COVID-19 has transformed the gardening industry – so what are the new trends?

Craig Sams

For all the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – and there have been many – there have been some positives. Namely, the huge boom in home gardening and grow-your-own.

As the world entered lockdown, many millions of us were furloughed or forced to isolate at home, leaving growers with plenty more time to spend in their gardens and allotments.

Little did we know though that while coronavirus would endanger many industries, the gardening sector would explode due to budding horticulturalists seeking a connection to nature and more food security. In fact, the industry has been positively transformed in a matter of months – and many trends appear to be here to stay.

So, what does the post-COVID gardening industry look like today?

I’ve been heartened by the millions of new British growers who have sprung up this year – almost three million, according to research from The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA). Nearly half of these new gardeners are aged under 45.

As you might expect, many of these new growers said that the lockdown gave them more time and energy to immerse themselves in a new passion for growing. The National Allotment Society also reported a rise in the number of people joining their local council’s waiting lists for plots during the lockdown, proving that this is an urban as a well as a rural trend.

Whether garden or allotment, such wonderful patches of nature have become crucial sources of green space in urban areas, and key to keeping good mental health in these trying times.

It’s said that it takes 66 days to form a new habit. Lockdown lasted much longer than this, so I’m confident these new growers aren’t just a flash in the pan – they’re here to stay.

Not only does the gardening industry have more customers, but growers as a whole are spending more as they stock up their horticultural armoury.

The HTA Garden Retail Monitor found that sales of gardening products were up 34%, 17% and 19% in June, July and August respectively in UK garden centres, compared to the same time last year. On average, individual customers were spending 35% more on gardening products.

Sales also surged in bedding plants (29%), seeds (59%) and gardening equipment (51%), while garden leisure categories were higher than in August 2019.

When the coronavirus reached our shores, panic buying swept across the UK. Walk into nearly any supermarket and you’d see swathes of shelves that were either severely depleted, or stripped bare. Meanwhile, food delivery slots had weeks-long waiting times.

For fruit and veg lovers, the lack of fresh produce was particularly grim. So individuals and those sharing community gardens decided that growing and harvesting their own fresh food would be a no-brainer. In fact, seed producers reported a massive rise in sales during lockdown. And in March, the Royal Horticultural Society said visits to their web pages with advice on growing vegetables had more than doubled compared with the same time last year.

Growers will know that homegrown veg not only tastes better than shop-bought food, but you also have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve grown it yourself, and, with no plastic or drive to the supermarket, have cut your carbon footprint to boot.

With potentially millions more of us growing some of our own food, we have become less reliant on shop-bought fruit and veg, which is often imported from abroad. This will ultimately help to make the UK’s food chain more resilient.

The world has gradually been waking up to the unavoidable threat of the climate crisis. However, although the lockdown led to a decrease in pollution, the immediacy of the pandemic has made it difficult to give our environment the attention it deserves.

I’m hopeful that the influx of new gardeners – who will surely deepen their love of the environment – will add to those forces fighting to protect it. But their activities and buying choices will be crucial.

Thankfully, many chemical inputs once relied upon by growers and gardeners for fertility and disease control are now avoided due to fears about their impact on human and environmental health. In fact, some 67% of UK gardeners say they’re eco-conscious and 46% of this group already use organic fertilisers.

This is also a growing trend. The 2020 Organic Market Report revealed that the organic market had seen an eighth year of strong growth. It grew 4.5% in 2019 to reach a record £2.45bn.

However, David Ware, head of eco garden centre Edibleculture in Kent has warned consumers to be wary of ‘greenwashing’ from brands who sell faux-eco products,

"The real problems for the environment from horticulture come from this kind of greenwashing, peat and peat-based compost where its production destroys a fragile ecosystem”, he added.

The use of peat-based composts is something that resonates with me in particular. After learning that they destroy natural, CO2-absorbing habitats and fuel the climate crisis, I realised how important biochar (a type of charcoal) is in providing a more sustainable and effective solution.

Biochar delivers comparable benefits to chemical and peat products, yet lasts far longer in the soil and locks away CO2. I ended up founding Carbon Gold to make sure that organic biochar products were available to UK growers.

Dr David Bek is a reader of sustainable economics at Coventry University who studies how the horticulture industry can increase sustainability in the supply chain. He told Horticulture Week that Covid-19 has “emphasised the need for all businesses to review their resilience and sustainability”. He added: “There is a sense that the pandemic is a warning sign about humans' relationship with the planet — a real wake-up call.”

Stronger still are David Attenborough’s wise words that “COVID will be a footnote in human history – climate change will change everything.” I truly hope that all who care about the natural world do not lose sight of this.

I am, however, heartened that growers will be a key force in fighting climate change. Against all odds, a global pandemic transformed the gardening industry, making it bigger, stronger and more resilient. Having rewarded us greatly in these dark times, I now hope that all of us who make up the world of growing will help to protect the environment that we love.

Craig Sams is founder of biochar products company Carbon Gold 

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