When the nation shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bonnie Plants in rural Union Springs, Alabama, was moving into overdrive, with the launch of its new e-commerce operation.

Since then, online sales have skyrocketed – a whopping 900% increase – and more than 11 million visitors are drawn annually to the website of the company that has become the nation’s largest grower and distributor of vegetable and herb plants for home gardeners.

“We happened to launch our products on our website literally the week before the shutdown,” said Mike Sutterer, president and CEO of Bonnie Plants. “We had no idea that there would be a pandemic. The trend of people wanting to shop online was there, and we knew we had to be in that space. But because of COVID, online shopping exploded, and the way people buy things changed forever.”

Home gardening also blossomed during the pandemic, Sutterer said. In 2020 alone, 21 million people took up gardening.

“The pandemic offered an opportunity,” he said. “Out of necessity, people wanted to grow food out of their backyard because they weren’t always able to get the food they wanted in the grocery store. Then, when you couldn’t travel or take part in your normal activities, gardening became a release and an escape, something you could do with your family.”

To support the rapid growth of online sales, Bonnie Plants on Feb. 25 unveiled a new 300,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art greenhouse and e-commerce facility in Union Springs, the town where the company was founded more than a century ago.

Bonnie Paulk, the founders’ granddaughter, has worked in the company’s e-commerce division since 2016 when it began selling plants online on Amazon and the websites of home-improvement retailers.

“I’m humbly proud and excited to see this new facility,” Paulk said. “Technology back in the day didn’t exist like it does now. My grandparents would have been elated. When you look at these buildings and the scope of this project, all you can say is, ‘Wow!’ It’s amazing. It’s huge, and it’s growing and growing.”

In January, Bonnie Plants unveiled a new corporate headquarters in nearby Opelika. The move will help grow and deepen Bonnie Plant’s partnership with Auburn University and provide an added channel for recruiting interns and full-time employees for the company. Together, the two facilities mark the largest expansion in Bonnie Plants’ history.

Innovation blooms under one roof

The greenhouse and e-commerce facility are specially designed to support Bonnie Plants’ online sales motto: The company can deliver any plant, anywhere, any time.

The energy efficient greenhouse features natural ventilation and better temperature and humidity controls. Growing conditions in any “micro” climate can be simulated inside the facility, thus ensuring that plants will withstand the hottest or coldest temperatures.

Additionally, the roof is designed to open and close automatically, which helps control the greenhouse’s indoor temperature and provide added protection for plants.

“The roof is synced up to a local weather station, so when there is severe weather at 2 a.m., it will close without anyone being here,” Sutterer said.

The automated irrigation system in the greenhouse allows the plants to receive the “exact amount of water they need at the exact time they need it,” he added.

Attached to the greenhouse is 45,000 square feet of warehouse space and a large production area, where the plants are packaged and loaded onto trucks for delivery to customers’ homes.

Sutterer said the company uses specially designed packaging materials to ensure the plants remain fresh and healthy during shipment. Each plant is shipped in its own “mini-greenhouse,” a fully enclosed clamshell-shaped package made of 100% recyclable material. The plants are mailed with either a warm pack in the winter or a cool pack in the summer to keep them fresh and alive until they reach their destination.

Today, the company grows and sells about 150 million plants annually at 80 facilities in 43 states. Bonnie Plants sells 300 different varieties of plants at more than 20,000 retailers in all 50 states and Canada, including Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Kroger and Costco.

“We place our farms really close to where people live so we can provide them with the freshest plants available,” Sutterer said. “The plant you buy in California or New York was grown in California or New York.”

Giving back – a company tradition

From the beginning, Bonnie and Livingston Paulk reached out to help feed their less fortunate neighbors. They donated a portion of their crop to people in need in Union Springs and Bullock County.

Bonnie Plants is still striving to help wipe out food insecurity, which has increased during the pandemic, Sutterer said. The company donates 5% of sales from its website to AmpleHarvest.org, a national online registry that connects home gardeners with food pantries in their area.

“Everybody has extra cucumbers or tomatoes they don’t know what to do with,” Sutterer said. “When you buy online from us, it helps support those impacted by food insecurity. And hopefully, you will take some of the food you don’t use and donate it to your local pantry. Within 24 hours, it will be on the table of someone who doesn’t have enough to eat. It’s a double win.”

Sutterer said the future of e-commerce at Bonnie Plants is bright.

“We’ve been scrambling to catch up to all the demand that was created during COVID, while at the same time, trying to plan for the future,” Sutterer said. “We see e-commerce as the fastest growing part of the company. That’s where this new facility comes in, because it’s helping us keep up with the demand for today, but it’s also helping us build for the future.”