Lean times could mean more time in yard and garden

Even in the best of times, nurseries and garden supply shops depend heavily on strong sales in the springtime.

“We have to have a good spring to survive the rest of the year,” says Florrie Johnson of Johnson Garden Center in Macon, who’s been in the business for 50 years.

This gardening season, despite the worst recession in more than a half-century, Johnson and others in the nursery industry are hoping — if not expecting — good things.

“There’s been a lot of discussion in the industry that the economy might keep people at home because they’ll have less spending money,” said Kim Paul of Green Leaf Garden Center on Hartley Bridge Road. “That might make more people spend more time in their yards.”

Tuesday afternoon, Ann Bennett of Forsyth browsed through the seed selection at Johnson’s before settling on a pack of viola called Johnny Jump Up. These days, groceries and gas costs don’t leave much to spend on gardening, but Bennett, who said she’s in her 70s, still plans to plant — and fight off the deer who like to feed off her flowers.

“I don’t have any leftover money these days,” she said. “We still like to do things in the yard as much as we can do.”

Another reason for optimism this year is the renewed interest in vegetable gardens, another sign of the lean times.

“I don’t know if you could call them ‘victory gardens,’ but the trade magazines have predicted a surge in the planting of fruit trees and vegetables,” said Terry Johnson, who runs Johnson’s Garden Center with his mother.

“It’s coming true.”

Johnson said he has fielded lots of calls from people interested in planting fruit trees, blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes.

“I hope it’s a trend,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people have never planted a tomato or a pepper.”

Johnson, a self-proclaimed “earth-hugger,” also said there’s a growing interest in organic gardening, and as a result more people are wanting to grow their own.

“All of a sudden, folks are concerned about how many thousands of miles things have come before they arrive on the shelves,” he said. “Maybe this will help get the green movement going. I hope it will surge the interest in people producing their own produce.”

Nurseries could use a good year, he said.

“Our business has been hurt so much by the drought for the past two years, everybody just sort of got out of the habit,” he said.

Last year’s Mother’s Day tornado downed so many trees in Macon, Johnson had expected a rush on replacements as residents sought to get their yards back in order. That never happened, he said, perhaps as a result of the economy taking a nosedive late last year.

“We’re thankful people are getting back. The nursery business as a whole has suffered, because that’s one thing people can cut back on.”

The struggling economy, however, might just work in the favor of nurseries and home improvement stores as the weather warms, he said.

“People are not going to be moving. They’re not going to be buying a new house. They’re going to be fixing up their yards and fixing up their patios.”

Tuesday, the staff at Johnson’s were scrambling to help a busload of Cherry Blossom Festival visitors from Calhoun. The group usually includes the Hartley Avenue store on its annual daytrip to Macon.

“We always try to stop here. We like to support local businesses,” said Brenda Tidwell, travel director for Leisure Time Charters and Tours.

Tidwell purchased several containers of red geraniums and verbena.

“I got some last year,” she said. “They have good stock here.”

The Johnsons and Paul all said they have discouraged customers from doing too much planting too early, before the threat of a final frost is gone. But, they said, some folks can’t wait to get started.

And, who can really blame them? Working in the yard and garden, Florrie Johnson said, can be a nice distraction during tough times.

“Gardening is a wonderful therapy,” she said. “There’s nothing any closer to God than digging in the good earth. Gardening has always been good therapy.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.