Small is big. Over the past 50 years British gardeners have seen their gardens halve and even quarter in size. Developers have been pressured into producing denser housing by successive governments and local authorities, yet householders have still demanded patches of ground they can call a garden. This has inevitably resulted in diminishing garden size.
But there is one plant sector that can benefit most from smaller gardens - that of climbers and creepers - and this is big news for retailers.
Any garden designer will tell you that creating a nice garden in a 9sq m plot is every bit as challenging to get right as a large garden with rolling lawns. There is a real art to squeezing plants into a small space and making them attractive in the group, and cohesive in the overall scheme.
However, the one thing that all small garden schemes do is travel upwards. The walls of the house, the boundary fences, archways, pergolas, arbours - these may all feature in small gardens and, more importantly, they provide an opportunity for plants "on the vertical". The walls of the average house can certainly accommodate a climbing plant or two, and even a small flat may have a suitable balcony where plants can be trained.
Overall sales for climbers, according to the July figures from the HTA Garden Industry Monitor, were standing at more than £45.79m, representing a 20 per cent increase over that of July 2006. This is a good rise and growers and retailers should be pleased. But with a bit of extra push and promotion, just how much better could this figure be?
Here are 10 ways to give your of climbers a fresh sales boost:
1. Climbers are versatile - and easy
Sales manager Simon Catterall of Preston-based Garden Centre Plants says: "People often underestimate climbing plants. They have plenty of uses, particularly in the smaller gardens of today."
Author Julie Harrod in one of the definitive works on climbing plants (The Garden Wall, Cassell, 1991) says: "Many climbing plants are easy and vigorous, just what you need to give an established air to a new garden or to blur the outlines of intrusive architecture. They can frame windows with flowers to fill your house with fragrance on summer evenings or mask a stark boundary wall with colour and scent. By using different climbers together or combining them with shrubs you can compose planting schemes that will offer constantly changing pictures throughout the year, yet take up minimal ground space."
This has to be the key to shifting lots of stock: the climber is such a versatile commodity, and the customer needs to be constantly reminded of this fact.
2. Be brave with point of sale
Sales manager Ian Gibb of East Sussex-based Saxon Plants says: "Many things make the selling of climbers difficult for retailers. To start with, it is difficult to make a bench of sticks tied to canes look exciting. And it is relatively difficult to create attractive 'living labels', as climbers need supporting, and they are generally bulkier and more fragile than smaller shrubs and low container plants.
"So retailers should be brave with their points of sale (PoS). Climber benches are often large, so they should be supported by equally large, and striking, PoS displays. It is important to get pictures of the blooms, and information on how to plant and support the climbers."
Gibb adds: "At Saxon Plants we sell climbers in six-up black plastic carry trays and this helps transport them. And we now sell climbers in three-litre pots, which gives them a deeper root run. They look and grow better in this size of pot and they are more stable if the wind blows."
Many climbing-plant producers supply a range of PoS material - posters, banners and streamers. These aren't always free, but they are usually supplied at cost.
3. The importance of labelling
As with most parts of the traditional Planteria, climbing plants do demand attractive and accurate labelling. There are some types of climber, such as Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus), that are so dramatically different when "in season", that some label producers have created a split-image, showing the green summer leaves and the red autumn leaves. This approach can, of course, be used for other key climbing plants.
Clematis, for example, has attractive seedheads, so a label could show the flowers and seeds. Climbing roses could show the flowers and the hips (berries). Passionflowers could show the ornate blooms and the attractive yellow fruits.
Catterall says: "The picture on the label is hugely important. But so is the information on the back of the label. In the case of Clematis the big issue for customers is likely to be their pruning requirements, and it is vital that clear and concise information about the relevant pruning groups is given. I have to say that some of the plant labels I've seen on certain imported plants are appallingly bad. And this doesn't do any of us any good."
Sales manager Steven Lee of New Place Nurseries in East Sussex agrees. He says: "The label is the most important part in the sale of climbers, and the picture is crucial: the bigger, the better. I remember the Notcutts labels some years ago for Clematis, where the label was cut out in the shape of the flower. From a distance it looked like they were flowers. When a climber on sale is not in flower, then the label really comes into its own."
4. Encourage multiple purchases
Effective PoS is the best way to draw offers to the customers' attention. And aim for multiple sales. Your climbing plant stocks are competing with everything else in the store, so consider attracting more sales with value-for-money promotions. Try a multi-deal to encourage customers to "pick and mix" from your climber benches.
Centres could offer a three-for-the-price-of-two rate for different varieties, or even a greater discount if this does not entice. You could also consider a pack of three climbers for a north-facing wall (such as Clematis montana, Hydrangea petiolaris and a variegated ivy).
5. Promote the award winners
The RHS has its Award of Garden Merit (AGM) scheme, and the British Clematis Society has a list of Clematis of special merit.
In order to get these distinctions, the climber in question will have been put through rigorous trials and tests, and been assessed by a large number of independent experts. When you stock such noted varieties, make sure that bed cards or other labels promote the fact that these climbers carry a distinction, and because there are so many varieties, it really helps the less knowledgeable consumer if you can point them to the prize-winning plants by way of a tip-top display.
6. Try something new
Every year even more climbing plants - mainly Clematis, but also climbing roses and some Lonicera (honeysuckles) - are launched to the public. Retailers should capitalise on this, even if the actual named launches are not quite ready for the retail trade.
