As Christmas approaches, I thought that we would write to give an update as to how we are faring in this most strange of years. Even as I write, I realise that much can still happen before we get to Christmas, let alone 2021, and the news on Saturday of the South East going into a Tier 4 lockdown was concerning, just demonstrating that there is a long way to go.

It is etched on our minds that we closed on March 23rd – although that’s not quite true as the restaurants were all forced to shut down on the Friday night before and our heroes in The Apple Tree Farm Shop stayed open right the way through, keeping many customers going with deliveries of essential supplies.

We made some pledges on the 24th; firstly that we felt we needed to do our bit for the community, to keep as many people busy at home gardening as possible; secondly that we would make sure that we had procedures to keep ourselves and our customers safe from COVID, and thirdly that the crisis was happening to all of us and that Louise and I were determined that all jobs would remain safe.
Whereas the crisis is not yet over and we must still work hard all day and every day on these three aims for some time to come, we have done remarkably so far.

The garden centres were closed for the traditionally busiest eight weeks of March, April and May and the restaurants until early July. This ripped a huge hole from our annual sales. Temporary loans from the bank and from government filled the gap, although these will need to be repaid!

During this time a skeleton staff (those who were still able to work) answered the phones, picked the stock and delivered items to customers. We had six vans running all week, with vans out at the weekends too, and we served more customers than any other garden centre that I have spoken to in that time. We could not have worked harder.

With my Garden Centre Association (GCA) hat on I worked on putting pressure on the government to allow us to reopen, including numerous radio, newspaper and TV interviews. I also worked with the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) on agreeing the protocols by which we could open. These meant re-organising the centres with new entrances, one way systems, new till layouts, screens at the tills, systems for sanitising baskets and trollies, drive through compost shops and counting customers in and out. With the date set, we rehearsed how the new layouts would work so that we were ready to re-open and safely.

BBC Breakfast brought cameras and reporters to Castle Gardens and so our reopening was very public and nerve wracking. We became very busy immediately and in the first hour takings were what we had managed in a whole day using just the phones. By lunchtime we had done a weeks’ worth and we were then very busy for the rest of the spring and summer.

Problems started to occur with the supply chain as industries that had been closed for two months started to run out of stock, or bags to put the stock in, or ingredients, or transport or for a thousand other reasons, but we kept going.

When the restaurants opened they had help with Eat Out to Help Out, but with hefty restrictions on customer numbers and one-way systems we had to reorganise everything. More changes poured in over the weeks with recording names and phone numbers, wearing masks, stopping selling alcohol and finally closure again just as we were getting going. The restaurants have had the toughest time with so many changes and I’m proud of how well the teams coped.

Setting up Christmas saw the next challenge – could we take the risk of buying all of that stock, reorganising all of the routes, moving the tills again and building the displays, only to find that we had to close again. But we took the risk, built the best displays ever and with careful planning and hard work controlled the numbers in store, keeping everyone safe and enabling many people to have a glimmer of hope and comfort.

It hasn’t all been about firefighting; we also have made some positive changes to the business with the new Online Store open in a remarkably short time. It’s playing a small but important role in Christmas trade and will be really useful to us should we go into lockdown again in the New Year.

Remarkably (unless we get closed down), we have regained a large proportion of the sales lost in the garden centre side of the business. We have kept everyone safe so far. We have kept everyone employed.

But it’s not over yet – despite all we have done. The news of the vaccine was hugely welcome but with COVID rates rising everywhere and the worry that we will face a further lockdown in January looking ever more likely, it’s clear that there is a long way to go. The complications of Brexit, new restrictions on plant importing and the problem of stock getting stuck in China and in the UK ports means that it will be a tricky start to the year.

But we have fought hard and we are in as good a shape as we could ever have imagined, given what we have faced this year.

This has been down to a huge heroic team effort and also in no small part due to the support of our customers. So we wanted to say thank you for the part you played in this and to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.