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'There is no logic to it': Garden centre owners wonder why they're being forced to close their doors in Level 5

Along with other ‘non-essential’ retailers like bookshops, they can operate online.

Image: RollingNews.ie; Sasko Lazarov

ONCE AGAIN, WE’RE getting to grips with new restrictions and government definitions and trying to figure out what it all means.

In particular, garden centre operators — and their green-fingered customers — are scratching their heads today after the government last night published a detailed list of ‘essential’ retailers that are permitted to remain open to customers during Level 5.

That list includes “markets that, wholly or principally, offer food for sale, as well as shops that sell “supplies and tools essential for farming or agriculture purposes”.

It does not include garden centres.

Along with other ‘non-essential’ retailers like bookshops, they can only operate “online or other remote systems of ordering goods for purposes of collection”, according to the rules.

This is despite the fact that many of them have a large outdoor component to their business.

“There is no logic in it,” said Paraic Horkan, co-owner of Horkans Garden Centres, which operates four outlets across the country.

“You can go into a hardware store; you can buy a tin of paint; you can buy a yard brush or a ladder, but you can’t come into garden centres, which tend to be bigger, in terms of physical scale?”

Construction activity

The government has been grilled repeatedly about the often Jesuitical differences between essential and non-essential retailers.

In May, for example, hardware shops were allowed to reopen parallel to the reopening of building sites. At the time, then-Health Minister Simon Harris said the need to reopen homeware shops, on the other hand, just wasn’t as urgent.

“If you need to buy new curtains, it can wait a couple of weeks,” he said. 

In that scenario, the argument seemed to be that DIY and hardware shops facilitate emergency or essential home repairs while gussying up the house with new IKEA furniture wasn’t quite as important.

Applying that logic to the Level 5 restrictions, it’s easy to grasp a distinction between those retailers and garden centres.

But the differentiation also has something to do with the fact that construction activity is allowed to continue during the Level 5 restrictions.

Buildings works have been deemed essential and so the latest rules allow for hardware 0utlets and builders’ merchants to remain open to customers during the six-week shutdown.

Horkan argues that in this respect, garden centres should also be deemed essential.

“We sell to landscapers who work with building contractors,” he explains.

Even in Level 5, Horkan argues that “housing is still being developed” which requires landscapers to, well, landscape.

“We would have quite a number of landscaper customers who work for builders or work for contractors and they buy their compost and their plants and their bits and bobs in the garden centre.

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“They’ll now have to buy online and wait for home delivery”, he says.

The social element

There’s some suggestion that the government is concerned about how people conduct themselves in garden centres compared to other retail outlets.

A trip to your local garden centre can be a family day out. For many, often elderly customers, it’s also a place to meet your friends.

Again this doesn’t wash for Horkan.

While he does cater for an “older audience”, he says they  “tend to be very careful about their movements”.

They will still be able to order online over the coming weeks but he says it’s “kind of unfair to be asking people who might not be digitally aware to buy things online”.

Horkan also believes it’s very easy to adhere to physical distancing rules in large centres like the one he co-owns and operates in Castlebar, Co Mayo, which is 40,000 square feet.

“People can social distance in it with no problem whatsoever.

“We just can’t understand why the government, on the one hand, is telling people to be physically active — particularly older people —  and yet they’re not allowing them the tools and the plants, and the garden centres to be able to actually physically do some gardening,” he says. 

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