For example, the Guernsey Clematis Nursery owned by Clematis guru Raymond Evison launched a new brand in his name at Glee in September. It is a joint venture with Garden Centre Plants and Liss Forest Nurseries - the only two nurseries growing the branded plants for the UK independent garden centre sector. The range comprises new free-flowering Clematis from the Evison/Poulsen breeding programme, including 'Rebecca' which has very large, bright-red spring flowers, offset by cream-yellow anthers, some 15-18cm across. Its main flowering period is late spring-early summer but it flowers again late summer to early autumn when the flowers are smaller but prolific. Landmark gardening events during the year, such as Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows, give you the opportunity to jump on the commercial bandwagon. In the days leading up to, and after, these shows, promote the fact that because of the furore over the new plant launches, you are running some special "climbing plant days" or "weekends".
7. "Reduce" your order
Any planteria manager will admit that the beds containing climbing plants can be a nightmare. The plants are tall, and sometimes top-heavy, meaning they will fall over in the slightest of breezes. But there are ways to resolve this.
Catterall says there is a good way a retailer can reduce the impact of awkward beds of climbing plants: "Reduce the large orders for climbing plants from the wholesaler. This sounds counter-productive, but the point is they should place smaller, more regular orders. It means that there will be freshening of stock more regularly, and plants won't be left unsold for so long. A climber that is unsold continues to grow, and that means it can grow into its neighbouring plants, or become top-heavy, and so on."
8. Keep climber beds looking good
Catterall says there are three things retailers should do to keep their climber beds attractive to the customer: "First, they should make sure the bed is backed or divided (or both) with trellis panels. This tells the customer they are in the climbers section, and that plants will need some form of support. It also helps to prevent climbers from toppling over."
His second suggestion is to sink empty four-litre pots into the bench. "Into these you can place our standard three-litre climbers. Being sunken like this means that they will not fall over. Make sure you trim off the rim of the larger sunken pot otherwise customers will think they need to pick these up also.
"Well-placed sunken pots will mean that the climber beds are tidy and always neat, without a cluster of plants in one place and empty space next to them."
Thirdly, he says: "Keep a stock of 1.2m canes handy. In a sunny week many climbers, particularly forms of Clematis, can carry on growing apace.
"During a quiet moment once a week a member of staff should be deployed to insert the longer canes and to tie in the climbers as needed. It make a big difference to the appearance of the bed. It also means the plants aren't tangled together, and makes for a better sales offering."
Many centres create benches that are similar, by installing an open trelliswork frame over the bench. Pots of climbers are then stood within the trellis holes.
9. Attend to plant hygiene
Lee agrees the climbing plant offering has to be good, and if the centre's hygiene is below par, then sales will suffer. He says: "When a customer is searching for a climber they will be drawn to healthy plants." He advises that generally they are looking for plants with:
- No weeds in the pot
- No sign of pests or diseases
- No protruding roots
- More than one stem at the base
- Evenly coloured foliage
Lee suggests that if maintenance is too expensive then turn it into an opportunity. He says: "Why not hold a demonstration day on looking after climbers? Talk about the pruning and aftercare, and turn the whole thing to your advantage."
10. Don't forget linked sales
And finally, bring linked sales into the climbing plant displays, so selling the whole climber package. Unfortunately, there is confusion among the public over the different types of climbers and how they should be maintained.
Put up cards explaining the differences, and then point the customer towards associated products, such as containers, fertilisers, secateurs, twine, supporting canes, obelisks and other frames including trelliswork, and even, perhaps, books on climbers and wall plants.
Gibb says: "Retailers should tell the whole story by linking sales. This might just be placing products close to the plant display; for example, climbers could be situated near products such as bags of compost. But before any of this happens, you should select a part of the plant area that is sheltered from the wind, as climbers will blow over easily."
Make sure any linked sales area is regularly merchandised to keep stock fresh, as a busy weekend can easily deplete stocks of certain items, which then renders the whole process useless.
Other plants, too, make good companions to climbers (such as pots of seasonal bedding, or low-growing evergreens), so these should be sold in close proximity.
CLIMBING PLANTS: TELL YOUR CUSTOMERS TO ...
1. Avoid planting too many climbers with varying colours, forms, shapes and habits together, as this effect on a wall can look messy.
2. Similarly, it is a good idea to avoid growing plants together that are similar in colour: climbers with, say, orange and pink flowers are often seen as clashing.
3. Plant up containers with less vigorous climbers (such as smaller clematis, passionflowers and bougainvilleas). If supported with a wigwam, obelisk or pot-trellis, and placed strategically, they can be enjoyed from house windows.
4. Try something new. Every year there are many new varieties of climber launched (mainly Clematis and climbing roses, but many others as well). Tell your customers that it's fun to experiment.
5. Don't waste time. The sooner a hardy climber is planted, the sooner it will establish in the soil and perform its garden magic.
Garden Centre Plants
Barton Lane, Barton, Preston, Lancashire PR3 5AU
Tel 01772 863531
New Place Nurseries
London Road, Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 1AT
Tel 01798 873774
Peeling & Saxon Nurseries
Hankham Road, Hankham, Pevensey, East Sussex BN24 5AP
Tel 01323 763355 Avoncrop
Weighbridge House, Station Road, Sandford, Winscombe, Bristol BS25 5NX
Tel 01934 820363
Toddington Lane, Littlehampton, West Sussex BN17 7PP
Tel 01903 721591
Guernsey Clematis Nursery
Domarie Vineries, Les Sauvagees, St Sampsons, Guernsey, Channel Islands
Tel 01481 245942.