One summer morning in 2015, the phrase “Project Tree Collard” entered my mind. A few months later, the online nursery Project Tree Collard was born. My mission was to help share tree collards with folks that couldn’t find them from neighbors, friends or from their local nurseries. This was a lovely, relatively uneventful side hustle of mine, which allowed me to scale back my landscape design business. I spent four years quietly shipping orders and lovingly taking care of my tree collard permaculture farm. Project Tree Collard was rarely stressful and customers were generally very appreciative, kind, and supportive.
When Project Tree Collard toasted the new year in 2020, it was cold. The holiday shopping buzz was done and not many were purchasing tree collards unless they were in Southern California or Florida. As usual, February started to pick up in sales a little as the danger of freeze ceased in some climates. Seeds began to sell as gardeners started to think about spring seeding. I was pretty ill with a mysterious flu in January and February so I was behind on plant propagation when news of Covid-19 and sheltering in place became a mandate in California. I was in a daze about my own family, food security, and supplies needed for an urban life on lockdown. Like many, I was unable to find any toilet paper or canned foods in the stores. I began expanding my garden beds, even buying compost because I didn’t have any ready, and purchased seeds as I needed to replenish my supply. Unbeknown to me, two weeks later, seed companies around the country were backordered or sold out.
I will never forget the moment I logged into my computer to fulfill orders for the first week in March and thought there had been some kind of mistake. The orders were double or triple the usual amount. I had sold out of all rooted tree collard plants in one week! I spent a half a day taking cuttings and distributing the greens to the community. I spent another half a day packaging up tiny packets of labeled seeds with my reading glasses. Seed orders in particular were 10 times the usual. It took me a day and a half to gather and ship all of the orders. I put on my mask and braved the post office.
I was not at all prepared for the heavy demand of boxes, information sheets, envelopes, seed ziplock bags, printer paper, 3 types of label paper, ink, stamps, rubber bands, plastic bags for cuttings and plants, twist ties, etc. I took hours reordering all of that. All local nurseries were temporarily closed so I had to drive 2 hours to get a car load of my favorite potting soil for plant propagation.
Orders only increased after that to four times the usual. I was out of plants until the greenhouse ones were rooted so I propagated 6 more flats. I had to purchase and install heating mats because it was unseasonably cold and they were slow to root. Since I had run out of plants, people bought cuttings. I needed more packaging to soften their journey. I posted on the internet site Next-door that I was looking to trade collard greens and limes for packaging materials. Suddenly I was meeting all kinds of folk in the neighborhood, dropping off their packaging pillows and bubble wrap at my doorstep and picking up produce in exchange. My front porch looked like a packaging recycling center and it was.
Another challenge was that I had over harvested the Purple Tree Collard plants. They were not able to provide enough cuttings for propagation and selling cuttings. I reached out to every friend, neighbor, and family member locally that had tree collard patches from my plants. The food revolution of growing one’s own food was finally happening full throttle and I was suddenly in the middle of it all.
I found myself working 7 days a week in March, April, and May. I would no sooner take my weekly trip to the post office when I had to begin ordering supplies, propagating, printing, folding, collecting packaging and cuttings, etc. I hired my friend’s teen to fold the information sheets for me. My son and partner got sucked into the business. I couldn’t actually hire anyone to help me with the other tasks because of shelter-in-place and germ-sharing potential risks. With the demands I already faced, I also started filming a wide range of homesteading/tree collard videos for the Project Tree Collard YouTube channel and spent many an evening editing videos with my devoted partner.
The more orders received, the more emails I got. Many emails were questions, and I ended up adding a FAQ section to the website to help limit the emails. I couldn’t avoid the inquiries about when sold out items were going to be back in stock again. I was over harvesting some of my plants to make customers happy but then couldn’t predict when they would be back in production. We were having a cool spring with little rain and the plants were also suffering. Some emails were not so kind and it seemed that Project Tree Collard was an easy scapegoat for all that was challenging in the world.
In April, the USPS announced shipping delays of 1-2 days, which is very challenging for those who ship perishable commodities like plants. Despite increased costs, I decided to switch to Priority shipping for plants because it was vital to the plants health. Orders that should have arrived in 3 days sometimes took a week in Priority Mail! Besides the delays, USPS also lost, misplaced or crushed dozens of my packages. I received no compensation or relief from this situation by USPS and had to either give a refund or reship the seeds or plants. For every lost package there was more dialog with customers and USPS was understaffed and unreachable my phone or email or chat.
Then there was the terrible mistake I made when ordering priority boxes from the USPS. I saw they stocked bright yellow Fragile stickers and ordered two rolls. Under the stickers it didn’t say anything about special use restrictions until you read the fine print. I was so excited about the concept of Fragile Stickers that I missed the fine print. When the stickers arrived, I excitedly put 2 on every package for the next two weeks, until I learned that people were being charged $10-20 for my incorrect use of the sticker. So there were more emails of upset customers who said “I thought it was free shipping!” So hundreds of my packages were denied, returned rotting to me. And, I still had to fulfill all of those orders or give refunds. I had just wanted the boxes to be handled with care, and instead I had caused myself a nightmare.
Around the same time, Amazon changed their return/refund policy for customers which required Project Tree Collard to pay for the customer’s return shipping label to send the plants or cuttings back to me for ANY reason. It was a risk-free way for customers to buy products (which they were already doing) and automatically be able to get a refund for their purchase if they weren’t successful in their gardening efforts. As soon as I was forced to pay customers to ship dead, rotting cuttings and plants back to my house and give them a full refund, I knew I had to say goodbye to Amazon. So, just like that, in the middle of a tree collard buying frenzy, I quit selling on Amazon.
The Covid gardening movement and the Spring gardening season hit at the same time and Project Tree Collard came through the other side. This journey of unexpectedly finding myself in the center of a monumental vegetable gardening resurgence has challenged me in ways I couldn’t imagine. There were times I thought I just couldn’t go on. I shed many tears of frustration. Like many, I learned that we can’t predict anything coming our way. I found myself to be stronger and more capable than I had realized.
By now, I have streamlined my fulfillment process so I can fill large orders more easily. I have enough supplies to last for months. I have forged new friendships with neighbors and members of the community, both in person and online. To top it off, I now have most of the weekend off again and can go backpacking or camping. But best of all, it has brought clarity about what Project Tree Collard is really about: helping communities grow food security. This is so important and central to my life’s purpose and I am grateful to be of service growing and providing these exciting perennials with permaculturists and gardeners around the US and beyond.