The one thing that all of your gardening customers have in common is a desire to create a lovely-looking garden and, of course, winter is the season of greatest challenge in this regard. So now is the perfect opportunity for you to push more evergreen plants.
Plain evergreens and their variegated forms contribute solid structure to the garden. They are well-suited to mixed borders (growing side by side with deciduous woody and herbaceous plants). Or, in many cases, they are just as good when used as specimen plants growing on their own.
But there is work to be done in promoting evergreens. They are not an easy sell. They are regarded by many gardeners as plain, dull and boring - a throwback to the Victorian era of privet and laurel, which were grown by the million.
Add to this the fact that all of the people spoken to for this article have said the same thing - it is perennial plants that are in vogue right now, and shrubs (particularly evergreen ones) are far harder to shift.
Klondyke managing director Bob Hewitt has said that 2010 has brought a year-on-year sales rise in shrubs of just 1.5 per cent. This is not good, considering last year's cold winter and the fact that many plants needed to be replaced.
HTA and GCA sales figures do not separate evergreen shrubs from deciduous ones, so it is difficult to say how big the market is. But arguably around half of all shrubs sold are evergreen, so this is a crucial sector to get right. The opportunity is clear: to sell more evergreens the planteria manager needs to be canny, strategic, clever and topical. Here are 10 ways of going about it:
1. Market the winter benefits
Evergreens come into their own as winter approaches. While plants all around them are losing their leaves, evergreens steadfastly endure and can become the main focus in a garden.
In The Winter Garden, by the late Jane Sterndale-Bennett, she writes: "In winter, plants with evergreen foliage in various colours and shapes are of prime importance. Evergreen shrubs help to form the basic structure of beds and borders, with the addition of conifers and spiky architectural plants. In the foreground there are plenty of perennials with overwintering leaves, some green, others blue and grey, and many in shades of warm brown and glowing purple. These all provide the backdrop for the treasured flowers of winter."
Hillier Nurseries group managing director Andy McIndoe agrees. He says: "Without evergreens, a garden lacks 'body'; in winter, the scene becomes lifeless and the garden becomes a void."
Late autumn and winter are good times for consumers to restock hedges and borders, plant new areas and move existing shrubs to better locations.
Why not make a seasonal display of some your finest evergreens - particularly those that are in flower or berry. They include Euonymus fortunei 'Silver Queen' - cream and green variegated leaves; Fatsia japonica Award of Garden Merit (AGM) - bold leaves, white flowers in early winter; Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' - gold-bronze variegated leaves; and Sarcococca confusa AGM - fragrant white flowers in winter.
Block displays in hotspots maximise impact. Use an effective background - for example, black cloth can really set off colour. Support promotions in newsletters, on the web and with effective point-of-sale materials (PoS).
2. Evergreens in containers
Shrubs are easy to grow in containers and, with year-round interest, evergreens offer good value. Kevin Clare, manager of Southampton-based Hambrooks Garden Centre, says: "Shrubs in pots offer more value for money than cut flowers. But flowers remain the more popular buy." This suggests that there is room for improved sales in this area. Shrubs marketed as gifts, for example, might provide a welcome alternative to consumers looking for something new.
Evergreens and dwarf conifers are ideal because of their year-round interest, and other plants and bulbs can be planted among them that will come and go through the seasons. Containers increase the diversity of shrubs in a garden: varieties can be grown that would be otherwise unsuccessful in the soil. For example, where ground is chalky, camellias and rhododendrons can be grown in containers of ericaceous compost.
And the garden can be given a more subtropical look in summer, with the use of Yucca, citrus or palms.
Local knowledge can help here as well. Clare says: "Modern houses these days rarely have a front garden, as that space is increasingly taken up with extra parking." Suitable planting combinations could be recommended that take up little room, such as tubs, and smaller hedging plants and specimens.
3. Provide good care information
Garden centre manager Mike Easom of Buckingham Garden Centre and Nursery says it is hugely important to present care information clearly. "The new generation coming through know little about plants and gardening," he says. "So the labels we provide are very important, as people who take their plants home want to know how to look after them. The labels should be presented in straight-forward English. This is the best way to put across the information."
Remember that labels printed overseas often use obscure symbols in place of easy-to-understand words, and this can be confusing to your customers.
Plant Publicity Holland (PPH) UK and Ireland representative Mark Long says: "Use materials that suppliers and trade organisations provide, but use it critically. Materials from PPH's Colour Your Life campaign (available free online, but with more options via purchased DVD) offer the chance for you to brand PoS with your own logos, choose from a variety of images and background, and print at a range of sizes, right up to full-size posters and banners."
