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Navigating Garden Centres in COVID-19

It may be summer and most flowers may be in bloom, but we’re still in a pandemic.

Garden centres had a late start to their prime season in Ontario due to provincial COVID-19 restrictions. Many gardeners had been itching to get their supplies for the spring and summer when centres across the province opened up on May 8. I’d like to share with you my experiences of gathering plants, pots, soil and seeds. Filled with anxiety, I first made an online order with Bradford Greenhouses. This garden centre is where I have exclusively shopped for my gardening needs since the initial March lockdowns. I have now physically entered the greenhouse twice too.

girl with copper hair and white and black specked shirt wearing a light blue medical grade mask
Masked up and on a mission for plants!
An aside about my lifestyle since March:

During my quarantine, I have been hiding away in my parents basement from the outside world and sticking to my small subdivision for walks and bike rides. I have had high stress and am honestly terrified of everything that enters the house. We’ve probably gone through an overly excessive amount of soap and sanitizer due to my anxiety. I’ve made textile masks for my family, my dad’s co-workers and neighbours. I have been in school full-time and more recently started a remote part-time job as well. Luckily I’ve had my boyfriend, Angad, with me. He is also working from home, and he keeps us company. My family of three now can play board games in teams! My dad has been the primary errand runner for the family; he is an essential worker and is in town already. My mom has been going out when her hip is okay (she’s due for a replacement this month!).

I wanted to compare my three experiences for you. This will show the development of my trust, but also of how the world overall is also operating differently as time goes on.
Check out my video of planting the seeds from my first order. The transcript can be found here.

April 28 – Online Order

My mom and I submitted an order online for seeds and dirt. I’ve used curbside pickup for other businesses, but they had pre-Covid experience with this selling method. It was quite honestly a painful process to get our items from the ordering stage to the pickup time. I must give them credit, they’re dealing with live goods and did not have online ordering prior to April, 2020. There were growing pains. I’ve read many comments on Bradford Greenhouse’s socials, and it appears that they have become more efficient as they have gained more experience (and less people using curbside pickup overall). The site was originally incredibly glitchy – the search functions didn’t work well yet and the order was deleted multiple times before it was submitted.

When my mom and I arrived to collect our order, their signage in the parking lot was off and there was a lot of disorganization. There ended up being 40 cars sporadically parked in a side lot. Nobody seemed to know where exactly to go. It was potentially dangerous with staff scurrying between cars. I will say that their use of a QR code was convenient – once someone came to the driver’s window, they just scanned our emailed copy to locate our order. One staff member was “going hard”- he was running back and forth from the soil to the greenhouse to the customers. Many others were sauntering and chatting, which didn’t seem to help the speed of service. In total it took around 40 minutes to collect our order, even though we had been allocated specific timeslot.

One of the funniest things was that they pushed a huge garden cart over with only a paper bag of seeds inside for us to take and put in the trunk. They had helped other customers load their cars even with small items, but they left the cart for us at the back of the vehicle between other cars. They could have passed it through the window like they did with the receipt. The bag was smaller than a Wendy’s takeout bag!

Despite this discouraging experience, it doesn’t deter me from purchasing from Bradford Greenhouses – it’s still in my top greenhouses list.

June 1 – First Physical Shopping Experience

This was the first time I entered any store since March. It was a big step for me! As you can see above, they had a lot of health and well-being precautions in place. This made me feel more comfortable visiting the greenhouse. My boyfriend came along for the ride, but he stayed in the car. With my mask on, I went in (picture a superhero suiting up for battle). I also refrained from bringing a purse with me; I planned on just using my pockets so I could wash my clothes then shower as soon as I got back home.

At the entrance, they had an employee give me a sanitized cart and another put sanitizer on my hands – off to a good start! People were generally spread out and the carts helped people from getting too close to each other. I realized pretty quickly that couples were there together. Angad probably could have come inside, but at least he had some quiet time away from me for once!

