Gardeners and garden centres in NI facing uphill battle

GRAEME COUSINS looks at the ongoing impact of Covid and Brexit on those helping Northern Ireland’s gardens grow
Weeding with a hoe in the vegetable garden at Florence Court, Co FermanaghWeeding with a hoe in the vegetable garden at Florence Court, Co Fermanagh
Weeding with a hoe in the vegetable garden at Florence Court, Co Fermanagh

A garden centre owner has expressed his disgust at the Brexit and Covid rules and regulations that mean his company aren’t trading on a level playing field.

“I drove past a butcher’s shop the other day that was selling plants out the front – if and when I’m allowed to re-open I wonder would there be any objection if I put in a freezer and started selling meat?” asked Robin Mercer of Hillmount Garden Centre.

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When I spoke to Robin early last week he said: “We’re still waiting to see what happens – who’s allowed to open, who’s not. “Ideally we would like to be open for St Patrick’s Day. That is the time that everyone starts to garden.

Hillmount owner Robin MercerHillmount owner Robin Mercer
Hillmount owner Robin Mercer

“If you plant your seeds or potatoes on St Patrick’s Day they’re ready for the Twelfth of July. St Patrick’s Day is when you prune your roses, you do all your work. That’s the kick-off time.

“We’re trying to get stocked up ready for that.”

Following Thursday’s announcement that lockdown arrangements would continue until April 1 and that garden centres would remain closed, I spoke to Robin again.

He said: “Well that’s St Patrick’s Day gone now. It’s a huge blow for us, and for all of the gardeners in Northern Ireland.

Hillmount Garden Centre in BelfastHillmount Garden Centre in Belfast
Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast
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“Our peak season for the garden industry would be from St Patrick’s Day right through until the middle of June. This is so, so important.

“There’s people who have taken up gardening that have never gardened before. It’s helping their mental health, growing their own plants and vegetables, it’s something to do more than anything.

“It’s lovely to see, it’s all ages as well. People who are looking for houses are looking for houses with gardens.

“We sold more garden furniture and barbecues last year than what we ever did. Probably three or four times than what we’d normally sell.

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“It’s not just Northern Ireland, this was a worldwide trend. That’s why garden furniture has become quite hard to come by now, plus there’s a shortage of shipping containers.

“If you take it the whole of Europe has been in lockdown, everybody is staying at home, no one is going on holidays they’re all buying plants, furniture.”

With the garden centres closed until April 1, pending another review mid-March, Robin said gardeners would be forced to get what they could from other less-specialised outlets.

He said: “People are getting their gardening stuff from places like Tesco and Homebase. Yes, they’re essential stores, but not because of their garden products.

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“It is not a level playing field. We offer a wide range of choice because that’s our speciality.

“The most important time of the year for gardeners is coming up and they’re just having to make do.

“It’s totally unfair that B&Q, Homebase, Tesco – all these boys are getting the cream of it.

“These stores will dictate what furniture supplies, what garden supplies that you’re going to get. You’ll not have your choice.

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“Garden centres are not even on the click and collect list either.”

On Friday he said: “We’re totally disgusted. We’ve sent a letter to Arlene [Foster] this morning to say that we’re not happy at all.

“I was speaking to other garden centres last night. We’re all in the same boat.

“I still feel that garden centres are safe to open.”

He suggested that businesses should undergo an inspection and be rated on how safe they are to open, rather like the food hygiene system introduced some years ago.

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He said: “You make the effort to make your business as safe as possible, to limit the number of people coming in, to keep them socially distanced, then you see the supermarkets are absolutely packed. What’s the point?”

He continued: “Because everywhere’s shut at the minute I don’t think people realise what is happening with the rules and regulations.

“Once all the shops start opening and they start ordering stuff then they’re going to realise all the problems there’s going to be.”

Robin said Hillmount was pushing to increase its online sales but it was limited by its ability to deliver goods.

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He said: “We’re working hard behind the scenes to get online going. We’ve about 30 orders a day with online.

“We’re having to say, unfortunately, because we’ve only got three vehicles on the go, we’re only doing within a 10 to 12 miles radius and we’re asking for £50 minimum order.

“We’re putting out about 30 to 40 orders a day locally. I must say people are all chuffed to get it.

Robin said distributing goods was much easier than importing them, especially if they could be sent out on palettes.

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Under the NI protocol he said it was impossible to bring plants over from England if they contained British soil or bark.

He said seeds were also proving hard to come by: “To get the seeds from England over to here they have to get an inspector in to provide a certificate. It takes time and money to do that.

“Even down to getting stuff in on palettes, the palettes have to be certified, the rules just keep going every day.”

Hillmount, a business established more than 80 years ago, has three branches in Belfast, Bangor and Ards

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Robin said: “I’m the third generation, my son Alan is the fourth generation. He does all the computers and paperwork.

“I’m the old school, I just like to get stuck in and sell it.

“The amount of paperwork is serious. We’ve one girl whose job it is to get in touch with all our suppliers and get them informed of what they need to do.”

He commented: “We are ready to open up when the announcement comes, but the goalposts keep getting moved back.

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“Every day we were just checking to see what’s happening, but the latest lockdown extension has been a kick in the teeth.”

NI trade ‘not worth hassle’ for English firms

Robin said: “We’re trying to find out about all the duties and the form filling in you have to do. We’re listening to seminars, nobody can make head nor tail of it.

“I was sent the simplified version of the rules – 25 pages, none of it made sense. You’d need to be a solicitor to understand it all.

“We’re ringing the firms in England who supply us, we’re saying about DDP (Direct Duty Paid) and DAP (Duty At Port) and they haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.

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“A few of the big firms are getting round it, they realise there is business in Northern Ireland.

“If you’re a firm in England, would you go to all the bother, all the paperwork, the commodity codes, what port of entry, registration of the lorry, just to get a few hundred pounds?

“A lot of the firms are just saying the hassle of getting goods over to Northern Ireland, it’s not worth it.”

He added: “Some of suppliers are asking for a minimum order of £6,000, it’s a lot of money for some of the smaller garden centres.

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“There’s a lot of people who aren’t on top of this. A lot of the small nurseries and growers are just a one man band, they can’t get anything at all.

“In all the generations we’ve been in business this is the worst conditions ever. We’ve been bringing in plants from the word go, from my grandfather’s day, for them to turn around and say you can’t bring any more plants in is absolutely ridiculous.

“The government needs to relax a lot of the rules and regulations or people will go out of business.”

Rhododendrums prove hard to come by under new rules

As a result of the NI Protocol any products containing British soil and bark are banned from Northern Ireland.

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Robin said this has meant some popular plants have been hard to come by: “There aren’t enough suppliers in Northern Ireland to sustain a business. There’s a few growers we would use for bedding plants and normal plants, but plants like roses, climbers, Rhododendrons, Azaleas we would bring them in from England.

“Every one of those suppliers has said, ‘sorry boys, with the rules and regulations, with the soil issues and the bark issue, we can’t supply you’.

“We can’t see any future of getting plants in from England the way things are going unless they change the protocol.

He said: “We’re trying to get plants that are suitable for Northern Ireland conditions. If you take Scotland and England, plants that are growing there are growing in similar conditions to what we have. If you start moving into Europe, Holland and Italy they’re different conditions. So the plants are maybe not just the quality we would be wanting.”

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