Growing need for garden centres to reopen

Incessant questions to the daily Government press conference about coming out of coronavirus lockdown are helping nobody.

It’s pretty obvious that the Covid-19 cases and death tolls are not sufficient to let us all back out to some sense of normality: into cafes, our social clubs and to congregate.

But there seems to be a sensible surge towards re-opening garden centres as an essential need for our well-being (it is noted that, in France, anywhere that sells wine, cheese or croissants is seen as an essential service provider, so they can stay open. Wine eh? Who would have thought that would be an essential service in a crisis?). 

So a more sensible, pertinent question for whichever Minister faces the virtual press on a daily basis would be: when will you allow garden centres to reopen? The issue is apparently too thorny to raise.

In the UK, I am inclined to agree with green-fingered Alan Titchmarsh, whose passionate pleas two weeks ago to reopen garden centres suddenly seems to have gained wider traction in the media in the past couple of days. Even the Daily Telegraph, where he first mooted his feelings, showed itself to be useful for more than just its sports coverage and as a TV guide when one of the “editorial” opinion scribes commended the same position.

We are, argues the famous horticulturist Titchmarsh, a nation of gardeners. The four-day Easter weekend, sunny as it was and with outings to places such as Box Hill technically off limits, would have been the ideal time that people with any patch of outdoor area would have been thinking how they could improve it and what they could grow to brighten it up.

Easter usually provides that moment of reflection and time off to start the gardening for the regulars, but now we potentially have millions more people who would like to experience the wonderment of nature by experimenting with everything from the odd window box to turning a bigger space over to vegetables, which might yet turn out to be in shorter supply as time goes on. 

The Easter-influenced people would have been especially thinking about this when, essentially, they had little else to do and were being encouraged to stay at home.

As Boyd Douglas Davies, president of the Horticultural Trade Association, said on the Daily Mail online in response to Titchmarsh’s tirade: “If you’re asking [people] to stay at home for a long time, give them something to do in their garden.”

Working with nature improves our mental health, keeps us fit and can even be an educational and recreational resource for children off school. Watching a variety of items – from flowers to fruit and vegetables – can be a rewarding experience.

Seeds sprouting; bees pollinating; the real taste of vegetables when home-grown. There’s nothing quite like nurturing nature.

And now, of all times, gardening can keep many people (individuals or families) stimulated and occupied, educated even, for a large chunk of the summer, which could well be spent in lockdown.  

The joy of nature

The joy of nature. Photo by Andre Furtado on Pexels.com

However, anyone who knows the slightest thing about gardening will know that you will need a variety of materials along the way: pots, seeds, compost, canes, tools, ant powder, slug pellets, moss remover. (The need for patience, as things grow, you will just have to learn.)

It will be costlier – and damage the “high street” even more permanently, if we simply rely on Amazon for all of that, if indeed the sellers or delivery companies can make it happen in a timely fashion. 

It has been reported that £200 million worth of plants could be destroyed – as do their nursery company owners, financially – because they couldn’t be sent out to garden centres to be sold in peak season. This is March to May and effectively like Christmas for the retailers. 

Small shops, such as Holborns in Earlswood and Nutfield, can sell a limited number of plants and even compost. But that’s nothing like the demand that, say, Priory Farm can supply and deals with on a normal daily basis. 

Many garden centres were already set up to deliver. Some have had to adapt (as with many businesses). I don’t know when they put their notice up, but Priory Farm, for example, have been able to “restart” their deliveries of garden goods. For a time, you could queue to go into their non-gardening shop, apparently run by a different company, and book tickets to their discovery walk while wondering how to obtain their compost and home-grown plants.

A friend in East Yorkshire a few weeks ago ordered from a garden centre just as lockdown was being put in place, was told he couldn’t collect, so took the initiative and asked whether there were any other customers on their list who had ordered items, in his village and offered himself as a delivery driver. Job done, he returned home with his items.

Even the smallest corner shops can manage social distancing in stores, Holborns for example letting in a very limited number of people. Supermarkets are being equally strict. So why not garden centres? Or, indeed, DIY outlets? This isn’t a thesis about keeping the economy going, but helping people to keep their sanity.

Well before lockdown, the social trends have long been to be seen to care for people’s mental health.

As Titchmarsh puts it: gardening feeds the soul.

At present, more than ever.