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Safety to the fore as reopening of garden centres in Northern Ireland proves a success

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A shopper and a member of staff at Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast yesterday

A shopper and a member of staff at Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast yesterday

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

David Irwin at Hillmount

David Irwin at Hillmount

Ann-Marie and David Scott at Hillmount

Ann-Marie and David Scott at Hillmount

Karen and William Thompson in Coleraine Garden Centre

Karen and William Thompson in Coleraine Garden Centre

Alan Hall, owner of Coleraine Garden Centre

Alan Hall, owner of Coleraine Garden Centre

Karen McCloskey in Coleraine Garden Centre

Karen McCloskey in Coleraine Garden Centre

A shopper and a member of staff at Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast yesterday

GARDEN centre owners across Northern Ireland may have been expecting "chaos" as they were allowed to open their doors yesterday, but the reality proved far more serene as customers took their first steps out of lockdown.

At Hillmount Garden Centre in Belfast visitors were greeted by staff with face masks and hand sanitiser.

A new entrance leading to a one-way system allowed shoppers plenty of space among the floral displays while maintaining social distancing.

With much of the stock having a limited shelf life, owner Robin Mercer said he was relieved to get back to some normality.

"They're all coming in, they're so happy to be here and pick their own plants for their gardens," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We've had a website going for the home deliveries but it's just not the same as allowing people to come and pick things out for themselves.

"I was that anxious I called the police yesterday just to warn them in case it would have been chaos.

"But the message we've been putting out is: 'Take it easy, we're here for a long time'. And it has worked."

Keen gardener David Irwin (60) from Belfast was taking no chances as he arrived wearing gloves and a face mask.

"I would normally do a lot in the garden. I'm delighted to be out. And, of course, from the garden centre point of view I think they had been struggling as well, so it's a win-win for everybody.

"I tend to put gloves on when I come out, usually some sort of facial covering... particularly if it's going to be potentially busy.

"I work at a health centre myself so I'm quite used to keeping my distance. We thought if it was very busy when we arrived we'd come some other time, but it's not too bad and the way they've got it organised is pretty good."

Couple Ann-Marie (48) and David Scott (53) from Dunmurry were out to buy new flowerpots for the front of their house.

"We've been in the garden all day, every day," said Mr Scott.

"It's so nice to get out of the house for a while. We knew it would be busy but people are doing a good job with social distancing and it feels safe. People seem to be looking after each other."

Mother and daughter Sarah Sheldon (66) and Paula Winchester (29) from Belfast said gardening during lockdown had helped to reduce stress.

"It makes such a difference to your life to come to a garden centre," Ms Sheldon added. At Coleraine Garden Centre owner Alan Hall has introduced a number of measures to keep customers safe, including social distancing, controlled admissions and a one-way system.

Mr Hall said the Executive's decision to allow access to garden centres in Step One of its easing of the lockdown restrictions had saved him a significant sum of money.

He said: "Lifting the restrictions could not have come at a better time, because had it gone on until Step Three or Four, it would have been too late in the season and I could have lost tens of thousands worth of stock. We have plenty of plants ready for sale but bedding plants might be the problem because although we grow some, most come from our suppliers and they are struggling."

Among those who were delighted to be browsing the hundreds of bedding plants, shrubs, bushes and trees was Karen McCloskey from Dungiven. "It is great to see the garden centres open because it gives you hope that things will return to normal again," she said.

"I love the garden and I have a big interest (in it), but I am actually here looking for plants for my sister's garden because she doesn't know what to buy.

"I'm going to get some bedding plants, something to put a bit of colour into the garden, so I am looking for pansies, viola, petunias and some ivy."

William and Karen Thompson from Portrush were mainly looking for trees for land they purchased recently.

Karen said: "We have an acre site we want to use to create a woodland but we're buying plants that will do well in shade as well. We want this woodland filled with deciduous trees and the plan is it will be our legacy long after we have gone."

Keen gardener Krissi Rochelle from Ballymoney had her car boot packed with a colourful selection of azaleas, rhododendrons, lupins and grasses and was itching to get home to start planting.

"I have waited patiently on this day and couldn't wait to get here," she explained.

"We moved from England a year ago, opened a B&B but obviously we haven't had any guests so we have used the time creating a garden because there wasn't one there before.

"I am delighted that I was able to get everything I was looking for. I'll be out in the garden for the coming days getting everything in place."

In Templepatrick Richard Fry, managing director of Colemans Garden Centre, said he will be lucky if the business breaks even this year. "To be honest, I think 2020 we have to write off. There'll be no profitability as such for this year. If we break even we'll be doing well.

"We are limiting the number of people through the door to just two per household. We have people on the front door, we have people on the back door, we have a one-way system in place, we're asking people to sanitise their hands," he added.

Belfast Telegraph