A blooming disaster: Right now, it should be teeming – but like all of Britain’s locked down garden centres, this mecca to horticulture is a ghost town, its stock set to be dumped… and a £1.5bn industry is on its knees, writes ROBERT HARDMAN
- Colin Campbell-Preston has five garden centres full of stock but no customers
- Horticulture is likely to be badly hit by the lockdown during its main season
- Risk is that, unlike airlines, its stock is perishable and only lasts a few weeks
The wallflowers are looking magnificent. The tulips and primulas are in full bloom. All around me are beds and tables full of magnificent plants in the best of health – thousands of them – and all waiting for a good home.
Except there is no one here today, apart from Colin Campbell-Preston, a man who now finds himself with five garden centres (including this one in Buckinghamshire), 120 stay-at-home staff, £1million-worth of fresh plants and zero customers.
‘This time of year is, to our business, what Christmas is to other retailers,’ explains Colin as he turns a hose on some grateful hellebores and skimmias.
‘Garden centres make their money between mid-March and mid-June, and that keeps us going for the rest of the year. But all our stock is perishable. Airlines will still have their planes in December. But our stock only lasts for a few weeks. Things are getting critical.’
Colin Campbell-Preston has been left with five garden centres (including this one in Buckinghamshire), 120 stay-at-home staff, £1million-worth of fresh plants and no customers due to the coronavirus lockdown
Up and down the country, the nurseries and growers who supply retailers such as Colin are facing imminent ruin. They can do little more than stare at fields and greenhouses bursting with produce which no one can buy and with no seasonal staff to pick it – or even to throw it away.
Of all the sectors being thumped by the coronavirus crisis, perhaps the most vulnerable right now is one that seldom makes a noise but accounts for £1.5billion of turnover, 30,000 jobs and is a quintessential part of the British way of life: horticulture.
And there could not be a worse time to lock it down.
Lose the spring and we risk losing an industry which goes back four centuries. This is the time of year when millions of us turn our thoughts to weeding, sowing and planting our gardens, allotments and window boxes.
Since we are all now confined to our homes anyway, the gardeners of Britain are itching to get cracking. Except we are left with little to do except count the worms.
That is because all our garden centres and the legion of growers who supply them are now shut – on the grounds that they are ‘non-essential’.
He said the lockdown could not have come at a worser time for the sector, which relies on the mid-March to mid-June period to get it through the rest of the year
Pictured above are plants at the Studley Green Garden Centre near High Wycombe
We can try sourcing the odd packet of seeds from suppliers swamped by the surge in online demand. There is, though, no possibility of suddenly switching the bulk of British horticulture over to mail order.
According to James Barnes, the chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, a third of the industry is already at risk of imminent collapse ‘within weeks’ and there will be up to £700million of lost sales come June.
‘I’ve just been talking to a nursery in Lancashire which has already lost £350,000 of stock in a week and will be losing £200,000 a week as long as this continues,’ he tells me. ‘They can’t go on for much longer.’
Farmers are very good at bemoaning their lot (often with good reason) but, with demand for home-grown food going through the roof, they have plenty to be getting on with.
Not so their green-fingered cousins in their walled gardens and glasshouses as they stare into the abyss.
‘This spring could well bring about the end of British horticulture as we know it,’ is the bleak warning from a man usually brimming with the joys of spring.
All the plants at the garden centre remain unsold as customers are kept away due to COVID-19
Robert Hardman writes that if garden centres aren’t helped then Britain risks losing an industry that goes back four centuries
Yes, even Alan Titchmarsh is in despair: ‘Hundreds of nursery owners and growers are facing huge losses of plants because the stock they have spent many months nurturing will have to be destroyed.’
I talk to Michael Smith, third-generation boss of WD Smith, a previously thriving nursery near Wickford in Essex which has been supplying garden centres for years. ‘At the moment, we’re just trying to keep everything alive,’ he says.
So where can you buy your plants?
Garden centres have never had it so bad – while mail order seed and plant companies have never had it so good.
Some, such as Thompson & Morgan and J.Parker’s, are so inundated with orders that they are accepting no new ones until they’ve cleared the backlog.
