Garden centres ready to spring into action as lockdown lifts
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
Life is always stirring below the soil in March, and thankfully it is also stirring above it this year.
Garden centres in Wales can open to the public from next Monday, and the anticipation is building.
Online sales have been a saviour for some garden centres during the coronavirus pandemic, but something resembling normality will resume when customers start walking through the doors – socially distanced of course.
“We’re obviously pleased to be welcoming the public back in,” said Lee Roberts, who runs The Old School Nursery, near Ystradgynlais, with his mother Sheila.
“All the necessary Covid procedures will be in place. There is huge demand across the board. It will be nice to get a bit of positivity back, and a bit of warmer weather.
“Everyone wants to get normality back in their lives.”
The nursery and its shop in the middle of Ystradgynlais employ 13 staff.
A percentage of the stock is grown on site. Other plants come from England and Europe.
Mr Roberts said it has become a bit trickier to import from the continent since the UK left the European Union at the start of the year.
“We are in pretty good shape to reopen though,” he said. “We have a great selection of plants.”
Mr Roberts said sales reached record levels last year, reflecting a burgeoning increase in interest from people who had more time at home and in their gardens.
‘Been through it’
David Evans, the owner of Pontarddulais Garden Centre, agreed that interest in gardening had blossomed since last March.
“People are desperate to get into their gardens and make themselves feel better,” he said. The 63-year-old began working at the family-run business in 1969 and has seen trends come and go.
“People now want to produce more of what they eat,” he said.
“Home-grown veg is back on the menu, which is a good thing. We need to produce more of our own food.”
Mr Evans said he was thrilled to be reopening, but commiserated with the vast majority of non-essential retail businesses which will have to remain closed until April 12.
“You’ve got to feel for these people,” he said.
Mr Evans said most of his stock was from Britain. There was a bit of an issue sourcing fruit trees at present, while garden furniture was more of a challenge – a problem, he said, related to a global shortage of ship containers.
The centre, on Allt-Y-Graban Road, has been operating a click and collect and a call and collect service, which has helped through the leaner months. It employs 16 to 20 staff.
On Monday, customers will be counted in and out of the premises and a member of staff will be on the door.
“We’ve been thought it last year,” said Mr Evans, referring to the social distancing restrictions.
But not every garden nursery will be reopening on March 22.
Paul Fisher, who runs Gower Plant Centre with his wife Gwendoline, normally opens from March 1 through to August 31. But they’ve decided to delay reopening this year until June 1.
Mr Fisher said it was stressful at times maintaining customer social distancing last year and that he and his wife, who grow their plants, ended up working very long hours.
“We decided that we weren’t going to go through that problem again if Covid was going to carry on,” said Mr Fisher.
The 74-year-old said sales were strong last year, with a number of new customers adding to the seasoned growers who appear at the gates of the nursery every year.
Horticulture was a hobby for Mr Fisher, who used to work at an atomic energy centre in Oxfordshire, before it branched out to a full-time occupation at the couple’s eight-acre site off the B4295.
He said in the early days he stocked more than 2,000 types of fuschias – then all the rage – but has since diversified.
Mrs Fisher used to work for train operator GWR, and said the customer service element of that job transferred naturally to the nursery work.
“We enjoy our customers coming in – they are like friends now,” said the 67-year-old. “I’ve always been into gardening. I love doing the plants and watching them grow.”
Not everyone has a garden though. Research has shown that one in eight households in Wales did not have access to a garden, yard or balcony during the first lockdown.
Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe said green spaces had been a lifeline for many people.
Ms Howe has called for measures which would mean no-one in Wales living lives more than four minutes’ walk from a public green space.
Swansea Council wants to double the amount of green space in the city in a joint approach with Natural Resources Wales.