It’s been just 16 weeks since the Government gave us the go ahead to re-open our garden centres, and it feels like forever and no time at all at the same time. The restaurants have been open for seven weeks and we are starting to settle into some sort of rhythm.

Since reopening our teams have been kept busy with lots of customers as well as following the extra safety measures, such as one-way systems, 2-metre spacing and screens at the tills, as well as cleaning trollies and baskets after every use and now the wearing of face masks. Every day is much busier than the same day a year ago, and while we’re unlikely to make up for our lockdown losses, it’s a much brighter situation than we could have hoped for.

It hasn’t been without its challenges, especially as our supply chain also went into lockdown and struggled to cope with demand when we got back up and running. Supplies of compost, for example have only just started to get back to normal with the full range now available. Our growers had the toughest time as they were forced to waste many plants in the peak season but they have been buoyed by the unseasonal demand as summer progressed.

When the restaurants all reopened on the 6th July, we had to re-invent all of our systems and reduce capacity to maintain social distancing. Outdoor space has been expanded, using the Butterfly House and garden at Castle Gardens, an open-sided marquee in the car park at Poundbury Gardens and parts of the car park at Brimsmore Gardens. While the Eat Out to Help Out scheme has helped in August, we are currently running between 75% and 100% of normal trade whilst the weather is with us and we’re now working towards creating additional undercover space to cope with the season through to Christmas.

The team, as we would have expected, have been magnificent! Almost all are now back at work although some are still at home looking after children, vulnerable relatives or are vulnerable themselves. We have used the Government furlough scheme to keep everyone employed so far and our aim is to avoid redundancies which we have managed to do so far.

We are really looking forward to the next few weeks, as the autumn season is a great opportunity for us to help keep people at home and gardening. You’ll notice that we’re not referring to it as autumn yet because we have so many customers who are new to gardening and the concern is that gardening will be the last thing on their mind as they associate this time of year with short days, rain, snow and winds from the north. Whereas us gardeners know that the next few weeks can be the most exciting in the garden with many plants coming into their finest hour and with the soil warm and moist it’s the perfect time for planting. As the autumn colours develop, fruit and berries ripen, bedding plants flower and stems start to glisten, there is something new to see almost every day and there’s a new range of plants every two weeks in the garden centres.

What will scupper this clarity of message is when we launch the Christmas displays as by then the game will be up!

Christmas will be a challenge that we are working hard to solve as we have to assume that the same social distancing rules will be in place. With this in mind, we have reorganised the flow around the centres to allow for a comfortable and socially distanced route through the Christmas displays. There will be extra tills to reduce queues, additional hand sanitiser throughout the displays and restocking will take place at night to ensure that space is kept clear for customers during our opening hours. As we get closer to Christmas we will extend our opening hours so visitors can enjoy a quieter stroll around the displays at their twinkly best. For those who just want gardening, you will as always be able to get to gardening without having to go through the Christmas displays at all sites.

Father Christmas is under review at the moment as are other events, but we feel that many will see Christmas 2020 as a really important time. We think it will be too.

We will be making sure that everyone is taken through the changes in the next few weeks so that comfort and safety is maintained at all times.