It's been two years since Kristin Topping launched her e-commerce business Sweetlife Flora from her home near Arnprior, Ont., selling tropical plants to housebound gardeners yearning for a bit of indoor greenery.
Topping left a 22-year military career following an injury, turning her focus to one of her favourite pastimes: potting, planting and nurturing exotic plants. She never imagined a pandemic would turn her simple startup into a blooming success.
"My business was doing well before," Topping said. "But during COVID, it's taken off."
Now, she's just trying to keep up with the demand.
"The plant community has exploded since the start of COVID," Topping said. "I had my first spring restock and I sold out of pretty much everything within 15 minutes after going online."
At Plant & Curio in Ottawa's Little Italy, owner Leslie MacDonald says succulents and ferns are flying off the shelves.
"There's definitely a surge in demand for plants because everybody is looking for a hobby," said MacDonald, adding plants can provide a welcome distraction in tense times. "You're caring for something, so it can be very therapeutic."
The spike in demand for house plants has pushed prices up, while distributors and shopkeepers struggle with supply.
Topping buys most of her exotic plants directly from growers in Southeast Asia and South America, where the pandemic has led to labour shortages and work stoppages at nurseries.
Importing the plants is another challenge, as there are far fewer international flights and therefore a scarcity of cargo space.
"The availability of air freight has gone down, and they don't have guaranteed delivery timings," said Topping. "It's often very difficult for my vendors to be able to find flights that they can get plants on because plants are a commodity, they're not a priority."
In response, Topping has created her own homegrown supply by splitting and growing the exotic imports in a greenhouse attached to her home.
Plant & Curio gets most of its supply from greenhouses in the Toronto and Montreal regions. MacDonald said with plant sales so hot, she has to race to get her orders in early or her customers will lose out.
"Before the pandemic, I could probably just order to my heart's content and get everything I want," she said. "Now, I don't get the numbers of the certain plants that I want."