Business is blossoming for Newfoundland's garden centre owners, despite supply chain problems

·5 min read
Plants are pictured at Murray's Garden Centre in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, which has seen an increase in business since the pandemic hit Newfoundland and Labrador. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Plants are pictured at Murray's Garden Centre in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, which has seen an increase in business since the pandemic hit Newfoundland and Labrador. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Owners of garden centres on the Avalon Peninsula say they are seeing unprecedented demand two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, even as supply-chain woes continue to cause headaches.

Evan Murray, an owner-operator of Murray's Garden Centre in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, told CBC News the last two years are among the most successful ones the business has ever had.

"It's been wonderful," said Murray.

But the future didn't always seem this bright. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Murray said, he didn't understand how the store would be able to sell its products, and the business scaled back its orders. But after they opened for curbside pickup, there was more demand for plants and flowers than they expected.

"We quickly realized we would have one of the busiest years we had ever seen," he said.

While it's unclear how much of the pandemic-prompted business they will retain, Murray said he's heard from many first-time gardeners that they've found it rewarding.

"People who had their first experience in growing vegetables, annuals or perennials or even trees and shrubs [have] got the gardening bug, so to speak, and they're continuing to be lifelong gardeners," Murray said.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

But increased demand both in Newfoundland and Labrador and abroad has come with a downside, with supply becoming scarcer, said Murray. The business has been forced to order supplies several months — or even up to a year — in advance for the upcoming season.

"That included everything from our plugs to our hardware to our seeds. You had to secure that supply as soon as possible, and still those supply lines are challenged."

Supply-chain problems prompted Murray to begin a pre-ordering program for customers, as items have been selling out quickly.

"We are accepting pre-orders, which is something we began during the pandemic to make sure people could secure the plants that we knew were coming."

Murray said the most popular pre-ordered items are herbs and vegetables, with increased demand from customers who want to grow their own food.

"People have a lot of interest in growing beautiful but also functional gardens and edible gardens," he said.

Jeremy Eaton/CBC
Jeremy Eaton/CBC

John Frecker, owner of Holland Nurseries in St. John's, had much the same experience.

"When we first went into the lockdown, it was very, very disconcerting. We didn't know what was going to happen." While Frecker initially thought pandemic safety measures would cause a downturn in sales, the opposite proved true.

"To our surprise, it was a very strong year."

But, Frecker said, supply-chain shortages have been "horrific" amid the increased popularity of gardening goods.

"It's been a real challenge," Frecker said. "A lot of our suppliers simply don't have the products that we would ordinarily have in stock."

He said the products will eventually arrive but in some cases he's been forced to find new suppliers to make up for the shortages.

Floral bouquets have been particularly hurt by the supply chain woes.

"Stuff coming up from South America is proving very difficult. A lot of the farms have had to close because they've had health issues with their staff, people unable to get to work. It's a very labour-intensive field and they just haven't had the workers to deal with it."

Jeremy Eaton/CBC
Jeremy Eaton/CBC

Frecker said while they're seeing more first-time gardeners, there has also been a spike in demand for house plants.

"It's a relatively low-maintenance thing that you can do to beautify your home," he said, with succulents and tropical plants proving particularly popular.

Frecker said he thinks gardening gained popularity due to travel restrictions forcing people to stay home and take in their surroundings. With travel restrictions largely lifted, he's not sure where that will leave the business.

"Now that people have gotten a taste for the pleasure that they can get from doing their own gardening, it may shape up to be another strong year, but with the high price increases on gas and everything else, God knows what people's disposable income is and how much amount they'll have available to do that sort of thing."

Both garden centre owners have tips for first-time gardeners.

"This time of the year is the right time to be planning and thinking ahead to when we get to those warmer weeks," Murray said. "So in some cases, you are starting seed now."

Good planning is required to make sure you have transplants ready to roll out as soon as warmer weather arrives. He suggests considering the layout of the garden and having the material and supplies on hand to strike when the time is right.

"If you're doing leafy greens, you can get multiple harvests per year if you plan properly."

Murray cautioned new gardeners to not get too excited. He said eager people will often start seeds too early.

"There are some things you can start now and some things you can put out even during months where you have frost," he said, listing kale, pansies and violas as examples.

"But you don't want to be starting your squash or pumpkin plants indoors and then ending up with a plant that's five feet long and nowhere to put it because there's still frost outside."

To avoid frustration, Frecker said, new gardeners should read up on what they want to grow.

"It helps for people to get as much information as possible about what's required to make that succeed," he said. "It's not that it's a huge amount of work, but you do have to pay attention."

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