NI garden centre boss: Stuck Suez ship has our goods on board

A man who has spent his life in the gardening business is pleading with the NI government to allow independent firms like his to open, as he is forced to watch major league retailers hoover up all of the springtime custom.

Monday, 29th March 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Monday, 29th March 2021, 10:12 am

Robin Mercer, owner of the Hillmount group of garden centres, told the News Letter that not only is he forced to stay shut while the likes of Homebase and B&Q keep trading, but the ship which is now blocking the Suez Canal has many of his products on board.

The 67-year-old Mr Mercer has been in the business since age 18 and employs 65 people across his Castlereagh, Ards and Bangor outlets (about 35 of whom are now furloughed).

He said that right now it is the core planting season, and he is left without even an indicative date for when he can begin letting in customers, having been closed since Christmas Eve.

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Robin Mercer's garden centres have been closed since Christmas Eve

He is getting ready to offer a click-and-collect service on April 1, although this has its own drawbacks, not least of which is that customers usually want to select their plants and furniture in person.

“The whole thing is ridiculous,” he said.

“There’s no fair playing field at all. English garden centres have been open right through from Christmas to now. We haven’t even got a date!

“It sickens you; you drive down the road and all you see outside all the shops is compost and plants.

The Homebase store at Galwally in Belfast yesterday, with vast heaps of merchandise lining the entrance to the store

“We feel garden centres are one of the safest places to be – they’re big open spaces.”

He added that an inability to get plants into Northern Ireland from England thanks to Brexit is compounding his problems – as is the ongoing blockage of the Suez Canal.

Since March 23, the vast container ship Ever Given has been wedged firmly across the canal, its bow and stern resting on opposite banks.

It was en route from Malaysia to the Netherlands, and Mr Mercer said: “One of our suppliers of hanging baskets and tools and solar lights showed me a list on Friday of all the things that they have on that boat in some of the containers.

The Ever Given, a giant cargo ship which ran aground last Tuesday in the Suez Canal, Egypt, blocking the passage for scores of other ships

“As well as that, our garden furniture supplier knows some of the furniture we’ve ordered is on a boat sitting behind that boat, that can’t get through!

“Everything is against us this year. It really is.”

Asked what his message would be to the Stormont Executive, he replied: “The season traditionally starts 17th of March and finishes the 20th of June.

“We’re well under way with the [planting] season, customers need to get into the garden centres to get their plants.

“Please, please, please – we’ve written to all the different powers that be – let the garden centres open.”

James Barnes, chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, said: “At this time of year, garden centre customers have so many projects they want to be getting on with – from sowing and planting to improvements to spaces for outdoor entertaining.

“The clocks changed this weekend, providing even more opportunities to make the most of being outdoors. We are calling on the NI Executive to recognise the health benefits of gardening and give horticulture the go-ahead to plan reopening as soon as possible.”