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'Heartbreak' as UK garden sector faces virus 'wipe out'

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London (AFP)

Britain's horticultural industry could be wiped out in a matter of weeks by the coronavirus pandemic, and millions of unsold plants thrown away, experts warned on Tuesday.

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), which represents 1,400 garden centres across the UK, urged the government for financial aid to help the industry as it faces economic calamity during what is usually its busiest time of the year.

"We have hit a perfect storm in the UK," said HTA chairman, James Barnes in a statement.

"The seasonality and perishability that is unique to our industry means that growers are potentially facing stock losses on an ever-rising scale as each day passes."

It is asking the government for financial assistance of up to £250 million ($309 million, 282 million euros) to avoid collapse.

In a nation famed for its love of gardening, the British government's lockdown earlier this month of all but essential shops also forced garden centres to close.

The HTA said was "unlikely that there will be sales until early May, the most important commercial period of the year".

It is estimated there are some 23 million gardeners in the UK, many of who would normally head to the shops at this time of year.

Some 650 companies in the UK produce ornamental plants, contributing some £1.4 billion to the economy and employing 15,000 people directly.

Among these is Kernock Park Plants, a company located in Cornwall, in southwest England, which produces up to 12 million plants a year.

"The recent fall in sales and mass cancellations from hundreds of our customers is extremely worrying," said Bruce Harnett, managing director.

One high-profile casualty of the coronavirus outbreak is this year's Chelsea Flower Show, which is one of the world's biggest horticultural festivals.

The HTA has the backing of Britain's most famous TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh. He described the situation as "heartbreaking".

"We want to brighten our gardens, cheer our lives up, improve our spiritual health, our mental health, our physical health," he told BBC radio.

"Particularly at this time of coronavirus, we desperately need that kind of respite from this life which is not like any life we have ever known before."

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