Online sales have shielded some Northern Ireland garden centres from having to dump perfectly good plants amid the coronavirus pandemic, it can be revealed.
Hillmount Garden Centre outside Belfast and Mid Ulster Garden Centre in Maghera have told the Belfast Telegraph how internet business has helped to buffer some of the negative effects of store closures and shielded them from problems experienced by some of their UK counterparts.
It comes as former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers called on the government to reopen garden centres as plant growers begin dumping hundreds of millions of plants on compost heaps.
Mrs Villiers, an ex-Environment Minister, said nurseries and garden centres should be able to reopen because they would "find it easier to comply with social distancing than other shops because of their larger footprint, much of it outdoors".
Peter Bradley, partial owner/director of Mid Ulster Garden Centre in Maghera, told the Belfast Telegraph that, rather than dump anything, they donated over 300 plants to the Northern Trust. Mr Bradley also said their "strong online business" has helped them through the pandemic so far.
And he said it was "perfectly feasible" for garden centres to reopen, adding that various measures that will be put in place upon reopening include the provision of hand sanitiser and gloves for customers as they enter the garden centre.
"We would operate a one-way system, a queue at the gates, we'd count the people going in and out and there would be tape markers on the floor," he said.
"We've got loads of space so social distancing would be easy.
"The one-way system is most critical and we'd make people veer left into the plant area before entering the shop and people would be counted going in and out of there.
"We'd use one checkout instead of the normal three and the automatic doors would be kept open."
Meanwhile, the Mercer family, who own Hillmount, a traditional 80-year-old garden centre nestled in the Castlereagh Hills, has said both the digital transformation and the exceptional weather has helped them survive in the past three weeks.
We have been able to transform our business to operating predominantly online but we still offer the older generation - who may not be online - the option of phoning our store and placing their ordersAlan Mercer, Hillmount managing director
Indeed, they revealed that taking the business online has resulted in year-on-year sales increasing by 66% for the first three weeks in April, despite closing their stores in Belfast, Bangor and Ards.
Alan Mercer, Hillmount managing director, said that they initially had fears for their future.
"When we closed the doors to the public three weeks ago we honestly thought that our 80-year-old family business would not survive until the end of April," he said.
"But we are grateful and thankful to customers who have been loyal to our business over the years and new customers who are contacting us every day expressing the need to be able to enjoy their gardens to assist their mental and physical health.
"We have been able to transform our business to operating predominantly online but we still offer the older generation - who may not be online - the option of phoning our store and placing their orders, although the majority of our average 300 orders every day are either being placed via our new website or through private message on Facebook."
Mr Mercer said the next few weeks could pose new problems "as some growers have stopped growing so there could now be a potential issue with supply and demand of plants, garden furniture and barbecues".
He added that some deliveries are now delayed until mid-June.