Green fingers appear to have become the latest unusual side-effect of Covid-19, with interest in gardening blooming like never before since the start of the crisis a little over a year ago and the sums spent on gardens by Irish consumers topping €1 billion.
All told, a record €1.2 billion was spent by Irish people on their gardens in 2020, up more than 50 per cent on the 2018 figure and 14 per cent higher than the previous record level of spending, which was in 2008, according to a bi-annual horticulture report published by Bord Bia last week.
This is despite of the fact that almost all the normal avenues down which people would go to spend money on their gardens have been closed for almost half of the last year and, just as people discovered or rediscovered their love of their gardens or their window boxes or pot plants, many of the places that could help them with materials and advice had to put the shutters up.
One such place was the Boyne Garden Centre. It is run by Aileen Muldoon Byrne. "It has been a challenging year for everybody in the country," she says. "And, like so many others, we have had to explore how to do our business in a different way."
This time last year she admits she would have “run a mile from online orders”, but now says the online business the company has invested heavily in has “kept the business alive”.
“The experience for both customers and ourselves has in some ways been very different and in some ways been very similar. People are going online and finding plants and then ringing us to get advice over the phone. Giving advice is very much what we do and, while we used to do it in person, we are now doing it over the phone.”
Byrne says one of the obstacles has been that “plants are very tactile and going to a garden centre is an event for people, almost a day out. I never thought people would be buying online but there is a growing confidence amongst our customers.”
One thing, she says, that helps to instil that confidence is the fact that she either grows the plants the garden centre sells or sources them exclusively from Irish growers. She also has a pretty reliable packer who gets the parcels ready for her customers.
“My husband is a dairy farmer and has a bit of time in the middle of the day, so he is the one who is packaging the plants, and it is very time-consuming as you want them to reach the customer exactly as they would see them in the garden centre,” she says.
While running a virtual garden centre has its challenges, she says “the rewards we are getting in terms of feedback is worth it. People are dying to get the plants, and are so chuffed when they get them. They are so excited and so appreciative and it is so uplifting for us because we know this is therapy for so many people and that means we get a real buzz out of it too.”
The best thing is to budget to do a certain part of your garden and see what you can get for that, whether it is one pot or one hanging basket or one tree
She says people are increasingly looking for plants for pollinators and focusing on biodiverity and sustainability. “They don’t want to buy plants they have to replace every year,” she says. “They are also looking at fruit trees and soft fruit, plants that are easier to grow for the novice, for people who haven’t had experience.”
They are, she says, “using their gardens more and are looking for plants that have scents, and that look good at night. They don’t necessarily want to have a jungle out there – they might want it to be pollinator-friendly but neat at the same time. They are also enjoying the maintenance that they may have run from before.”
Byrne says for novices things might seem daunting. “I think the best thing is to budget to do a certain part of your garden and see what you can get for that, whether it is one pot or one hanging basket or one tree, then that will be rewarding. But if you try and stretch money too far and get bits and pieces all over the place then it won’t have the impact. A penny on your plants and a pound on your preparation and the right plant in the place – these are soundbites but they do make a difference.”
Niamh Tully of Tully's Nursery saw much of her wholesale business disappear almost overnight last March. Many of the flowers and plants she grows and sells are perishable.
"When Covid hit, the whole place shut and we had to find alternate markets. I went to our local Centra and gave them the tulips which we had and they sold them and donated the money to the Irish Cancer Society, " she says. "If we can't find markets for our perishable flowers we will gift them. We employ 50 people here and our main aim has been to keep everyone with us – we are kind of like a family."
While it has been “a tough year”, she too has noted the surge in demand for her products. “People have definitely been embracing gardening and the outdoors – I think people are looking for any reason to get outside. An awful lot of people have become programmed to go to shopping centre or places like that in their free time, but now they are going into their gardens and the pace has completely slowed down,” she says.
Tully says online sales “have been phenomenal, from a consumer point of view, herbs and seeds have been doing well, as well as small plants for patio containers.”
She has also noted a demand for instant hedging. “That’s been selling very well, maybe people are spending a lot of time in the garden and maybe they are not always so keen to talk to their neighbours over the garden wall.”
She adds that people are going for what she calls “the posh bedding range, they are looking at alpines and perennials because they flower and come back the following year. Last year people bought anything that was green and now they are looking more at the structure. They are becoming a bit more serious about their gardens and doing online courses.”
She says a garden is something “that you chip away at, you don’t do it in one season, it is all about building on what you have already done. It is only when you have been doing it year on year that you start to see the differences.”
As to what happens next, Tully reckons when the world reopens “we will all be competing for that leisure euro, there will be holidays abroad and meals in restaurants and more, so it remains to be seen how much will be spent on gardens in the future.”
Damien Kelly’s Outdoor Living (outdoorliving.ie) specialises – as you might imagine – in the furniture that makes outdoor spaces nicer. He says he has had “ a good year” despite being closed for much of it.
“We can’t get enough greenhouses in,” he says. Demand has been sky high for them, with prices starting at around €600 and climbing to several thousand euro depending on their size. “It is a long-term investment people are making. They want to improve their homes and investing in the garden is one way to do that.”
He also says that “people have been buying garden furniture like never before” and, despite the fact that last summer was one of the dullest on record, sales of barbecues and Australian-style outdoor kitchens have been through the roof. Now all we need is just a tiny bit of the Australian-style sunshine and we will be all set.
