Hill. His family’s store is connected to a life-sustaining hardware store, so Holod’s has remained open, where social distancing rules are in effect. Holod said he is also making deliveries while keeping a safe distance from customers.

“There’s a lot of outside open space where people will come in and wander around before they go into the store, so it’s pretty controlled and customers have been respectful of everyone else’s space, so far,” he said.

New Jersey officials, facing a similar uprising of garden centers, on Tuesday reclassified retail garden centers as “essential businesses” that could remain open as long as they adhere to safety guidelines for social distancing and hygiene. Lori Jenssen, executive director of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association, was ecstatic and relieved at the news.

Cousins Matt Ott (left), 17, left and Luke Ott, 16, pull the flowers off hanging plants.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Cousins Matt Ott (left), 17, left and Luke Ott, 16, pull the flowers off hanging plants.

“I was talking to a garden center on the phone just a few hours ago that said their shipment from Oregon is on its way and they don’t know what to do,” Jenssen said Tuesday, a few hours before the New Jersey Department of Agriculture revised its rules. “I said you have to accept the delivery, you know, the growers can’t put it back in the ground.”

Pennsylvania’s shutdown of independent garden centers has far-reaching repercussions beyond the retailers. Suppliers of garden centers include many large commercial greenhouse operations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that are permitted to continue operations under agricultural exemptions. But the commercial growers say their business is impaired because their customers — the garden centers — can’t take delivery.

“We’ve got thousands and thousands of dollars of Easter plants that we will actually have to dump out," said Cleve Ott Jr., a partner in Cleveland Ott & Son, a 50-acre wholesale commercial farm near Graterford village in Montgomery County, founded by his father. “Nobody wants the plants after Easter. The garden centers want it now, and we can’t ship this stuff, and that’s sad.”

Ott’s sons, Mark and Tim Ott, say that 80% of their business is conducted in the spring, one crop after another, choreographed to get into retailer’s hands — and to the public — as demand peaks. They are time-sensitive, perishable crops — flowers sell when they are in bloom, and vegetables are timed for April, May and June plantings.

The planning begins in the fall with the cultivation of cool-weather flowers, such as ranunculus pansies, hyacinths and tulips.

“We grow it all through the winter, we have to heat the greenhouses,” Mark Ott said. “We have probably half a million dollars invested in propane, labor, planting materials, seeds, cuttings. Half a million dollars that’s thrown out. We would probably go under after the season if we can’t open back up.”

The growers now face a decision on whether to plant flowers for Mother’s Day in May, the biggest week of the year. “Not only are we getting screwed right now on stuff that should be sold, we’re spending money to plant, hoping we can sell stuff in three to six weeks,” said Tim Ott. “If we still haven’t sold anything at that point, we’re done.”

He said the pressure will grow to sell the family’s land to a developer of suburban housing, as so many other commercial growers have done in the region.

The livelihoods of the four Ott households is entwined with the welfare of their customers, mostly independent garden centers in the seven Southeastern Pennsylvania counties affected by Wolf’s lockdown order — not to large chain-store retailers, whom they say are supplied primarily by giant out-of-state commercial growers.

“Usually these guys like the governor or whatnot are all out for small businesses," said Tim Ott. "The problem is we don’t deal with Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart. But those guys are still open, still selling flowers. Those guys already hurt our guys to begin with, and now that they closed our garden centers, those guys are still selling stuff.

“They really are putting the little neighborhood garden centers out of business, and these big-box stores are thriving on it,” he said. "It’s just not right. That’s an opinion we got.”