Oakland resident Janay Masters, owner of The Plant Plug, a pop-up nursery near the Grand Lake farmers market. Credit: Sohayla Farman

In mid-March when Bay Area health authorities ordered residents to shelter in place, many people could at least turn to their plants and gardens for some respite from lockdown. COVID-19’s arrival in the springtime—peak season for nurseries and garden stores, even without a pandemic—created the perfect conditions for a gardening boom. Now, flower beds, indoor plant collections, and even “victory gardens” are flourishing in homes around Oakland, as residents pass the time bettering their green thumbs and nurturing their mental well-being.  

But while home gardeners find a sense of calm tending to their plants, Oakland’s small nurseries and garden stores are tasked with meeting the increased demand for their popular products—all while dealing with the uncertainties of operating a retail store during the lockdown. Some are scaling business up as much as the supply chain will allow, while others are launching websites and pop-up shops, and using the health crisis as an opportunity to build community with local gardeners and plant lovers.

“Unprecedented territory:” Withstanding the hurdles of the pandemic

One Oakland business that has been feeling the strain of COVID this season is Broadway Terrace Nursery, a family-run outdoor nursery that’s operated locally since 1986. Co-owner Kristine Bryan-Kjaer has kept Broadway Terrace open as an essential business since the start of the pandemic. The nursery implemented strict COVID guidelines and moved all operations outside, including its registers, and limited the number of people allowed in their indoor shop. Long lines formed regularly on the weekends and products sold out, often with restocking delays. The demand for indoor and outdoor plants, soil, seeds, and other gardening products has only increased since the start of the pandemic, and the shop’s wholesale suppliers can’t keep up.

“This is unprecedented territory for us,” said Bryan-Kjaer. “Right now we’re out of terracotta pots and our supplier doesn’t know when they’re going to get them in.” Similar shortages have occurred with soil and nursery wholesalers, she said, which are now severely limiting the number of clients they supply plants to. 

Broadway Terrace Nursery at 4340 Clarewood Drive in Oakland. Springtime is the nursery’s busiest season and operations this spring were more difficult with the arrival of COVID in March and poor air quality in August and September. Credit: Instagram @broadwaytplants

Broadway Terrace Nursery faced compounding challenges when the air quality declined in August and September due to fires raging across California. Employees were given the choice to stay home but the nursery remained open and plants were hosed down regularly to keep them healthy outside in the smoky air. 

The challenge, said Bryan-Kjaer, is getting the public to recognize that nurseries can’t operate like they did before the pandemic. She wants Broadway Terrace customers to understand that nursery employees are putting themselves at risk by working and are “also scared and unsure of what’s going on.” 

Sometimes customers think things at the nursery are going on the same as before but we have to explain to people that we are still operating under very difficult conditions,” she said. 

Adapting business: pop-ups, online stores, and Instagram

At Crimson Horticultural Rarities, a woman-run business that specializes in rare and unusual houseplants, concern for employees and staff was a priority when deciding whether or not to keep the retail store open. Staff member Macayli Hausmann told Oaklandside that some employees “weren’t comfortable being out in the world and in the shop, which is understandable. We needed to find a way to provide services while still keeping the public and our staff safe.”

Allison Futeral, Crimson’s owner, decided to transition to online sales only, until the brick and mortar store in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood could safely reopen in late June.

In its 10 years of doing business, Crimson had never existed as an online store. “Adapting to online orders and maintaining a separate inventory was challenging,” said Hausmann. Now that the store is online, she said Crimson plans to continue selling its stock online in addition to running the physical store. 

Futeral also recently announced plans to open a second Crimson location at 4268 Piedmont Ave. by the end of this year.

Yarrow Nursery owners Kristine and McKenzie Bryan-Kjaer. Yarrow Nursery is a sister store to Broadway Terrace Nursery, a family-run nursery that opened in Oakland in 1986. Credit: Instagram @yarrowplants

Growth and expansion is a bright spot for other local nurseries, too. Broadway Terrace Nursery opened a sister store, Yarrow Nursery, in August—an expansion that co-owner Bryan-Kjaer said was in the works long before COVID-19. Nestled in a grove of shady redwoods at 6250 Thornhill Dr., Yarrow feels more like a peaceful park than it does a busy nursery, though that shouldn’t last too long as more people find out about the new location. Temescal Creek runs through the store and scattered seating is placed throughout the expansive space. 

“We wanted to create a destination with Yarrow where people can stroll around and feel a breath of fresh air,” said Bryan-Kjaer. 

Like Broadway Terrace, Yarrow has an indoor shop with houseplants and pots, but the majority of the stock are outdoor plants best suited for the nursery’s shady, outdoor environment.

Other garden businesses are finding ways to expand without the challenges and restrictions of operating a physical store. Pollinate, a farm and garden supply store in Fruitvale chose to permanently close it’s brick and mortar shop in July after seven years of business, and now operates exclusively online. Owner Yolanda Burrell still offers consulting services for urban farmers and gardeners and is also partnering with Farms to Grow Inc.’s Community Service Agriculture program to provide honey and produce from her urban farm. 

