Coronavirus lockdown: Why garden centres reopened first

By Joseph Lee
BBC News

Hillmount Garden Centres in BelfastImage source, PA Media
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Not all parts of the UK are allowing garden centres to open - but Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast is keen to show it is ready

Garden centres have become the first businesses allowed to reopen to the public - first in Wales and from today in England - since the government shut down non-essential shops. But why were they singled out and how will they cope with business in the pandemic?

For gardeners at home, it's been a frustration not to be able to plant during one of the most beautiful springtimes the UK has seen in years.

"As an industry we have missed probably the best spring that any of us can remember," says Boyd Douglas-Davies, president of the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) and director of British Garden Centres, a 57-branch chain.

What that means behind the scenes for many of the UK's growers has been devastating. Mr Douglas-Davies says one shared an image of 50,000 Scabiosa "Butterfly Blue" flowers in a greenhouse, timed to bloom for Easter and destined never to reach customers.

Millions of lost plants

"They flowered their hearts out, it was just gorgeous, stunning - you know when you look at a lavender field and go wow? The sheer scale of it," he says.

Mr Douglas-Davies says another grower, who commands about half of the market in young plants, had to throw away 450 million of them in the first six weeks of lockdown.

"Some of the public thought we could just put plants outside the gate with an honesty box but when you look at the sheer scale of the plants produced in the UK and sold through garden centres, that was never going to happen," he says.

Image source, AFP
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Some nurseries have been forced to compost or recycle many thousands of plants

The impact has been "catastrophic", he says, and the loss of much of the spring season's income means one in three growers face financial difficulties: they can't replace lost business later in the year.

That is one reason why the HTA was working with governments in Wales and England to get garden centres to reopen, successfully arguing that the open spaces meant transmitting coronavirus was less likely and it was easier to maintain social distancing.

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Garden centres remain closed in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that an announcement on the reopening of garden centres could be made this coming weekend, while Northern Ireland will reopen garden centres in the first stage of its plan to ease lockdown but there is no date for this.

At Carmarthen Garden Centre, which opened when the Welsh government gave the go-ahead on Monday, customers are met in the car park by a staff member in PPE and directed to a queue, with markings 2m apart.

At the entrance, they are handed a trolley - which has been sanitised - then guided down a one-way system. Mr Douglas-Davies says people have been carefully observing the social distancing rules, although demand has been high enough for some to wait in the car park before opening time.

Image source, Getty Images
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Others, like The Bransford Webbs Plant Company in Worcester, switched to online sales in lockdown

What they find inside is also a little different. Mr Douglas-Davies says there is only about 25% of the usual seasonal plants.

They have no tomato plants in Carmarthen, for instance, because growers couldn't take the risk of planting them three weeks ago.

"We can't just flick a switch and the factory comes back on," he says. "Some plants will be in short supply and some plants just won't appear this spring. There will be a different look to gardens this summer."

Over 20m people in the UK say they are interested in gardening, according to the HTA, and almost nine out of 10 British homes have gardens.

Another argument that swayed the government was that enabling people to work on their gardens would encourage them to stay at home, Mr Douglas-Davies says.

Gardening presenter Alan Titchmarsh thinks "it's putting a bit of brightness back into our lives".

Image source, Getty Images
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Gardening presenter Alan Titchmarsh helped to highlight the crisis growers were facing

"Thank goodness we haven't been delayed another month otherwise it would have been pointless and most stuff would have been dumped," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

But now, Mr Titchmarsh says, you can plant "virtually anything" as long as you remember to water it and watch out for frost on the weather forecast.

'A nation of gardeners'

The stresses of lockdown mean that many people are rediscovering the appeal of gardening, says Damien Newman from Thrive, a charity that uses gardening to promote physical and mental health.

"Nurturing plants is a proven way to divert our attention from the stresses of life," he says.

"Lockdown has placed limitations on us but growing and looking after plants helps us look forward with hope of better days to come."

Some studies have shown that just looking at plants can relieve feelings of stress, he says, meaning people with just a window box or a balcony can benefit too.

That's one reason that Mr Douglas-Davies is expecting Wednesday's reopening of garden centres in England to be a popular move.

"We're a nation of gardeners and garden centres have been the heart of that for 30-plus years. We're part of the cultural landscape."