The impact of lock down on plant nurseries

By Tamsin Westhorpe

Imagine this. You have worked for months to propagate thousands of plants and your polytunnels are bursting with potential.

Then, suddenly the whole world is turned upside down. All plant fairs and events are cancelled, and you have no way of selling your plants and only a few months in which to make your entire yearly income. This was the reality for many specialist nurseries – spring had been cancelled.

Many nurseries rely on selling at events only
Many nurseries rely on selling at events only

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to gardening friends comment on how different nurseries have reacted to the lock down. Many have expected their favourite nurseries to start a mail order service overnight or fling open their gates as soon as the garden centres opened. If only it was that straight forward.

Mail order selling requires more admin, a good website, investment in packaging and dealing with plant passports. For many specialist nurseries mail order was too big a leap and financially unviable. Physically opening a nursery may involve employing more staff and implementing costly changes at a time when money is short, so the challenges are many for those in the industry. One boot doesn’t fit all.

The excitement when a box of mail order plants arrives is unmeasurable
The excitement when a box of mail order plants arrives is unmeasurable

Some nurseries however, who were already set up for mail order have been rushed off their feet fulfilling orders. To find out more about the impact of the lock down I spoke to three nursery owners, all in very different situations.

Kim Hurst and her husband Rob from The Cottage Herbery have run the nursery for 40 years. Kim admitted that she has never worked so many hours. ‘We had 60 now cancelled events booked into our diary,’ explained Kim. ‘The first week I was in shock and then realised we had to take action to save our plants.’

Kim Hurst from The Cottage Herbery specialises in unusual herbs
Kim Hurst from The Cottage Herbery specialises in unusual herbs

‘The only answer for us was to offer a delivery service locally,’ said Kim. To spread the word about their new service she contacted local garden clubs and they really came up trumps. ‘The news of our service travelled to the nearby market town of Ludlow and Rob is now doing regular drops there.’

‘Offering delivery has given us a purpose but it doesn’t make up for all the events we’ve missed,’ explained Kim.

So, what has life been like for a nursery that focuses on customers visiting and again doesn’t offer mail order?

A few years ago I visited Abi and Tom’s Garden Plants where they specialise in hardy plants. It’s an idyllic nursery run by a young couple in picturesque Cumbria on the edge of the Lake District National Park. At the time of writing they were looking at ways to safely reopen.

Here’s what Tom had to say about his lock down experience, 'By the third or fourth week of the lockdown we realised in stark terms that we had to recognise our own limitations. We also had to be honest with ourselves as to what we could and couldn't offer as a business whilst at the same time meeting the basic needs of the nursery and all that that entails. The emotional strain of the spring being essentially cancelled has not been easy but we have had incredible support from practical offers of help to prick out seedlings and potting up established plants to financial offers of support that have been extremely humbling.'

We all long for the return of plant fairs
We all long for the return of plant fairs

Tom has been keeping his spirits up by sharing his plant expertise and talking about his plants on twitter which has certainly helped to raise the profile of the nursery and will have a positive outcome in the future. To follow his activity, follow @abiandtoms.

A nursery on a much larger scale that I regularly frequent is Frank P Matthews . I asked Steph Dunn how life had changed at her family tree nursery since the lock down. ‘We have been able to react quickly to the ever-changing situation by proactively implementing social distancing and hygiene measures throughout the company to ensure the wellbeing of our staff. We are fortunate that we can spread people out across the nursery and with moderated practices have managed to complete planting and other core jobs to secure the future tree crops.’

‘We already direct despatch via courier for a number of mail order companies and garden centres and we have seen this business expand exponentially, despatching around 1000 trees per day during the lock down period. Though our Tree Shop has been closed to visitors we have still been able to mail out trees direct to people’s door in boxes which has been incredibly popular.’

Aerial view of specialist tree nursery Frank P Matthews
Aerial view of specialist tree nursery Frank P Matthews

With the increase in popularity of gardening my only hope is that next year the nurseries who have been hit hard by this situation are able to play catch up. One thing is for sure supporting specialist nurseries has never been more important. Keep shopping gardeners.

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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