Business is booming for Newfoundland garden center owners, despite supply chain issues

Plants are pictured at Murray’s Garden Center in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, which has seen an increase in business since the pandemic hit Newfoundland and Labrador. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Avalon Peninsula garden center owners say they are seeing unprecedented demand two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, even as supply chain issues continue to cause headaches .

Evan Murray, owner and operator of Murray’s Garden Center in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, told CBC News that the past two years have been among the most successful the company has ever seen.

“It’s been wonderful,” Murray said.

But the future didn’t always look so bright. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Murray said, he didn’t understand how the store could sell its products, and the company cut orders. But after they opened for curbside pickup, the demand for plants and flowers was higher than they expected.

“We quickly realized we would have one of the busiest years we’ve ever seen,” he said.

While it’s unclear how much of the business sparked by the pandemic they’ll keep, Murray said he’s heard from many newbie gardeners that they’ve found it rewarding.

“People who have had their first experience growing vegetables, annuals or perennials or even trees and shrubs [have] caught the gardening bug, so to speak, and they continue to be lifelong gardeners,” Murray said.

Evan Murray, owner and operator of Murray’s Garden Centre, says his gardening business has seen unprecedented sales since the start of the pandemic. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

But the increased demand in Newfoundland and Labrador and overseas has come with a downside, with supply becoming tighter, Murray said. The company was forced to order supplies months – even up to a year – in advance for the upcoming season.

“That included everything from our catches to our gear to our seeds. You needed to secure that supply as soon as possible, and those supply lines are always tested.”

Supply chain issues prompted Murray to launch a pre-order program for customers as items sell out quickly.

“We’re accepting pre-orders, which we started during the pandemic to make sure people could secure the plants 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.

Holland Nurseries owner John Frecker says the pandemic years have been an unexpected success for his garden centre, with houseplants being big sellers. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

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

“When we first entered lockdown it was very, very disconcerting. We didn’t know what was going to happen.” While Frecker initially thought pandemic safety measures would lead to lower sales, the opposite turned out to be true.

“To our surprise, it was a very good year.”

But, Frecker said, supply chain shortages have been “horrendous” amid the growing popularity of gardening items.

“It’s been a real challenge,” Frecker said. “A lot of our suppliers just don’t have the products that we would normally have in stock.”

He said the products would eventually arrive, but in some cases he was forced to find new suppliers to make up for shortages.

Flower bouquets have been particularly affected by supply chain issues.

“Things coming from South America are proving very difficult. A lot of farms had to close because they had health issues with their staff, people unable to get to work. It’s an area very labor intensive and they just have a paradise I didn’t have the workers to take care of it.”

Holland Nurseries flower arrangements are pictured in February 2017. Since the start of the pandemic, Frecker says, his stock of cut flowers has been affected by supply chain issues. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Frecker said as they see more beginning gardeners, there is also an increase in demand for houseplants.

“It’s a relatively low-maintenance thing you can do to spruce up your home,” he said, with succulents and tropical plants being particularly popular.

Frecker said he thinks gardening has grown in popularity due to travel restrictions forcing people to stay home and enjoy their surroundings. With travel restrictions largely lifted, he’s unsure where that will leave the company.

“Now that people have had a taste of the fun they can get from doing their own gardening, it could be shaping up to be another good year, but with the big increases in gas prices and everything else, God knows what is people’s disposable income and how much money will they have to do this stuff.”

The two garden center owners have some tips for beginner gardeners.

“This time of year is a good time to plan and think ahead when we get to those warmer weeks,” Murray said. “So in some cases you start sowing now.”

Proper planning is necessary to ensure you have grafts ready to deploy as soon as warmer weather arrives. He suggests considering the layout of the garden and having the equipment and supplies on hand to strike when the time comes.

“If you grow leafy greens, you can get multiple harvests a year if you plan properly.”

Murray warned new gardeners not to get too excited. He said enthusiastic people would often start seeds too soon.

“There are some things you can start now and some things you can turn off even in the months when you have frost,” he said, citing kale, pansies and violas as examples.

“But you don’t want to start your squash or pumpkin plants indoors and then end up with a five-foot-long plant and nowhere to put it because there’s still frost outside. “

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

“It helps people get as much information as possible about what’s needed to make this successful,” he said. “It’s not that it’s a huge amount of work, but you have to be careful.”

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