4. Low-maintenance equals value for money
Clare says: "Evergreen shrubs can be 'low-maintenance' when compared with other types of garden plant: bedding plants need lots of watering and feeding, plus regular planting and replacement; and border perennials need weeding, staking, tying, mulching, watering, and so on. In the main, a shrub just sits there and does its thing. Yes, you should water it, possibly prune it and/or deadhead it, but most are extremely low in maintenance."
Hillier's McIndoe goes one step further: "Most evergreens will give many years of pleasure, for a relatively small outlay." But he warns: "Because they may well be with us for a very long time, and are not plants that we choose every year, it is crucial that we select them wisely, and grow them well."
Because evergreen shrubs are permanent and often ground-covering, your customers will not just save effort and time - they will save money as well. They won't have to buy weedkillers and end-of-season replacements.
So, although shrubs may not be traditional lines for multi-deals, in a period of consumer belt-tightening you do whatever is necessary to shift volume. Consider introducing 3-for-the-price-of-2, or even 5-for-the-price-of-4 rates.
6. Promote evergreens for hedging
A row of upright, prune-able evergreen shrubs makes a permanent hedge, so the sales philosophy of one goes hand in hand with the other. And similar multi-deals as outlined in tip five, above, could work well for hedging plants - you just need to alter the numbers.
One offer that could appeal in this case is a "10-for-2" promotion supplying 10 hedging plants that are enough for a 2m section of hedge.
It is important to target your customers carefully when it comes to hedging, because there are large numbers of plants involved and you do not want stock hanging around. Clare says: "In modern housing developments there is often scope for growing hedging, so target promotion at first-time buyers and the new homeowners sector. General evergreens, such as Elaeagnus, Griselinia and Escallonia, can make stunning hedges. They are hugely underrated."
Long suggests using interesting evergreens in hedging offers. He says: "Evergreens are good for privacy, providing contrasting backdrops and for growing in shady areas, not forgetting their winter interest. For formality, Buxus sempervirens, Ilex and Prunus lusitanica can be clipped into neat hedges and topiary. More informal, with glossy leaves and attractive flowers, are varieties of Escallonia, Rhododendron and Camellia.
"Variegated foliage such as that of Euonymus is good for added texture, and forms of Aucuba japonica will tolerate particularly shady areas."
If anyone needs to know the quantity of a given plant species required for a run of hedge, they just need to check the plant calculator on Buckingham Nurseries and Garden Centre website: www.hedging.co.uk.
7. Plants with the "wow" factor
Hambrooks' Clare says: "There is a high degree of what we call 'fashionable gardening' just now. This would include topiary (see below), and more architectural plants. Bamboos are evergreen, and they are incredibly popular. Clare says: "Often our customers buy bamboos because they have smaller gardens, and tall bamboos can provide a year-round privacy screen from neighbours' windows, and there isn't the problem of having to trim them each year like a hedge."
Other evergreen architectural plants that Clare likes to push at this time of year include Cordyline, Phormium and the various hardy palms. "People don't think of these as proper evergreens, but because they retain their foliage throughout the year they have as much relevance as woody evergreen shrubs, but they also have an architectural quality," he says.
These are worth promoting as new options for consumers throughout the year.
Manager of Chichester, West Sussex-based Architectural Plants, Christine Shaw explains: "We largely sell evergreen shrubs, and they particularly come into their own by providing strong shapes. A good seller is Choisya ternata, which we clip into rounded, domed shapes or blocks that suggest their suitability for hedging.
"We are the only producers who stock heavily manicured Phillyrea and Myrtles, and they sell very well. Myrtus apiculata is a small-leaved alternative to box - some more knowledgeable gardeners are nervous of box blight disease."
8. Topiary, or not topiary?
Topiary is enjoying a huge burgeoning of interest, and anything from the refined simplicity of neatly clipped balls to novelty shapes (at the Four Oaks Trade Show a few years ago there was even seen a life-sized piano - with piped music) is going to find a buyer. Shrubs that offer year-round form and interest, and are easy to care for, are all worth targeting. Well-clipped topiary offers more than shrubs that sell solely for their flowers. Shaw says: "We clip the flowers off when creating the shapes. The resulting neat forms, we have found, are more important than the flowers when selling the plants."
Topiary shrubs are especially suited to consumers with little time for, or interest in gardening, but who wish to make something of their gardens nonetheless. "All of the hard work is in the initial training of the shrubs. By the time plants reach consumers, they only require occasional light clipping - ideal for amateurs," says Shaw.
