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The recent travel restrictions of COVID 19 greatly limited our activities but did not limit the desire to maintain quality of life. For this reason, many people have turned to their outdoor space, and a significant increase in gardening has been seen. Teagasc reported in the Farming Independent (May 5) of the grave challenges that faced many sectors of horticulture since mid-March.

Cut flowers, bedding and shrub sales collapsed, resulting in a massive loss of revenue and plant wastage. With little certainty of what the future would hold, growers and retailers across Europe cancelled orders. The subsequent consumer demand and sales through supermarkets, garage forecourts and other “non-standard” plant retailers alleviated some of the pressure on producers. It was heartening to see the support for Irish plants with nurseries buying locally.

Demand surged once gardens centres opened on May 18 and a shortage of plant stock has resulted due to reduced planting capacity in March.

The COVID 19 travel and shopping restrictions have created online sales opportunities for plants that would not have been considered by the public previously. Those businesses that delivered a positive service will have developed a new customer base to serve and grow in the future. The online sale of plants is not something new, several Irish companies such as Johnstown Garden Centre, Future Forest etc., have been in the business for many years. Specialist nurseries like Mike Keeps’ Shady Plants have become the go-to place for ferns, bulbs and other uncommon plants.

The types of plants that can be sold and dispatched online are different; they are generally smaller, sturdier and higher value. The mail-order staple of seed and bare-root plants are still there but lack of experience and the need to get your hands dirty will discourage some customers. Up to this year, sales of seed had seen a year-on-year decline for some time. In part due to busy lifestyles and lack of confidence with propagation. When buying bare-root the lack of foliage and colour is a definite turnoff for gardeners.

The majority of plants suited to online sales are plugs, 9cm and 13cm pot size, with shipping in bespoke, breathable boxes. This limits choice for some plant species to those plants that must be robust. The most tolerant and forgiving plants for packaging and sales are the likes of alpines that naturally grow in challenging locations.

Grant aid for establishing online retailing has been made available through Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) and this has been useful to some nurseries and garden centres in establishing an online platform. Additionally, the trading online voucher scheme has been expanded at the time of print and will be a welcome resource to those who still want to develop an online presence.

Nursery plant sales have been very strong since garden centres reopened to the public. Disruptions in the supply chain have left some major gaps in plant supplies across Europe. Growers will need to be innovative and creative to meet the potential demand over the summer with shrubs – especially pollinator-friendly ones – in the hope of seeing out of season sales. Innovations in production that see limited waste, systems for increased uniformity, for example, will always help with bottom-line figures.

With each year throwing up significant challenges, the learning from the pandemic must be that growers need to build up personal relationships, environments and finances to sustain themselves during difficult times.