Spring is usually a busy time for local gardeners, as they prepare their yards and begin stocking up on plants, seeds and soil.
For local nurseries, April kicks off a busy season as well.
Or it usually does, at any rate.
But confusion over the state's newest emergency orders have left several local nurseries struggling to transform a busy time of year in their stores into one where business is conducted by phone. This comes as they grapple with what they say has been a lack of clear communication from the governor's office; confusion about why they aren't allowed to operate and; in at least one case, visits from law enforcement following up on complaints.
While the governor's latest emergency order does not include nurseries as an essential business, hardware stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot, which sell plants, are able to stay open because the current order does allow for stores that "generate most of their revenue from the sale of goods used for essential home repairs."
Several local nursery owners tell SFR they remain confused about why they aren't allowed to operate.
"We're closed as of today," Agua Fria nursery co-owner Bob Pennington says, noting that he called the governor's office yesterday seeking clarity on whether he could remain open, and was eventually told he could not.
"I guess we're taking a long Easter break," Pennington said. "If we actually get to be open on the first of May, we will absolutely discover the true meaning of May Day, why it's a symbol of panic and distress."
Pennington and others point out that their nurseries help supply many customers with vegetable plants and seeds, making a strong argument for nurseries to fall under the agriculture exemption in the law.
Payne's owner Lynn Payne says when he saw the new emergency order earlier in the week didn't include nurseries, he began emailing the governor's office seeking clarity. He says he has yet to hear from them. His attorney, he says, has been in touch with the city to explain they are not allowing customers in the nursery, but are taking phone orders and filling them in the parking lot. Payne also explained this to a police officer who came by following up on complaints that the store was doing business.
Part of his argument with the state, he says, is that nurseries are essential—always, but especially now.
"If people would grow their own healthy fruits and vegetables and herbs that will take a little pressure off of the grocery stores," Payne says. "And it's the only way you know your produce is organic."
Sales for seed and vegetable and herb plants have been robust this spring, he says, "but it's exceedingly difficult to transact all the business we would normally have over the telephone or out in the parking lot. [There's] an awful lot of people right now who want to plant a garden or plant some vegetables in pots. We're here to advise people how to do it, and how to succeed. I think we should be allowed to continue."
Payne and fellow nursery owners also say they were being exceedingly careful in keeping the stores clean, promoting social distancing and, of course, all have outdoor areas that customers can no longer access.
"We've got a big open store," Newman's owner Malcolm Newman says. "The people who come in and work here are all wearing masks and gloves. Most employees stay outside in the greenhouses. All the greenhouses are completely open." Newman also says he's doing limited phone orders.
"It's a slow process and we have a lot of people looking for stuff and wanting to come in and it's frustrating for them they can't even come in and look at the back and look at trees and plants," he says, noting he's also hearing from a lot of small farmers and landscapers who also would normally be purchasing supplies for their own seasons.
Regardless of the order, the nursery owners say they have to be on premises to make sure their plants stay alive.
"It's challenging because the stuff that normally would be selling isn't, and so we're not having the space to spread stuff out," Newman says. "We have a lot of money and time in it and a lot of families that work here. The cabbage, come May, all the cabbage and broccoli and kale, won't be good anymore…all the lettuces."
As Payne puts it, "It's a live plant supply chain. You can't just turn it on and off."
And, Newman notes, people can still buy plants at the big box hardware stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's.
"It's hard for me to go over to Home Depot and see they've doubled their garden center over last year and people are shoulder-to-shoulder in there shopping. It's frustrating to know I have to close," Newman says.
In an April 9 press conference, Lujan Grisham confirmed she's closed local nurseries. "Yes. Nurseries were identified and, again we're trying to restrict where New Mexicans are going. I am clear it's a hardship on these businesses." She also reiterated the new rule requiring the big box stores that also sell garden supplies are now limited to 20 percent occupancy, and remain essential because "construction, highways, roads and folks who are doing plumbing and utility work have to have access to those hardware stores in order to meet those essential services." If the "metering"—keeping stores at 20% occupancy—"isn't taken seriously," the stores will be "cited and held accountable and if we need to restrict what those stores are able to sell, we will certainly consider that."