West Chicago company sows the seeds for a bumper crop of gardeners

  • As of now, we can only dream about the Tomato Homeslice produced by Ball Horticulture Co. in West Chicago.

    As of now, we can only dream about the Tomato Homeslice produced by Ball Horticulture Co. in West Chicago. Courtesy of Ball Horticultural Co.

 
 
Updated 2/9/2021 6:13 AM

Still in the throes of the deadly coronavirus and the pain of pandemic restrictions, we gaze across the bleak, snow-covered tundra of suburbia and imagine what spring might feel like if it mustered the courage to arrive.

That hope of spring has been in the air for months at Ball Horticultural Co in West Chicago.

 

"The seed we harvested around the world gets processed here and then packaged, and shipped to commercial greenhouses in early December," says Katie Rotella, spokeswoman for Ball's collection of breeders, research and development teams, seed and vegetative producers, and distribution companies in 20 countries across six continents.

"An estimated 20 million new gardeners were cultivated in the climate of pandemic restrictions," Rotella says. "We had a scary time in March when many garden centers shut down. Once they were deemed essential businesses and reopened, sales took off. It was a very good year."

The pandemic has led to 20 million new gardeners and an increased demand for seeds and plants produced by the Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago. Grown from a tiny seed, this SteakHouse tomato is ready to eat.
The pandemic has led to 20 million new gardeners and an increased demand for seeds and plants produced by the Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago. Grown from a tiny seed, this SteakHouse tomato is ready to eat. - Courtesy of Ball Horticultural Co.

A desire to eat fresh, healthy foods, avoid trips to the grocery store, save money, reconnect with nature, add some color to your surroundings, and develop a hobby you can do while stuck at home all played into the growth in gardening.

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For many folks adhering to the pandemic warnings, there were no trips to restaurants and bars, no vacations, no nights at the theater, no ballgames to attend, no amateur sports teams, no music concerts, and not even trips to the office.

"When that's taken away, you find people developing new habits," Rotella says.

Sales last year were up in everything from tomatoes to petunias to backyard shrubbery, with vegetables leading the way.

"Growing your own food, food safety, health and wellness, teaching children in a learning garden," Rotella says. "It's a beautiful thing to see, but it does cause some heartaches."

Just as the pandemic created a demand for toilet paper last spring, people might be worried about a seed shortage this spring. There isn't a seed shortage, but it takes a little extra effort to get all the gardeners the seeds they need, Rotella says.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
It's hard to imagine anything growing across the snow-packed tundra of suburbia now. But soon, seeds produced by Ball Horticulture Co. in West Chicago will produce vegetables such as these Cucumber Patio Snackers.
It's hard to imagine anything growing across the snow-packed tundra of suburbia now. But soon, seeds produced by Ball Horticulture Co. in West Chicago will produce vegetables such as these Cucumber Patio Snackers. - Courtesy of Ball Horticultural Co.

Just as people have had to hunt to find gym equipment, dogs and cats, bicycles and other sought-after items during the pandemic, gardeners need to put in the work to get all the seeds and plants they desire.

Mail-order catalogs arrived in December, and plants will start showing up at local nurseries and gardening supply stores by April. Veteran gardeners suddenly find themselves in competition with the new gardeners. The same thing happened to bakers.

"People didn't make bread, and suddenly you couldn't find yeast," Rotella says.

"You are going to want to be active with what's online, and be patient. There's still plenty of time," Rotella tells gardeners. "If you are an established gardener and know what you want, we recommend you talk to your garden center now."

If local garden shops know what you are looking for, they can ask suppliers to grow it for them.

Founded in 1905 by George J. Ball as a wholesale cut flower operation, Ball Horticultural Co. is a global supplier that develops 250 to 300 new plants each year.

"We go through a process, almost like a fashion show," Rotella says. "We're working on 2022 launches right now."

The end of this month or early March is when people grow tomatoes by seed. If you want a particular variety, ask your garden center to reserve some for you. Otherwise, an amateur gardener might beat you to the punch.

"They may grab your Better Boy without knowing the gem they have," Rotella says of the tomato variety heralded at ballseed.com for growing a record 340 pounds of tomatoes from a single plant.

In addition to producing vegetable seeds and plants, the Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago produces flowers, such as this Petunia E3 Easy Wave Sky Blue.
In addition to producing vegetable seeds and plants, the Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago produces flowers, such as this Petunia E3 Easy Wave Sky Blue. - Courtesy of Ball Horticultural Co.

"The industry is aware of this swell of gardeners. We're doing our best to ramp up production," Rotella says. She points to countless studies showing gardening improves property values and even mental health.

"There are so many benefits to growing plants," Rotella says, noting that now is the perfect time to plan for everything from a gorgeous Petunia E3 Easy Wave Sky Blue to a delicious Cucumber Patio Snacker.

"Our industry is so excited for this year. We're ready to meet demand as much as we can," Rotella says. "It's that spring dreaming we all have."

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