Seedlings from Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply in Oakland. Photo: Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply
Seedlings from Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply in Oakland. Photo: Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply

“This time of year is always a busy time,” Kelsey Howard said in a phone conversation, as he moved around attending to various tasks at Berkeley’s Biofuel Oasis, where he’s a worker-owner. “But now, with coronavirus, we’re extra busy because people are staying home and homesteading.”

By “homesteading” Howard means being more self-sufficient, doing things like raising chickens, setting up beehives, baking sourdough bread, preserving, mixing up kombucha and gardening. Some people are exploring DIY food as a way to avoid having to jam one more item into overfilled hand baskets at busy markets. Other benefits include getting outdoors and getting some exercise while observing the shelter-in-place rules, keeping children occupied and enjoying time with family.

Backyard beekeeping is on the rise! Berkeley urban farm store Biofuel Oasis sells beekeeping supplies, and in normal times, offers in-person, hands-on classes. Worker-owner Kelsey Howard said the store is looking into teaching classes online. Photo: Biofuel Oasis

“The last couple of days that we were open to the public before the shelter-in-place order we had lots of families with children shopping at Pollinate, looking for garden projects to do with their children since the whole family would be home from school and parents were working from home,” Yolanda Burrell, owner of Pollinate Farm and Garden, an edible plant nursery and urban homestead emporium in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, said in an email.

The edible plants at Pollinate Farm and Garden, Biofuel Oasis and other garden and farm supply shops around town have been especially in demand.

“I’m assuming that some folks are getting in touch with us because of the perceived potential for scarcity of produce,” Burrell said.

According to the UC Master Gardener Program of Alameda County, April and May are among the busiest months for gardeners, a time when most warm-season vegetables and herbs are planted. Local shops were in the process of stocking shelves with tender plant starts, freshly packaged seeds, rich soil and compost, and other materials when the six Bay Area counties imposed the shelter-in-place order.

A large kale plant in Laura Walker and Mark Lemkin's North Berkeley garden. Photo: Mark Lemkin
A large kale plant in Laura Walker and Mark Lemkin’s North Berkeley garden. Photo: Mark Lemkin

Gardening enthusiasts Laura Walker and her spouse Mark Lemkin have been out turning the soil in their North Berkeley garden for spring planting, but wonder about the availability of garden supplies under the order.

“One problem now is how to get more seeds and/or starts,” Walker said in an email. “In a typical year, we plant sugar snap peas, green beans, tomatoes, some squash and/or melons, peppers, lettuce, broccoli, beets, carrots, and perhaps some other things.”

Supplies are a little more difficult, though for now, not impossible, for buyers to access. According to the shelter-in-place order, businesses that engage in “food cultivation, including farming” are considered essential and permitted to continue operations. Non-essential businesses are permitted to sell existing inventory for delivery.

Most local garden shops, even those exempted from the shelter-in-place order, are either fully closed due to the difficulty of operating under the current restrictions or have curtailed their operations and are offering more limited services to protect employee health and comply with social distancing. Some accept credit card or electronic payment only. And some, like Flowerland Nursery and Store in Albany, are open by appointment. Flowerland currently has a large supply of plants and offers delivery.

Flowerland is currently well-stocked with plants, but is open by appointment only.
Flowerland is currently well-stocked with plants, including vegetable starts, but the nursery is open by appointment only. Photo: Kristina Sepetys

“We’ve got a lot of vegetable starts, including leafy greens — chards, lettuces, and herbs — which yield fairly quickly, and a big variety of herbs — ornamental, medicinal, culinary and ground covers,” said Sunny Linvill, manager at Flowerland.

It’s not just seasoned gardeners getting their hands into the dirt, according to Burrell at Pollinate.

“What I find interesting is the number of people who have never grown food before who are calling and asking about the products we offer,” Burrell said, “I can tell they’re new to growing food by their questions. Often they’ll just send photos of their space and ask me to select something to grow in that space.”

Owner Yolanda Burrell waters plants Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply in Oakland.
Pollinate Farm and Garden Supply owner Yolanda Burrell has been fielding a lot of questions from new gardeners looking to grow their own food. Photo: Adam Lopiccolo

The increased interest in food gardening likely has to do with people having more time, as well as a desire to be more self-reliant.

“This could be our victory garden moment,” Jeanne Doty of Berkeley Horticultural Nursery said, referring to an initiative promoted by George Washington Carver during World War II. Carver urged those facing food shortages and rationing to grow their own food to supplement rations and boost morale.

Besides plants, Biofuel Oasis and Pollinate Farm offer sourdough starter, kombucha kits, and other materials for home food production. Pollinate and Biofuel both have plenty of chicken and rabbit feed, beekeeping supplies, and are taking orders for baby chicks and bees.

North Berkeley resident Genie Scott keeps a large garden with vegetables, fruit trees and bee hives. She saves seeds from previous years and uses them to sow her plants. “I get satisfaction from growing at least some of my own food,” she said.

Lemkin is grateful for the eggs his chickens are providing right now. “We have eight chickens all with different personalities and egg colors. Lucky for us it is spring so they started laying; they provide enough eggs for our daily usage at this point.”

Mark Lemkin and Laura Walker keep chickens in their North Berkeley backyard.
North Berkeley residents Mark Lemkin and Laura Walker keep eight chickens, which provide them with eggs daily. Photo: Mark Lemkin

With eggs in short supply at markets around town for the past months or so and rising prices, others are considering the benefits of keeping chickens.

“We’re sold out of chicks for April and are taking reservations for May,” Howard at Biofuel said. “A ton more people are interested in getting chickens. We’re selling more feed than usual.” Burrell reported similar patterns at Pollinate.

Besides the pleasures of being outdoors and feeling self-reliant, gardening and homesteading are about possibility. They can make people think about the future, and satisfy a desire to nurture new growth.

“I’m a big supporter of urban agriculture,” said Berkeley Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who co-founded The Berkeley Basket CSA and has worked to change local zoning regulations for urban farms. “If one small positive from these extremely challenging times can be that more people discover the health and environmental benefits of growing their own food, that would be a nice outcome.”

Check websites for details regarding hours and offerings from your neighborhood nurseries, as operations vary and may change. Biofuel Oasis is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday through Friday; noon-4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Pollinate Farm and Garden is open from noon-2 p.m., once a week for curbside pickup. Westbrae Nursery is open noon-5 p.m., daily, and offers free delivery within five miles for orders over $50. Flowerland Nursery and Store in Albany is open by appointment only. Berkeley Horticultural Nursery is closed until further notice. Hardware stores like Ace Hardware and Home Depot are open, but operating under abbreviated hours.