Plants were well-stocked and they had their expected patio designs set up too with outdoor decor. The store was sectioned off more to direct people along. For example, their clothing area (Lilie’s Boutique) was closed and you could only move to the cashiers from the back of the main building. Typically, you can move freely and join a line after looking through the boutique or the tropicals section on the sides.

silver metal cart pushed down a garden centre aisle with purple and red plants
Inside Bradford Greenhouses

I picked up a variety of small purple plants for our patio planters and a large philodendron (a tropical plant). It took me about 30 minutes to shop then about 10 more to check out. They had many tills open, so that helped keep customers moving through. They had nicely branded circles to tell shoppers where to go or where to line up.

green philodendron plant with large curvy edged leaves
My new philodendron

At the tills you’d put your cart in an area near the cashier and then you stayed behind a divider cord. To pay, they would hold a debit/credit machine on a long stick over so you could reach it. The cashiers worked in teams of two. Both of the girls working to check me out were lovely – they even complimented my outfit. My skirt had pockets, so who would blame them?

Overall it was a good experience and I felt comfortable picking out my plants to make my purchase.

potted plants at a garden centre with green mounds and small round pink flowers
Inside Bradford Greenhouses

July 4 – Second In-Store Shopping Experience

I recently went in to pick up some items for my mother’s birthday. She turned 65 on July 4, and Angad and I went last minute to get her some more gift items. She recently repainted the bench on our front porch a light bluish grey colour. We got her some palm printed outdoor cushions that match our avocado-coloured front door. They have zippers and are washable, so they meet her requirements, and they look cute! Angad did a great job of picking them out.

Looking for other plant-related gifts?

mother and daughter wearing summer clothes sitting on blue bench with palm leaf printed photos
My mom, Deb, and I with her new pillows and repainted bench

We also picked up an insect hotel – I think this is Angad’s favourite gift out of everything we gave her. Hopefully it’ll help get bees, butterflies and other insects to come help the ecosystem of our home garden.

Something I noticed during this second trip was the loosening of COVID-19 protocol. At the entrance, there was no one greeting us. There was a small sign of where the “sanitized” carts were, but I totally saw a woman return a cart there though. I avoided that one and hoped for the best. Inside there was a table set up with a spray bottle that said “sanitizer” and there were a few rolls of paper towel. I wasn’t sure if it was safe to spray on hands and arms or if it was intended to clean your own cart. There wasn’t a staff member to ask at the table, but I just put my own sanitizer from my pocket bottle on and kept moving.

green tropical plants including palms and peace lilies
Tropicals in Bradford Greenhouses

There were many couples and small families inside. Less masks were worn – I’d estimate under half the people inside were wearing one. Angad and I wore masks I had made at home. The tills also had one person handling the processing, product sorting, bagging and payment. At the exit there were carts scattered around; a staff member had taken the cart from me to sanitize immediately during my first in-store visit. I wasn’t a fan of the relaxation of safety initiatives, but I made sure we took our own precautions still. Although the case count isn’t reported to be high in the Barrie area, there’s a lot of people coming through from the GTA (a hot spot for COVID-19) on their way to and from cottages, other outdoor spaces like beaches and various summer activities. People from Barrie might not have been tested and be secretly carrying the virus too.

purple plant on silver shopping cart in a garden centre tree aisle
Inside Bradford Greenhouses

Further Plant Needs

I’m pretty set for the season, so I probably won’t need to go back until mid-August. Luckily my houseplants are doing well and most of our outdoor plants at home are perennials (they regrow year after year). My mom also went a couple of times to Bradford Greenhouses and has picked up other supplies at the grocery store too like annuals for the big outdoor gardens. She had similar experiences. I know some other gardening businesses are selling online-only or closing in July once the big push of the season is over, like Belgian Nursery in Breslau.

I’d like to know what your experiences have been like! Comment or #wellgrownhome on social media to share your garden centre trips.

Stay safe and #wearamask!


Published by sarahelletyler

I run Well-Grown Home, a plant blog, with passion. I'm additionally interested in public relations, video editing, painting, photography, makeup and communications.

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