Greenhouses and nurseries are on Governor Tom Wolf’s “life sustaining” list of acceptable businesses to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic since they sell agricultural produce, but nursery owners are finding they’re having to make some changes in order to stay viable.

Steve Laicha, owner of Laicha’s Nursery, 545 Zinn’s Mill Road, is worried about his five employees.

In business for 61 years, Laicha’s Nursery sells primarily wholesale and has only a smattering of customers for retail.

At this point, business has not been as good as other years.

“It’s early in the season, but there’s been a lack of traffic, a lack of wholesale customers,” Laicha said. “I don’t want to plant flowers and then not be able to sell them.”

Laicha’s wholesale crops include evergreens, corn, and some hay, and his nursery is considered an agricultural business.

That’s why he concerned for his five employees; Pennsylvania law states that farmers are exempt from paying unemployment taxes, and therefore, can’t draw unemployment compensation if they need it, he said.

Many of the nurseries in the area are considered retail and don’t have that problem, Laicha said.

“In two weeks, if I can’t move my product, I won’t be able to pay my employees,” Laicha said. “I’m trying to keep them busy…hopefully, the stimulus package will help and that’s why we applied. It will help us to stay open.”

Despite the laws for Pennsylvania farmers, the stimulus package will compensate for the lack of business caused by the coronavirus and should result in money for his employees, Laicha said.

“Farmers work 24/7, we never stop,” Laicha said. “So regardless of what happens, we’ll keep our employees as long as we can.”

At Frey’s Greenhouse and Garden Center, 1875 Colebrook Road, Lebanon, customers are not allowed in the store buildings, per government guidelines, but may place an order over the phone and come pick it up outside in the parking lot.

“No customers are allowed in the buildings and we’ve been doing that since March 17,” said Jesse O’Hara, one of the managers at Frey’s. “We’ve been trying to follow the guidelines the best we can.”

Frey’s posted an availability list online (PDF) and on Facebook so customers could see what plants are ready for purchase now.

“We put it out on every media outlet that we have, and while we’re probably not reaching everybody, hopefully more people will see it,” O’Hara said.

Gardeners have two ways to purchase plants at Frey’s; either by phoning in an order or coming ’round to see the herb pots and six packs of young plants placed on the parking lot.

“Most of the time, they’re outside on the parking lot choosing what they want, then they’ll call in their credit card number while sitting in the car,” O’Hara said.

Several cool-season vegetables have to be planted now if they’re going to produce anything, O’Hara said.

“Our biggest concern right now is to get the time-sensitive plants out to grow,” O’Hara said. “They have to be planted now, not more than a week or two from now; these plants need to mature before the weather gets hot.”

Those vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, onions, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, and spinach.

Early flowers available to plant include pansies, violas, and snapdragons.

“People have been buying herbs and vegetables, but like everybody else, we’re kind of limping along,” O’Hara said. “We’re trying to take it one day at a time.”

Last year, the store would also have opened in April, O’Hara said, closing every day at 6 p.m. This year, the store closes at 5 p.m. because people are already home, O’Hara said.

Employees at Frey’s are also becoming adept at keeping their distance from each other, O’Hara said.

At Zimmy’s Greenhouse at 2220 Stiegel Pike, Myerstown, the greenhouses are open and people may come in – a few at a time- to peruse the produce.

“I’m thankful they let us stay open,” said Erla Zimmerman, owner of the greenhouses. “The virus has changed our lives, but I can help a lot of people by being open to help them and we only let two or three in at a time…not so many so they are not close.”

Due to a warm March, the company did a good business last month, Zimmerman said.

“We sell a lot of garden seeds and vegetable plants and I believe a lot of people will be gardening this year,” Zimmerman said.

Hours have been curtailed somewhat; last year, Zimmy’s was open until 7 p.m., and his year, they close at 5 p.m.

But Zimmerman said not too much has changed for her rural greenhouse.

“It’s not much different than it was before,” Zimmerman said. “It takes faith in God. A lot of people of faith come here and we need to remember, it’s in His hands.”

At Layser’s Flowers Garden Center and Gift Shop in Myerstown, employees were given the option of continuing to come in to work or taking temporary leave from their job.

Some chose to stay home, said Lu Layser, one of the owners.

The garden center does have a large variety of early spring vegetables to plant, as well as flowers, Layser said, adding that they continue with their wholesale business as well as retail.

Customers can see what’s available by going to Layer’s Facebook page, then phone in an order, and pick it up curbside. They do not come in the store or greenhouse.

In the near future, Layser’s is planning to have an online store.

This year, hours are shorter. Last year, the garden center was open from 9 to 5, and this year, hours are 9 a.m. ’til 2 p.m.

Laysers Nursery at 523 W. Washington Avenue is a separate business from the garden center, and specializes in trees and shrubbery.

Owner Jeff Layser is worried about the coming growing season, and concerned for his five employees, he said.

“It hit at a really bad time for us,” Jeff Layser said. “Spring is our biggest selling season. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet; it is a bad situation for us.

“It seems you’re allowed to grow, but not allowed to sell,” Jeff Layser said.

The pick-up date for the annual tree and plant sale of the Lebanon County Conservation District has been postponed until Friday, May 8 due to the stay-at-home order being in effect until April 30.

The ordered plants and trees will be able to be picked up on May 8 at the Lebanon Valley Expo Center, 80 Rocherty Road, Lebanon, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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