The Plant Barn’s rooted resolve: A portrait of growth against the backdrop of pandemic

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Ian Hilton

The Plant Barn and Gifts remains open for business, inviting all to continue to grow. Photo by Ian Hilton, 4/17/2021.

The Plant Barn and Gifts is no stranger to hardship. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a bane for many businesses, but The Plant Barn owner and Chico State alumna Denise Kelley has proven that, with hard work, adaptable strategy and perseverance, triumph can shine through the darkness of disaster.

“I want to sell success,” Kelley said, “not just plants.”

Kelley does more than sell, though; she promotes. Her mission is to engage customers in exploring their love for growth and beauty, and in our collective situation over the past year, there can hardly be a more valuable endeavor.

Since Kelley bought The Plant Barn and Gifts over 14 years ago, the business has experienced its fair share of setbacks.

She rode out the 2008 financial crisis, navigated a three-day closure in response to the threat of the Oroville Dam collapse of 2017 that resulted in gridlocked traffic along the Midway and endured a two-week closure due to the poor air quality from the 2018 Camp Fire, after having to evacuate.

The common thread observed by The Plant Barn through all these tragedies is peoples’ continuous desire to reunite with the concept of both growing their own food and creating a space of beauty at home.

Inside The Plant Barn’s greenhouse, coleus starts are ready for a new home. Photo by Ian Hilton, 4/17/2021.

This past year, however, has truly tested Kelley’s resourcefulness, resilience and resolve.

In October, 2020, The Plant Barn was on uneasy footing. Although demand was high, logistical challenges such as sourcing seeds, planters and soil proved daunting. Furthermore, California was less than clear regarding what businesses could open and under what conditions.

Last spring, for safety reasons, Kelley decided to stay closed for six weeks during a time when The Plant Barn normally sees a considerable uptick in business. Spring is also when resources and financial means are at their lowest, as supplies are in demand and purchases occur before the season.

“Our decision at that time was based on keeping our employees safe, and not adding to the gathering of people as the mandates had encouraged,” Kelley said. “It was probably the most stressful time in [The Plant Barn’s] existence.”

Kelley and her husband worked all 6 weeks, over 12 hours every day. They maintained the stock, continued to plant, water and seed in hopes they would still have a spring season. Helping to validate that decision was The Plant Barn staff’s ability to draw unemployment.

Similar to past calamities, Kelley was grateful that a resurrection in peoples’ interest in gardening allowed her to facilitate growth for both her customers and business.

“Growing one’s food has always been near and dear to my heart,” Kelley said. “Encouraging people to garden brings me endless joy. To have so many now wanting to pursue gardening for comfort, therapy and food is a win for the world!”

Now over a year since the initial pandemic lockdown, it’s safe to say that The Plant Barn’s roots continue to deepen, despite unforeseen challenges. Kelley continues to bend like a bough in winds fair and foul, adapting to circumstance.

There’s been a price hike on the plastic in which plants are sold that created backlogs, forcing Kelley to source the retail market. Trying to: find new vendors and products after other sources dried up, deal with PG&E rate increases and cater to more customers paying with cards are but a few of the tests demanded of the business.

The Plant Barn has to pay a percentage per purchase on card transactions which, in addition to overhead costs and employee compensation, only adds to the ever-complicating equation they need to solve to stay solvent.

Kelley even mused in resignation about having just received the heart-shaped planters she’d ordered months ago. They were supposed to arrive to promote a Valentine’s Day push.

It might be easy to assume that, since they’re literally growing their product, The Plant Barn can’t help but turn a profit. Kelley asserts the situation is more complicated, citing the watering, fertilizing and maintenance necessary for plant growth.

“Fruit trees have become the hottest commodity,” says Denise Kelley, owner of The Plant Barn and Gifts. Photo by Ian Hilton, 4/17/2021.

“We are a plant nursery,” Kelley said. “Whatever we put on our shelves generally needs to be tended to; the costs continue until it leaves.”

Soil suppliers are still running low but have raised their prices. Even the materials needed to produce soil have gone up, and deliveries of soil are sporadic — when deliveries are available.

Most of all, Kelley misses offering classes at The Plant Barn. She said she misses the feeling when someone realizes they’re actually creative, and that her guiding them toward that realization is incomparably rewarding.

“Our wreath classes went on for almost 13 years and grew each year,” Kelley said, whose degree and teaching credential were a product of her Chico State career. “People had made them a tradition. Classes were a joy.”

Is there a “new normal” for The Plant Barn post-pandemic? Rolling with punches instead of bracing for them seems to be the tried-and-true path for success.

“We really just take it day by day,” Kelley said. “Most days we are shocked in some way, from sales to customer perceptions. We try to just keep planting to the calendar as always.”

The Plant Barn staff have all chosen to get vaccinated, and company policy dictates that all customers and employees wear masks and maintain social distancing guidelines. Kelley shared that some customers are more hesitant to adhere to these rules more than others, but the important message here is growth.

“Keep growing!” is Kelley’s battle cry, and the symbolism attached to that statement is profound. Plants suffer harsh winters, drought and disease. With resilience and nurturing they can keep growing, even thrive, and we can all take that lesson to heart.

“We follow our heart more than anything,” Kelley said. “Caring and compassion will always be where we make the distinction [that determines] the right decision for us. My pursuit is to create a beautiful space that makes everyone feel safe — customers and consumers alike. Whatever it takes.”

Ian Hilton can be reached at [email protected].