The nation needs its gardens more than ever - but the horticulture industry is in crisis, thanks to the coronavirus lockdown.
Is buying plants a necessity in times of lockdown? CREDIT: Getty
Mothering Sunday to the second May Bank Holiday is peak season for planting your garden in the UK. But in spring 2020, the coronavirus lockdown has caused a perfect storm for commercial plant growers and for the garden centres which sell most of their wares. Nurseries have £200m of seasonal plants ready to go but their main path to market – garden retailers and DIY centres such as Homebase and B&Q – is closed. Many of the plants will be thrown in skips. Growers have little-to-no income. The Horticultural Trades Association has called for a ‘scrappage’ compensation scheme from Government to bail them out. TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh has backed the growers and called for garden centres to be reopened: “I can see no reason why garden centres should not trade in plants, provided they observe the same social distancing precautions as supermarkets, especially since most of their stock will be outdoors. “Such a move will help rescue growers who are otherwise destined to go out of business, as well as offering all of us who delight in our gardens the physical activity and spiritual sustenance we so desperately need in these trying times.” A PR campaign featuring Titchmarsh, launched on 31 March, achieved “unprecedented coverage - unless you’re a royal” (according to the PR company) across the BBC and news media. Judging by social media reaction, the public is behind the campaign. Gardener Jennifer Moses has launched a change.org petition to “make garden centres and nurseries an essential business during the Covid19 crisis” in order “to stop millions of plants being wasted, horticulture businesses going under and jobs being lost. This is a matter of public welfare as gardening is proven to have physical and mental health benefits,” she says. The season was just taking off after a stormy February when, on Monday March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided the best way to manage the spread of the virus was to enforce strict social distancing measures, which included closing “non-essential” shops. Pharmacy and food – as well as home, hardware and pet shops - were designated as essential. Gardening wasn’t. This led to the odd situation where garden centre chains Dobbies and Cherry Lane opened the next day, playing down that they sold plants and playing up their food, pet and hardware offers, which they said were 70 per cent of products available. Devon garden centre Plants Galore was closed down by Environmental Health officers. Growers and retailers despaired as they threw away their perishable stock. But is gardening essential? In the Republic of Ireland, gardening was listed as such by the government. The UK authorities are less sympathetic, as is Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don, who tweeted: “It would be good if some [plants] could be given away. The majority of composted plants will be annuals grown for spring sales and this virus might be the start of a shift in what we grow in our gardens and how we do it. Growing more from seed and more perrenials [sic] might not be such a bad thing.” One poor nurseryman replied: “He’s happy to benefit from all the lovely varieties he plants, without having a clue how they actually arrive in his wheelbarrow.” Young plant grower Simon Earley, who sells plants on to finished plant nurseries, which in turn sell to retailers, spells out the issue: “Timing-wise it’s a disaster really. Our busiest two months are March and April. Up until mid-March our customers were taking plants but for April we have stock in the glasshouses and a good 40 per cent has been cancelled. The whole supply chain has siezed up. You run out of words…it’s a disaster and without some help I can’t see many growers surviving.” Meanwhile, mail order companies, which can sell plants, are overloaded – but are a small part of the market anyway. Supermarkets are rightly concentrating on selling food rather than plants. Things look bleak, but Horticultural Trades Association policy director James Clark says there is hope on the horizon: “There are two things: the grower compensation scheme we’re pushing with Government and garden centres re-opening, which is linked to the grower scheme, because growers have had that route to market closed. “Supermarkets have shown how retail can work if it’s done in a controlled way. Now it’s about getting that discussion with growers and the feelings of garden centre owners and customers. I think there is some appetite but it has to be done in the right way at the right time. “The compensation scheme is with Defra… we’re trying to push it through the machinery now. They are considering the scheme at the moment and I think there’s a sense of urgency and speed behind it. We have a very strong case.”
This article was first published on https://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/problem-solving/garden-centres-essential-should-remain-open/