For most newcomers in the plant business, selling online and without a brick and mortar store are the only options. Matt Day, owner of Planterday, had planned to sell houseplants at Lake Merritt and at farmer’s markets out of his renovated mobile trailer, before the pandemic. Shelter-in-place orders got in the way of those plans, but he swiftly turned to Instagram to sell his plants during the lockdown. Planterday’s success has outgrown Matt’s DIY Instagram model and he’s now hosting in-person pop-up shops around the East Bay and launched an online shop, www.planterday.co, earlier this month.

Janay Masters, owner of The Plant Plug, started her pop-up plant business after she was furloughed from her job as a conductor for the Union Pacific Railway in March. She began selling plants as The Plant Plug at Lake Merritt, until she was forced to stop due to the city’s rules against vending at the lake. Her pop-up shop now operates on Lake Park Avenue, directly adjacent to the Grand Lake Farmers Market, on Saturdays.

Masters also coordinates orders and plant deliveries through her Instagram account, @LavieNay, and uses IG as a business tool to announce her pop-up dates and answer plant advice questions from her followers. Next, Masters has plans to take her pop-up to the Jack London Farmers Market. 

“The biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to do more and be better,” she said. “I want to be able to build a plant community and keep doing my pop-ups.” 

Nurturing community and making gardening accessible

All the business owners The Oaklandside interviewed for this article spoke about building a community around their shops, and through plants. Matt Day called it “the best feeling” to connect with customers and meet Instagram followers in-person at pop-ups. “We don’t call them customers, we call them the ‘Planterday community,’” he said. “Many of them are also Black-owned business owners across [the Bay Area] and we shop, shout-out, and collaborate with each other. It’s become a network that’s growing by the day.”

On August 29, Planterday hosted its first pop-up shop in Oakland as a fundraiser for mental health awareness with all proceeds going to the Crisis Support Services of Alameda County. Planterday refers to itself as a “mission-driven plant shop” and intends to donate a percentage of profits to CSS and other organizations that support mental health in the Bay Area.

“My mother always said ‘help starts at home’ and Yumi and I live right here in Oakland. We want to support local initiatives and sell locally,” said Day. He and his partner, Yumi Look, are attuned to keeping their plants affordable and frequently check prices of competing shops. Yumi supports Planterday’s operations and works as a second-grade teacher for Oakland Unified School District. She hopes that a future Planterday brick and mortar store can be a place to foster plant and garden education for Oakland students.  

Planterday owner Matt Day with his partner, Yumi Look, at a plant pop-up shop co-hosted with Tacos Oscar in Oakland. Proceeds for Planterday’s pop-up shops go to the Crisis Support Services of Alameda County. Credit: Instagram @planterday

Plants and mental health have also long gone hand-in-hand, and the mental health benefit of gardening is not lost on Bryan-Kjaer, particularly for her more elderly customers. “We have a lot of older customers at Broadway Terrace, it’s amazing to be able to provide a place where they can leave their house and can come in safely and talk to people at a distance,” she said. “It’s not a lot but it makes a big difference and they tell us that all the time.”  

For residents with less money to spend, The Plant Exchange in Oakland’s Lincoln Highlands neighborhood has long been an affordable resource for home gardeners. Founded by Odette Pollar, The Plant Exchange hosts an annual event that draws over 1,000 Bay Area residents every March. Unable to host the event this year due to the pandemic, the Exchange instead holds a monthly plant sale for the public on the second Saturday of every month, where they sell plants and supplies at half price. To prevent crowds and lines, customers can make an appointment on the shop’s website, www.theplantexchange.com

The Plant Exchange receives donated plants and supplies from the general public and landscapers. The majority of their supply comes from plant-leasing companies, which provide plants and landscaping services to office buildings. Pollar and a team of volunteers take these plants in and, in some cases, donate them to non-profits. For the gardener on a budget, or someone who doesn’t mind putting some extra TLC into their plants, the Plant Exchange’s monthly sales offer a wonderland of special finds.

Sustainability and reuse are at the center of Pollar’s business philosophy. She encourages the public to “think of [The Plant Exchange] when you’re pruning your garden or putting some plants in your green bin. Someone else may care about the plants you don’t need anymore.” Pollar also wants the horticultural industry and plant-leasing companies to know “we’re here and we’ll make things easy for you” by taking donations and unwanted plants. 

More than ever, said Bryan-Kjaer, plants offer a small but mighty reminder that change and growth can still exist with a little perseverance and gentle care. 

“Caring for something living and seeing it grow provides such peace and sanctuary, and it doesn’t take much to make it happen,” she said. “It’s very soothing, it’s very rewarding. Anyone can do it.”

Sohayla Farman is a freelance contributor for The Oaklandside.