Garden centres are open again – and the plants are bigger than ever

The two-month coronavirus hiatus has given flora time to look ‘look absolutely fantastic’

Lockdown rules: so many people having to stay at home meant demand for plants soared even as the same restrictions kept garden centres closed. Photograph: Ariel Skelley/Digital Vision/Getty

Lockdown rules: so many people having to stay at home meant demand for plants soared even as the same restrictions kept garden centres closed. Photograph: Ariel Skelley/Digital Vision/Getty

 

People’s interest in gardening has soared over the past two months, as so many of us have been confined at home with plenty of free time suddenly on our hands as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions. The result has been a surge in demand for plants, seeds, compost, tools and garden furniture – yet the cruel irony is that it has happened while garden centres have been forced to close their doors by those same restrictions.

Many centres have hastily established online shops or ramped up their existing online offerings, only to find themselves overwhelmed by demand as well as hampered by the logistical challenges of safely and swiftly packaging and transporting delicate, perishable items such as plants or heavy, bulky, unwieldy goods such as compost.

“Couriers just didn’t have the space in their packed vans for large plants, which are also time-consuming and difficult to package, while deliveries were taking up to five or 10 days to arrive. We tried our best, but it simply wasn’t practical,” says Jim Clarke, director of Johnstown Garden Centre, in Naas in Co Kildare, one of the country’s largest and most respected garden centres.

Spring is, of course, traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for Ireland’s garden centres, as well as for the wholesale nurseries that supply them, so the financial losses to the country’s horticultural industry as a result of coronavirus 9 have come as a body blow.

“We do 30 per cent of our business at this time of the year and would typically welcome anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 customers through the door every day. By comparison, even though we immediately scaled up our online capacity, the maximum daily amount of orders that we’ve been able to process and ship out via couriers since we closed is around 250 to 300, and those orders are only for items that we know we can properly pack and deliver, such as seeds, bulbs and furniture. It’s a fraction of our normal turnover,” says Clarke.

The good news is that, along with many of Ireland’s garden centres, and in accordance with the phased easing of restrictions announced by the Government, Johnstown is finally reopening its doors today, with comprehensive protocols in place to protect both the public and its staff. Devised with the guidance and support of the HSE, these are similar to those practised in supermarkets, with a queueing system, a limited number of customers allowed on the premises at any one time, and staff maintaining a safe social distance behind screens. Johnstown’s once-busy coffee shop will remain closed, and the centre’s staff won’t be dispensing gardening advice in the way they once did.

“It’s not going to be the way it was before Covid-19,” says Clarke. “We just can’t spend that same, close, one-to-one time with a customer, looking at photos shared on their phones of their gardens, or discussing which plants would best suit their needs. Instead we’re recommending that people come to the garden centre with a well-thought-out list of exactly what they need, both to save them time and to simplify the process.” He’s also warning gardeners to expect certain things to be in limited supply, at least in the short term.

“Traditionally, late May is the beginning of the busy summer bedding season, but bedding plants will be in short supply until late June, because all of the growers had to temporarily stop sowing and producing them over the last few months as they waited for existing stock to shift. There’s no need to panic; it’s just that we won’t have the same large range in stock, so gardeners will need to be more flexible when it comes to planning particular planting schemes for their hanging baskets and pots.”

On the other hand, he says, one of the wonderful upsides of this two-month hiatus is that Johnstown’s huge stock of trees, shrubs, climbers and perennials has never looked better. “They’ve just been sitting in their pots, getting bigger and bigger, and they now look absolutely fantastic. Our customers are going to be so delighted when they see them.”

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