Despite the lockdown, you can order practically everything online, including compost, gravel, paving stones, mowers and even greenhouses. And while it is still too early to put out the likes of geraniums, petunias and busy lizzie, it’s not too early to order them. Wait until planting time, around May, and it might be too late. Crocus (crocus.co.uk) has a vast range, including a wide selection of shrubs.
For geraniums, try Fibrex (fibrex.co.uk). Dobies (dobies.co.uk) is excellent for bedding plants, which will be delivered in late April or early May. Mr Fothergills (mr-fothergills.co.uk) has plenty of begonias and ivy leaf geraniums for hanging baskets. And if it is hardy plants you’re after, then check out Woottens of Wenhaston (woottens plants.com) which also has a vast range of pelargoniums, including scented ones.
‘All our seasonal staff have asked to go home to their families in Eastern Europe. We’ve got plants taking up space with nowhere to go and these are our busiest two months of the year.’
Right now, garden centres should be selling his spring ranges – pansies, violas and vegetables – while he prepares to send them the first of his summer bedding plants – petunias, geraniums, fuchsias and anything that looks good in a hanging basket.
Instead, he is wondering how he will dispose of it all.
The family has form when it comes to crisis management. Michael’s grandfather set up the business in 1939 as war broke out but ‘managed to convert to fruit and veg just in time.’
Modern horticulture doesn’t work like that, however. Without the spring, he says, there will either need to be some sort of Government intervention of we will just lose a way of life.
‘Part of the problem is that our industry is not well-known,’ he says. ‘In Holland, it’s a key part of the Dutch economy so the Dutch government is supporting its growers through all this.’
Back at his garden centre in Studley Green, Bucks, Colin Campbell-Preston is trying to look on the bright side.
A former landscape designer, he started Capital Gardens in Highgate, North London, with his wife, Rosemary, in 1985.
It has grown, flourished, attracted a legion of loyal customers – including the late Dudley Moore and Jamie Oliver – and Colin is doing all he can to retain every one of his large staff. Determination runs in the family.
Mr Campbell-Preston is pictured above watering plants at one of his garden centres
He is pictured holding a tray of plants all in flower, but without customers to sell them to
His late father made so many escape attempts from his prisoner-of-war camp that he was banged up in Colditz with Douglas Bader. His mother, Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, is the oldest surviving lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother and still going strong at 101.
‘We’ve got some capital in the bank which we were going to spend on plants, but now we’ll just try to hang in there,’ he says.
The Government’s job retention scheme has been good thus far, he says, but a seasonal industry needs special help.
He is concerned that the banks – which we all bailed out a decade back – are now demanding personal guarantees on the loan he may need to get through this crisis. ‘It is stressful enough trying to sort this out without having to put your house on the line.’
He fully understands and supports the need for a lockdown.
His only mobile members of staff are the skeleton crews who drive in each day to keep the plants alive. ‘That really is “essential” work which can’t be done at home,’ he says. Even that may be under review, though, says the Horticultural Trades Association, following a decision by Scottish police to stop workers tending to the plants at Pentland Nurseries in Midlothian.
According to James Barnes, the chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, a third of the industry is already at risk of imminent collapse ‘within weeks’ and there will be up to £700million of lost sales come June
Mr Campbell-Preston pictured at the entrance to his garden centre in Studley Green
Colin, and the rest of the industry is pinning its hopes on a partial lifting of lockdown rules as soon as possible, whatever the requisite restrictions.
Surely there must be a case for giving garden centres first call on some sort of dispensation when the tide turns.
They are in the open air, they have large car parks which can easily ration visitors and they will do immeasurable good to the mental health of the nation right now – just when they need us and we need them. Besides, all the big retail chains are busy selling plants (many of them imported) in their car parks right now. Why not Britain’s garden centres, too?
‘When this is over, I do think chains like Waitrose could do the decent thing and say they will stay out of our market for a year,’ Colin suggests.
It was only five minutes ago that we were all being told to get planting to stave off the greatest threat to mankind – climate change. Millions of British gardeners stand ready and waiting to do their duty.
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