Victoria Day long weekend key for garden centre, nursery business

Canadian garden centres are banking on a busy May long weekend to revive sales after the endless winter and sluggish spring.

Much business at stake after a long, cold winter and reluctant spring

Business has been slow for Canadian garden centres and nurseries, but a busy Victoria Day long weekend could reverse fortunes. (Lisa Massey/The Express-Times/AP)

Canadian garden centres are banking on a busy May long weekend to revive sales after the endless winter and sluggish spring. 

At Calgary’s Sunnyside Garden Centre, which has served the city’s gardeners since 1918, customers finally started trickling in after two consecutive nights where the temperature stayed above freezing.

Store supervisor Melissa Horning says that if the weather’s good there are people in the store. If not, "There’s nobody."

Spencer Mah, of Saskatoon’s Floral Acres Greenhouse and Garden centre, said that without customers coming through the door it’s been hard to keep the greenhouse plants from over-growing.

“You can only maintain plants for so long,” Mah told CBC Saskatchewan.

Proceed with caution

Gardeners, start your seedlings.

Spring is finally here in most parts of Canada and it’s a good time to start growing, said gardening guru Ed Lawrence, who regularly fields questions on CBC Radio’s Ontario Today.

While the extra time off that comes with the Victoria Day long weekend is an excellent time to sow seeds, Lawrence said, gardeners still need to keep a close eye on the forecast because the long weekend arrives earlier this year.

Evening frost, Lawrence said, is still a risk.

“Plants become pretty tall and it's less appealing to the consumers … obviously when you're not selling things and you have to start throwing it out, you know, it's a complete reversal of your bottom line.”

Gardening — from backyard veggie patches to larger landscaping projects — is big business in Canada. According to the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association, a national organization that supports those in the industry, people spend around $14 billion each year on beautifying their outdoor spaces.

The industry employs around 132,000 people, the association said. 

John Byland, the CNLA’s grower’s chair, said that although the growing season is off to a slow start, it can pick up quickly as frustrated gardeners race into stores and snap up everything they see.

Byland, who has a nursery in Kelowna, B.C., said it doesn’t surprise him to hear that some nurseries have had to throw out plants.

“We’re in a very speculative business and waste is a significant risk,” Byland said, adding that because nurseries schedule all of their crops, some older plants must be moved to make way for fresh ones.

Victoria Day like Christmas for garden centres

Ottawa's famous Dutch tulips are right on time for the annual Tulip Festival, gardening guru Ed Lawrence says. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Many Canadian garden centres look forward to the Victoria Day long weekend like toy stores set their sights on Christmas. For good reason, said Almonte, Ont.-based gardening expert Ed Lawrence — it’s a great time to start planting.

“All you have to do is look outside to see that everything’s catching up,” Lawrence said, pointing out that while some plants came in later this year, others are coming up earlier.  

Spring treats, like Ottawa’s famous Dutch tulips, are right on time, Lawrence said.

As for the garden centres, Lawrence said he’s not surprised business has been slow, but expects sunny weather this weekend will boost sales.

"People aren’t going to go out and buy when it’s rainy and cold," Lawrence said.

But if it's sunny, garden centre employees will be "run off their feet.”

Sales slow, but customers are still there

Bill’s Garden Centre, on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, has been in business for 30 years, but this winter has been among the worst.

“It’s pushed back the season, everything is three weeks behind,” said clerk John Lewis, who is an avid herb grower.

Lewis said the sluggish spring — Toronto’s trees are only now sprouting leaves — has hurt business, but the garden centre hasn’t lost customers. A steady stream of gardeners have passed through the shop since the sun started shining, many of them looking for the same plants as usual.

Gardeners are “creatures of habit,” Lewis said, a tough crowd that knows their pursuit is weather-dependent.

Some gardeners turn to ready-to-go flowers

Even gardeners in St. John’s, where a harsh winter with blizzard after blizzard is being followed by a blustery spring, are out in the bitter wind scouting out prime spots for vegetables.

It took a while, but the cherry blossoms are finally out in Toronto's High Park. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)
“One needs a sense of humour to garden here,” said Sarah Mills.

Mills said she’s hoping to get out in the garden this weekend to finally plant her first round of seedlings — Swiss chard, kale and brussels sprouts — which came from an organic farm.

Joining the hardcore green-thumb types is another group that could help garden centres’ bottom lines: the impatient gardeners.

At Sunnyside Garden Centre, customers have already been looking for bigger planters and flowers that are potted and ready to go — typically more expensive items.

“People like the instant, they like the easy,” Melissa Horning said.

Byland of the CNLA said those ready-to-go flowers are a definite trend in the industry, as people look for instant decorations for the short summer season. Another trend that bodes well for garden centres? June is becoming a busier month for Canadian gardeners.

By the time the fall comes, Byland said, 2014 might turn out to be a good year for the gardening business after all.