Money goes on trees: sales of garden products go through the roof
According to the Bord Bia research, which was published last week, the surge in garden spending over the last 12 months was almost off the charts.
It was fuelled by a 75 per cent increase in spending on barbecues, sheds, funiture and other garden accessories as folk rushed to build and redevelop one of the few outdoor spaces they were allowed to safely frequent last year.
It wasn’t all about the beer and burgers, mind you, and people seemed more willing to dig deeper than ever before, both literally and figuratively. Spending on garden maintenance climbed by 57 per cent as people took on maintenance chores they had previously left on the long finger.
The Bord Bia report also points to a 51 per cent increase in spending on outdoor plants as more and more of us invested in making our outdoor space as attractive as our indoor spaces – or in many cases more attractive – and people also seemed to be more focused on longer-term investments, splashing out on shrubs and herbaceous perennials which add colour and depth to gardens.
The year just past also saw a surge in seeding on herbs, fruit and vegetables; according to Bord Bia, it was at the highest level since measurement began 20 years ago, climbing by 42 per cent compared with 2018, with more people than ever expressing concern about sustainability, the environment and their health thanks to Covid-19.
For many parents, planting food was seen as a positive way to engage children in the same way cooking from scratch and baking became hugely popular last year.
Fresh-cut flowers also reached a record market value of €75 million even as consumers shifted their focus to plants, with sales increasing by 30 per cent as people bought them at levels not seen since measurements began.
Carol Marks, horticulture sector manager at Bord Bia, describes 2020 as "an extraordinary year for gardening activity" and attributes it to the impact of Covid-19 and a particularly warm and sunny spring.
She says it is “a hugely positive story that, in spite of a period of closure last year, the category has managed to achieve record growth”.
Marks also says the “positive sense of wellbeing along with the recognition that our gardens, balconies and outdoor spaces were a safe place for gatherings, made the garden an even more important part of life during 2020”.
Tara McCarthy, chief executive of Bord Bia, echoes the upbeat assessment, saying the impact of Covid-19 has been “transformational”, with the record growth reflecting people’s “need for outdoor spaces for safe gatherings, communing with nature and relieving stress”.
How does my garden grow? Fresh tips from the grassroots
We asked on social media for tips on how to make our garden grow this year. This is what we got back.
Started growing my own veg in Lockdown 1.0. Carrots and lettuce were my best success, easy for new starters, which I am. The rest I tried didn't go well but I'm giving tomatoes a go again this year (this month). The troughs at waist level are handy and you don't need much space. – Lou Carpenter
Plant flowering fruit trees such as crab apple instead of cherry blossom. The flowers last much longer in our windy climate and in autumn you can harvest some crab apples and the birds also love them. – Shane Mc Donnell
You need four layers in Irish winter and a hot water bottle to give yourself a chance to really get drunk at your outdoor gazebo bar. – Paul Hayes
Don't start. Once you start seeing projects, you can never unsee them. – Marietta Daws
I've found a great use for all those extra blue Ikea shopping bags that you accumulate: I use them as grow bags for onions and garlic. Best piece of advice is plant small. Had one tomato plant last year, outdoors, and I got about 100 tomatoes over the summer. Did very well. – GMC
Dont waste your time growing tomatoes. Too little product return for your time. Plant fruit bushes eg gooseberry, blackcurrant instead. – Sinéad Gaynor
Plan to plant potatoes now – there's going to be shortage in September – and fruit and veggies. – Claire Ronan
Does any bright spark have plans for robots that dig, weed, plant, sow and trim hedges etc? I could really get into gardening mode if I had a few of them. – Joe Cluxton
Tomato plants need a lot of room. First time growing veg, I built a lean-to greenhouse and realised too late how much room it needs. Also courgettes are v easy to grow. – Sandra Hunt McCann
We have been working on making the garden more wildlife-friendly with hedging and planting. For the kids several apple trees, raspberries, blueberry bushes and raised veggie beds. Powerwashing the patio makes it extra nice and then I don't mind if the garden is a little wild. Advice: grow native species when you can and leave parts for wildlife. It makes a garden much more interesting and better for the environment too. – Betty in Cork
Grow some fruit, berries or veg. It's a satisfying meal when you use your homegrown produce knowing it's safe, not wrapped in plastic and had no air miles etc. – Brian Murphy
Best thing was planting daffodil bulbs at the end of last summer which gave us loads of lovely daffs this time of year. – Sarah Godson
It is lovely to have a well-tended garden but I let a little corner grow wild last summer and it was lovely to see nature do its thing. Some fabulous wild flowers and the bees had a ball. – Noel Butler
Put up bird feeders. Hours of entertainment. Just make sure local cats can't launch an ambush on them. – Mary Connell
Use the holiday money on a robot lawnmower, then sit back relax and watch the work. You can thank me later. – Johnny Fallon
Be careful with online plant purchases. Some garden centres substitute in other plants if they run out of stock of what you've ordered. Definitely cost-effective to buy cold frame and grow from seed now for summer annuals. Try to plan planting before going near garden centre. – Seppy B
Trying to plant more evergreen with good mix of things blooming at different times of year incl winter – for the bees, bugs & butterflies ! Don't forget the caterpillars need to eat too!! Thinking more "year round" than I used to. – Antonina Ni Dhuinn
Trim the sides of your lawn first then mow – saves you cleaning up the trimmings. For some reason I used to do it the opposite way round. – Gerry Sinnott
Invest in a good spade! Excellent for trimming verges between grass and paths as well as digging. – Vivienne Clarke