Having worked as a grower in a garden centre the last month I have now been left unemployed. In the news, this morning was the story that millions of plants will now be binned. There has been lots of outcry against this story. I would like to add a few points from my experience in the last few weeks.
1. Can’t they be given away
I have seen this comment again and again the last hour. Many of the plants the growers will be talking about binning will not be ready for giving away. They will be tiny little seedlings that have weeks before they are ready to go out. They are plants that sell very cheap anyway so arranging delivery of these is not going to be cost-effective. Many of the plants will be tender plants that cannot just be placed outside the garden centre to be picked up. We are talking pelargoniums, cosmos, dahlias, petunias. Plants that will not survive outside yet. On top of this just placing plants outside the garden centre, as one person suggested, is going to cause people to travel unnecessarily. Just what we are trying to avoid by closing. Large groups of people descending on one spot. No one needs to see grannies fighting over petunias. It would happen, mark my words. You’re not asking the pubs to just give their beer away, same applies to plants. No grower wants to dispose of plants they have lovingly cared for but they can’t persist growing plants that can’t be sold or distributed. I have tended to and planted on tens of thousands of plants just in the last month. I don’t want to see them die but I won’t expose people to risk for them.
2. Some are being given away
That said, some are being given away. However, it is being done in controlled ways passing on to care homes and places where the residents can benefit. But only some plants will be suitable. Many of the houseplants that would have been sold for mothers day. Garden centres are not being wasteful they are showing great generosity. The same has applied to many of the garden shows with numerous stories coming out showing the plants from big events like Chelsea being donated to hospitals and community groups.
3. Many customers were vulnerable
My garden centre was still open over the last week but has now closed for the protection of staff and customers. They stayed open as they sold essential food, hardware and pet supplies but many of the customers were in their seventies. One of the key groups we are trying to protect.
4. People were still coming for a day out
Even though the advice was to shop for essentials people were still coming for a day out. They were slowly browsing around with no set aim. While plants have many benefits for mental and physical health they are not essential. Anyone who has read my blog over the last few years will know I highly value plants but pelargoniums are not worth risking death for. I have still seen people coming for tender bedding plants. People were panic buying our tomatoes as they knew the centres would be shut soon. I have seen people more concerned with getting their bedding plants. I don’t blame them. I’d have been the same if I wasn’t working at the garden centre stocking up on compost. But it isn’t safe to be open right now.
5. Supply chain
A few people online have suggested that the garden centres should be allowed to stay open as they are largely outdoors. The issue with this is the risk of groups as already discussed. People still queuing to close together and exposing more people. But on top of this, the supply chains have broken down. The majority of plants sold in the UK come from abroad, predominantly Holland. With most centres now shut deliveries aren’t coming through. We were fiding it harder to ring companies. We didn’t know if we’d have compost to plant on our seedlings. If they stay open they quickly wouldn’t have anything to sell.
6. Uncertain re-opening date
At the moment none of us knows when the country will return to normal. It will probably be later rather than sooner. While the centres are closed a skeleton staff will still be keeping many of the plants alive in the hope they can be sold. This will be tough as the plant’s growth can be slowed through sprays and not giving them optimal conditions but it can only be so long. But no company is going to want to write off stock if there is a chance of selling.
7. Can’t they be bailed out
There are calls for the horticulture industry to be given support. One comment I saw asked why should aviation get support when horticulture does more good for the planet? For a start horticulture actually does a lot of damage with plastic waste and peat use, but that is a separate discussion. The government is trying to avoid supporting the aviation business as they can call on the shareholders to support. Richard Branson can manage just fine I’m sure without government handouts. The government is trying to help though. It has started with in order of priorities with the government supporting 80% of wages still being paid. This didn’t apply to me as I was just a temp hired too recently. I don’t begrudge my company they didn’t have much of a choice. If we reopen soon I may still have a job but if not I’ve had a good time working with a great bunch of people, learnt a lot and picked up a few plants along the way.
But where companies can they are trying to support their workers. Many of the bigger firms will be able to manage but the smaller businesses won’t. So please, where you can support small independent growers to keep them afloat.
8. Online sales not the answer
The BBC article stated that online sales are not the answer. While the industry won’t survive on these alone it will help many small businesses. Many are purely mail order anyway. It’s a good time to check out the peat-free nursery list and Candide listing. Seeds are still easy to post. While you may not have the compost there are a lot of options that can be sown directly into beds.
A few random thoughts there from my short time in the industry. It’s a tough time for everyone but ultimately garden centres cannot justify opening right now unless they stock enough essential items. I would love to return to my job but it isn’t safe to right now. I hope you all stay safe and can enjoy the pleasure of a garden whatever state it is.