Opening of garden centres welcomed as Wales’ ornamental growers facing significant challenges…

Throwback to April/May 2019, where many of us where heading to the local garden centres to stock up on garden supplies, making spring the busiest times for garden centres across the UK. Fast forward to the beginning of Spring 2020, it’s a different picture entirely, with the COVID-19 lockdown meaning garden centres stood closed throughout April and the beginning of May. The restrictions on trading non-essential products fell at the worst possible time for ornamental horticulture, coinciding with the period when these businesses usually expect to make most of their annual sales.

It was therefore welcomed news this week, with garden centres in Wales able to open from Monday 11th May - as long as they are able to maintain social distancing rules.

Plant nurseries are now facing a different challenge all together. With garden centres opening up with very little notice, they now need their shelves filled, and quickly, to try and make the most of the season. Growers are therefore preparing for dramatic increases in demand. This uncertainty makes business planning challenging, with lack of clarity about how to manage plants in preparation for future sales.

But it’s not just the closure of garden centres having an impact on the industry. As weddings and social gatherings remain on hold for the foreseeable future, cut flower growers and others focused on the floristry trade are even more likely to have suffered loss of sales.

One grower commented ‘We have zero sales; florists do not want cut roses as people cannot have their weddings or events’.

So, what does this mean for the Welsh businesses growing plants and flowers? Sarah Gould from Tyfu Cymru, which supports commercial growers in Wales says, loss of income and cash flow problems present significant challenges for these businesses.

A survey held last month, asked growers if they are maintaining typical levels of sales for the time of year: 80% said they are not.

In an industry contributing £1.4 billion to the UK economy each year and employing more than 15,000 people directly and almost 30,000 indirectly1, being unable to sell threatens the longer-term viability of these businesses.

The survey of ornamental growers in Wales, conducted by Tyfu Cymru and Cardiff University2, found that, how severely businesses are affected depends heavily on their typical market routes, with those already having online processing and delivery in place better able to maintain and increase sales. In contrast, wholesale nurseries and those supplying their own outlets which have been closed have lost all sales unless they have been able to adapt.

Several respondents reported that after the initial closure of sales routes they had managed to adapt, either handling direct sales or adjusting production to match demand. Such adaptations are creating additional work and are labour intensive. Similarly, those with established online delivery services are experiencing such high demand that they face significant workload pressures, leading to stress.

When asked about how they are planning to change production or operations in response to the crisis, the most common response was planning to reduce levels of plant or flower production.

For nurseries reducing production rates this will result in challenges of plant shortages next year.

Growers have spent many months planning stock levels and nurturing their produce for their peak season, and no one could have anticipated what lay ahead. All of this stock is perishable, so they can’t just pick up where they left off. Where products have been going unsold, at least half of respondents were disposing of them as waste (53%), with the remainder being stored or donated.

The HTA suggests that the total value of lost plant sales in the UK could be £687 million by the end of June1.