Flowering plants at Viveros Gómez, in Ronda. / VANESSA MELGAR

Garden centres grow in popularity in pandemic

Many people became interested in growing their own vegetables and plants during the lockdown and the trend has continued, so garden centres are looking forward to excellent results this spring

VANESSA MELGAR

Two years ago the pandemic meant we all had to stay at home and for many people that may have sparked an interest in gardening, whether buying plants to decorate their home, growing their own vegetables and herbs or maybe planting an orange tree. That time, when we were shut indoors, is when the companies that own garden centres believe the passion for growing things began, and it has never been so popular as it is today.

Now, the current season has got off to a good start; spring is on its way, and things are looking positive although these companies cannot lose sight of the fact that they too are affected by the rise in electricity and fuel prices. Those that sell plants they grow themselves and do not depend solely on suppliers can at least offset some of the rising costs.

In Malaga province, according to sources at the Chamber of Commerce, the register of tax on economic activities (IAE) shows that 450 wholesale companies are licenced to sell cereals, fertilisers, plants etc. and another 1,050 are registered as retailers. These figures include those which specialise exclusively in gardening products.

Aurora Baena, the head of the AMJA association of gardening businesses in Andalucía, which has about 150 members, explains:

"With the lockdown, we realised that greenery gives us life. Many municipalities decided to enhance their garden areas. Towns and cities had prioritised ground over nature, but now they have to renaturalise, in other words look for that balance between green, biodiversity and quality," she says.

Baena says this province is a pioneer in Andalucía in this sense, with examples such as Malaga city, Estepona and Marbella, among others. "They are very committed to being green," she says, and of course this is good for the gardening sector because it has to supply the trend for creating new green projects.

The AMJA, which is developing the Andalucía en Flor programme, awarding municipalities which are committed to going greener and promoting the ecosystemic benefits of plants, also says that in the past ten years the sector has become more professional and this has contributed directly to its growth.

High demand

Viveros Gómez is in Ronda. One of its directors, Patricia Córdoba, confirms that business has increased in the past two years. "It has really gone up since the lockdown. We believe that because people had to stay at home they started to take more interest in looking after their living space. Now we are coming up to our peak season, which is spring," she says.

This company, which has eight employees, offers a comprehensive service: phytosanitary items, indoor and outdoor plants, vegetable seeds, herbs, fruit trees, soil, fertiliser, artificial flowers, equipment, decorative items and more.

Córdoba says demand is high, but they are having some problems maintaining stock. "The weather hasn't helped. Normally, business is slower in the winter but this hasn't happened this year. People have still been buying plants, so when spring arrives we are low on stock. Plants need time to grow, before they can be sold. The same thing happened last year," she says.

On top of that, there are the rising costs of fuel, electricity and social security payments. "We have our own vehicle for the nearby area, but we also have suppliers from Valencia, Galicia and Barcelona. We spend a lot on transport. We also have a supplier in the Netherlands, although honestly the profit margin is getting smaller all the time and it's almost not worth us ordering from them any more," she says.

Viveros Guzmán, SL. has three garden centres, in Alhaurín de la Torre, Marbella and Tenerife and 18 of its own production centres, including one in Costa Rica. The company employs around 500 people. Antonio Villanueva says the year has got off to a good start and agrees that the pandemic has been good for business.

"Since the lockdown, people seem more keen on having plants in their homes and gardens, and growing their own vegetables," he says, "and flowering plants and fruit trees are especially popular."

The location in Marbella is also key for this business because of the number of foreign clients who live or have a second home there, mainly houses with gardens. "They are coming to the garden centres much more now, and at this time of year, with Easter coming up, they want to make their gardens look nice again," he says.

Like Viveros Gómez, Viveros Guzmán faces the same problems about transport costs and the rise in fuel and electricity prices. However, Villanueva points out that in their case, they have their own production centres so they don't have to pass extra costs on to their clients.

The construction sector

Antonio Bazán, the CEO of Agrojardín in Estepona, also says things are going well for the sector. This company's location is a help because the council is committed to creating parks and gardens and there is a large foreign population.

Bazán points out that there is also a close connection between the construction industry and the gardening sector, especially on the coast where a lot of new building is under way.

"One of our lines of business is landscaping, creating gardens from scratch or the grounds of residential developments ,in collaboration with the builder. We have a patented system, Smart Garden & Design, which brings together all the existing technology to make a garden as sustainable as possible, from the type of plants, irrigation systems, biological pest control, lighting, furniture... even the installation of WiFi and the maintenance," he says. This company has a team of its own employees so it is able to adapt to the pace of construction.

Agrojardín's other lines of business include its garden centre, with an extensive range of plants and products, and its own production site in the countryside.

IVA too high, say growers

The gardening sector is calling for the rate of IVA to be reduced on plants, because it is still too high. In 2015 the rate for some products was reduced from the normal 21 per cent to ten per cent, whereas at one time it had only been eight per cent. This has led to a situation where some items are charged at the higher rate of IVA and others at the lower one.

"The IVA we have to charge is still very high and it ought to be reduced, at least in the case of vegetable plants and seeds, herbs and fruit trees," says Antonio Villanueva of Viveros Guzmán, and others in the sector agree.

Swapping geraniums for tomato plants

Garden centres in Malaga province can confirm that interest in growing vegetables has increased in the past two years, as more and more people are keen to be as self-sufficient as possible. "A lot of people who used to come and buy geraniums, for example, are now looking for tomato plants instead," says Antonio Villanueva of Viveros Guzmán.

In rural areas it has always been normal for people to buy vegetables and herbs to grow on their own land, in their gardens or even on terraces, but in towns it used to be quite unusual to see these items.

The pandemic has changed people's lives in many ways, but at least this one is positive.