Style and modernity are hot buttons with this group of plants, so make sure that displays reflect this. Uncluttered, simple presentation will score in this case. Props can work well, but it is important always to maintain a sense of calm.
9. Linked sales
It is always wise to promote linked sales, but never more so than during winter. Your customers will require compost and mulch, tree and shrub fertiliser, secateurs and possibly stakes.
And if purchases of evergreens are made before mid-winter, it is advisable to encourage your customers to invest in some frost-protection fleece (evergreens not established in the ground are susceptible to leaf desiccation in extreme cold weather). Moisture-retaining, weed-suppressing organic mulch early in spring can also be recommended to save on maintenance later on.
10. Don't forget conifers
Conifers are evergreen (bar a few exceptions such as Larix, Taxodium, Metasequoia and Ginkgo), so these should also be included in your evergreens offering. National Conifer Week was launched seven years ago, funded by the HDC. More recently, it was promoted by the Association of British Conifer Growers and the HTA, and backed by some considerable sums of money from the HTA's PlantforLife campaign. This year's took place on 2-10 October.
The idea for the initiative is to showcase the modern-day conifer, highlighting the colour options, the structures and styles available, and the suitability for conifers in all types of garden. "It's time," says publicity material for the initiative, "to challenge the view that conifers are old-fashioned."
Some years ago, plant area manager Tanya Welham of Frosts at Woburn Sands had to relocate her conifer benches during extensive building works at the centre. She decided to give them a fresh presence, and came up with the "Celebrate Conifers" concept. As a result, sales doubled, and the drive was extended beyond National Conifer Week.
Big shrubs, which offer instant impact, are a major growth area in garden retailing and the evidence shows that people are willing to pay for them.
Mark Long, UK & Ireland representative for Plant Publicity Holland, says: "Specimen shrubs are your opportunity to make big-ticket sales. Cash in on the trend and make sure that in spring top-quality specimen camellias and evergreen magnolias are always available. Rhododendrons and azaleas are good choices, too. Information is key in this case. Customers need support when making big purchases."
"And," he says, "brief staff to offer assistance, and for really big specimens offer delivery (free locally, if possible). Make it easy."
More ways to boost sales of shrubs can be found on PPH's online promotional resource centre at www.colour-your-life.co.uk. Click on the "Business Focus" option.
10 CLASSIC EVERGREENS
- Camellia x williamsii 'Debbie' (large spring flowers of clear pink)
- Ceanothus 'Concha' AGM (fast-growing shrub; blue flowers in late spring)
- Choisya 'Aztec Pearl' AGM (deep green leaves; fragrant white flowers in late spring)
- Cistus x obtusifolius 'Thrive' (white flowers in summer)
- Hebe 'Red Edge' AGM (grey-green leaves; red-edged in winter)
- Laurus nobilis AGM (the bay tree; the leaves - well-known for use in cooking - are dark and matt, making them the perfect background for other plants)
- Lavandula 'Regal Splendour' (silver foliage; pink and purple summer flowers)
- Phlomis fruticosa AGM (fast-growing shrub; yellow flowers in summer)
- Rosmarinus officinalis 'Miss Jessop's Upright' AGM (aromatic shrub; blue flowers in early spring)
- Viburnum tinus (known erroneously as the laurustinus, it is not related to the laurel at all; clusters of flat, pink-budded flowers open to white and appear from late autumn onwards)
10 EVERGREENS FOR WINTER INTEREST
- Euonymus fortunei 'Silver Queen' (cream and green variegated leaves)
- Fatsia japonica AGM (bold leaves; white flowers in early winter)
- Garry elliptica (grown as a wall-shrub, provides an effective backdrop with its long winter catkins)
- Ilex x altaclerensis 'Golden King' (a female form - despite its name - and a good berry-producer; variegated foliage)
- Mahonia aquifolium (glossy leaves and rich yellow flowers in late winter and spring)
- Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' (gold-bronze variegated leaves)
- Ruscus aculeatus (the so-called 'Butcher's Broom'; what appear to be the deep green leaves are in fact flattened stems; tiny white flowers in spring)
- Sarcococca confusa AGM (known as sweet box; fragrant white flowers in winter)
- Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green' AGM (small, white, fragrant flowers in early summer)
- Viburnum davidii AGM (small, white summer flowers and blue autumn berries)
Buckingham Nurseries, 01280 822133
Hambrooks Garden Centre, 01489 572285
Hillier Nurseries, 01794 368733
Architectural Plants, 01403 891772
Plant Publicity Holland, www.colour-your-life.co.uk