Canadian growers look to Ontario's reopening garden centers to salvage dire year

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Hard-hit Canadian flower and nursery growers hope a surge in demand from budding gardeners in Ontario, the country’s biggest market, can help the industry avert disaster caused by the coronavirus with retailers reopening on Friday in the populous province.

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Most non-essential businesses in Canada were shut in mid-March as officials urged people to stay home, but in recent weeks many of the country’s 10 provinces, with the exception of Ontario, have allowed garden centers and nurseries to operate.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford gave the green light this week to garden centers to open their doors on Friday - two days before Mother’s Day, a key date for plant sales.

Sales in Canada’s greenhouse, sod and nursery sector increased by 2.4% to C$4.0 billion ($2.86 billion) in 2019, with Ontario accounting for 54.9% of total sales, Statistics Canada data shows.

“We usually figure if you don’t have the bulk of your sales done by June 15, it’s been a bad year,” said Jamie Calibers, growers’ manager for the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association.

But from March to Easter in April, flower growers lost 40% of their sales, Andrew Morse, executive director of Flowers Canada Growers, told Reuters. Projected industry losses could be as high as C$625 million by June 1.

Though the gardening season varies across the country, the bulk of sales are concentrated in April, May and June.

Kuyvenhoven Greenhouses sold 50% of what they had budgeted to sell at Easter, Andy Kuyvenhoven said, forcing him either to give away flowers or throw them in the trash.

The Kuyvenhoven farm in Brampton has grown about 50,000 square feet (4,650 square meters) of potted flowers like calla lilies and mums for Mother’s Day.

“Heading into Mother’s Day, our concern is the same: Is the market going to be open enough so that we can sell the product?,” Kuyvenhoven said.

At the Peter Knippel Garden Center in Ottawa, owner Kennedy Johnston said there’s been an “incredible spike” in customer demand because people have taken up gardening while being forced to stay at home during the pandemic.

The garden center is doing online orders and curbside pickup. “We’re getting a lot of new customers,” Johnston said.

“It’s been a little bit of chaos ... but we feel very fortunate to be busy,” he said, adding that demand for edible products, like vegetable plants and fruit trees, had doubled.

Reporting by Kelsey Johnson; edited by Steve Scherer and Jonathan Oatis