Take the convoluted, far-reaching consequences of a global pandemic. Add the painful, messy divorce that is Brexit. The result is a perfect storm for Irish gardeners, with many long-established Irish suppliers struggling to keep certain items in stock while others in the UK are forced to turn away valued customers.
The situation as it stands is particularly frustrating for anyone in search of hard-to-get seed/bulb/plant varieties, tools or equipment that can't be sourced in Ireland.
Before Brexit, the next natural port-of-call was Britain, whose large gardening population and centuries-old tradition of horticulture has long supported the flourishing businesses of a clutch of award-winning niche suppliers.
Examples include Essex-based Rose Cottage Plants, prized by gardeners throughout Europe for its huge and exceptional range of dahlia varieties; Oxfordshire-based Chiltern Seeds, whose catalogue is a treasure-trove of many of the newest and/or most coveted varieties; Cheshire-based Chrysanthemums Direct, whose catalogue lists more than 420 different varieties of chrysanthemums (those lovingly packaged rooted cuttings whose arrival in the post was one of spring's special thrills); and Staffordshire-based Ashwood Nurseries, known for its wonderful range of plants, including many kinds of choice hellebores and snowdrops.
Up until December 31st, all did a roaring trade with Irish gardeners. But citing a lack of clarity as regards the new post-Brexit rules and regulations, increased costs and the financially unfeasible, time-consuming. bureaucratic burden of additional paperwork and inspections, they’ve joined the growing number of small British suppliers that have reluctantly decided to suspend their mail order service to Irish customers in recent weeks.
“We’re really hoping that our deliveries to our customers in Ireland, some of whom have been with us for more than 40 years, can resume once we get a clearer picture of what’s involved,” said a representative of Chiltern Seeds. “But at the moment there’s just too little information available regarding issues such as VAT, customs duties, customs declarations, licences, permits and the costs of obtaining phytosanitary certificates for each individual order.”
Anne Barnard, co-owner of Rose Cottage Plants, echoes those sentiments. “While we’re lucky that our family-owned business isn’t reliant on orders outside the UK, we’ve always valued our EU customers. But so much hangs in the balance at the moment as regards possible additional costs that we’re holding off taking orders until things become clearer.”
If and when that happens, she suggests that likeminded Irish gardeners should consider reducing the potential additional costs by pooling their orders rather than placing small, individual ones that will prove especially costly.
Other well-known British mail-order suppliers are continuing to take orders from Irish customers while warning them of any potential additional charges they may face as well as new rules governing the delivery of plants.
Examples include Somerset-based Avon Bulbs, which specialises in a choice range of perennials and flowering bulbs and is particularly well-known for its range of rare snowdrops. Its plants must now be sent soil-free to its EU customers (accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate) while its snowdrops, which were traditionally "sold in the green" in late spring (potted and in leaf), will now be delivered to EU customers as dormant bulbs in autumn. (Even this isn't a certainty: Avon Bulbs is asking potential customers to put their names on a snowdrop waiting list as it awaits further clarity.)
In the meantime, Irish galanthophiles can source some of Avon Bulbs' loveliest snowdrops from Robert Miller at Altamont Plants in Co Carlow, which stocked up on them last year.
Other specialist UK mail-order bulb suppliers, such as Peter Nyssen, which stocks a vast range of ornamental bulb varieties, have neatly bypassed the Brexit problem by shipping orders to EU customers directly from its warehouse in the Netherlands (customers pay the Dutch rate of VAT instead of the UK rate).
Here in Ireland, many well-known garden suppliers are similarly grappling with the complex disruptions to supply chains caused by the two-headed monster that is the pandemic and Brexit. These include Thomas Quearney, owner of Mr Middleton, Ireland's longest-established mail-order garden retailer, who confirms that it's caused multiple headaches for his family-run business.
Quearney cites goods ordered many months ago from Chinese manufacturers that have yet to arrive, while the availability of others has been impeded by the fact that they must come via producers or distributors based in the UK.
One notable example is seed potatoes, almost all of which are sourced from Scotland. “Last autumn the Department of Agriculture announced that the importation of all seed potatoes from the UK would be banned following Brexit, which was a real shock. Thankfully we succeeded in getting in this year’s stock before the December 31st deadline. But unless some sort of deal is struck, it’s very hard to know what’s going to happen next year.”
As the Irish distributor for British seed merchants Thompson & Morgan, Quearney has also had to deal with the challenge of establishing a secure supply for its Irish customers.
“We currently have all of the Thompson & Morgan seed destined for delivery to Irish garden centres this coming spring in storage in our Dublin warehouse. But whereas before Brexit it was a very straightforward matter of quickly topping up the supply of any popular/best-selling varieties by re-ordering them from the UK, that’s now going to be a slower, more complicated process.”
Niall McAllister, the co-owner of well-known Sligo-based online gardening suppliers QuickCrop, agrees that Irish gardeners will inevitably face some interruptions to the supply chain in the months ahead, but expects this will become less of a problem as businesses find alternative suppliers. “Our stock levels are excellent right now but we do anticipate some shortages later in the growing season, especially if last year is anything to go by in terms of demand.”
Some of the reasons for these potential shortages are complicated, McAllister explains.
"For example, as a result of EU licensing laws [every variety must be individually licensed for use, which is time consuming and costly], certain seed varieties currently sourced from UK producers may turn out to be problematic. Other popular items – for example, electric propagators, heating cables – are proving tricky to source at present because the parts used to make them are manufactured in China, where production and delivery levels aren't yet back to normal.
“These kinds of short-term disruptions to the supply chain will eventually be sorted out. But in the meantime our advice to our customers is that if you see something on our website and you want it, then buy it now.”
This Week in the Garden…
Want to get ahead of the gardening posse this spring? Here’s a shortlist of recommended suppliers.
For plants: all good Irish garden centres and members of irishspecialistnurseriesassociation.com