Is this fair? There is, after all, a huge range of fruits - soft, cane and tree fruits - that can be grown, yet the publicity surrounding them has been lacking when compared with the tomatoes, salad leaves and brassicas that have dominated grow-your-own in the past four years.
HTA consultant David Gilchrist says: "Despite the surge in grow-your-own gardening, many people still overlook the possibilities of home-grown fruits and berries. But there is an increasing range of tasty, unusual fruit that will happily grow in the UK climate. Growing your own fruit can be rewarding - not only does it taste better but it is friendly to the environment and, more importantly, you know where it has come from."
The market for fruit trees and plants is sizeable indeed, with the most recent HTA Garden Industry Monitor highlighting that consumers spend £32m a year on them. Yet fewer than half of these fruit trees and plants are bought from traditional garden centres.
Even less welcome is the news that the overall market is down £4.2m on the previous year. How can this be, when growing our own food has never been more popular?
It demonstrates that the garden retailer has ground to make up. However, there may not be much time left before the grow-your-own trend starts to wane.
So what are the measures that can quickly and easily be put in place for an immediate improvement to autumn and spring sales?
1. Understand what fruit trees are
Fruit trees - as opposed to decorative or ornamental trees and soft and cane fruits - are quite difficult to understand. Customers who have never grown them before can be seduced by the idea, but daunted by the amount of know-how required to grow the trees and get them to crop well. Your job is to bust through the jargon and explain how easy they really can be.
Fruit trees are often referred to as top fruit. These can be further divided into two categories: pip fruit includes apples and pears while stone fruit spans plums, apricots, peaches, greengages, nectarines, cherries and damsons. Then there are nut trees and mulberries.
Each type of fruit tree has a wide range of varieties and, by careful selection, fruit can be produced over a long period in summer for storage into autumn. It is best to grow different varieties of the same fruit near to one another in order to improve pollination and produce the best crop.
Once you and your plant sales team have understood the basics of fruit-tree cultivation, you will be able to pass on this knowledge to your customers.
2. Promote the benefits
Do you have signs in your planteria that read "Tree Fruit" or, even worse, just "Fruit"? If so, you are not properly promoting the benefits of growing fruit. The subliminal message is vital. "Grow Your Own" is a fundamental phrase you should be using, but something like "Fresh From Your Garden" will send out a signal of immediate good health and superior taste.
Simon Goldsack of Holme for Gardens in Wareham, Dorset, says: "You need to push the benefits of growing fruit, such as the implications for health and well-being. Demonstrate that it is fun and rewarding and, above all, explain the convenience and taste benefits of growing fruit in your own garden. The taste, for example, will be far better than that of shop-purchased produce."
Most large fruit suppliers to the retail trade offer their own point-of-sale material, but the centres' own branding explaining the benefits of growing fruit should be a given. Signage is also important when you come to consider linked sales.
3. Use themed promotions
Festivals and special days are a great way of generating a buzz in any retail outlet. Handle them correctly and they can also provide useful press opportunities, which equates to free publicity. Customers love a special occasion: it helps them to relax while shopping and provides a focus of activity.
A great "fruit day" can be created with a few small elements, such as:
- Fruit-related games and activities
- A quiz or questionnaire with small prizes
- A "How to" demonstration by either a member of staff or a guest expert, which need not cost anything if they can also promote their own activities or bring things to sell - for example, Dobbies ran a Fruit Tree Week in October, giving advice on the type of fruit that you can plant at this time of year and how and where to grow it
- Multiple-purchase offers for selected fruit varieties; these can be especially useful in relation to edible plants, but do pitch them in line with the needs of your customers
4. Consider local garden sizes
Garden centres need to understand their market and location. For example, retailers on the edge of towns or in conurbations should remember that local gardens will probably be smaller than those of rural households.
This is epitomised by Dorset-based Stewarts Garden Centres, which has two centres, one on the edge of the Christchurch conurbation and the other in the rural heart of the county. Christchurch centre manager Julie Brake says: "Our main store sells more trees on dwarfing rootstocks, whereas our centre near Wimborne is much more rural and the gardens nearby are bigger. At that centre we sell more of the larger trees."
Generally, the smallest apples (usually free-standing pyramid-shaped, spindlebush forms or cordons) are sold on M27 rootstocks, the slightly larger M9 or larger still M26.
MM106 and MM111 (or M25) rootstocks are used for the larger espalier, fan and stand-alone trees with no real size restrictions.
5. Push container fruit
This has to be the biggest single area of opportunity for many garden centres. Sell your fruit trees with a pre-selected container option and promote the fact that all types of top fruit can be grown in containers.
Container planting is most useful in small gardens with lots of hard landscaping and looks effective in defined spaces, such as a fruit tree in a prominent sunny place on the patio or as a focal point at the end of a pathway.
Tubs, urns, pots - in fact, any container of almost any size - will benefit from being planted with a fruit tree. Bear in mind the importance of fruit tree size and rootstocks.
6. Create innovative displays
The most successful centres tend to be those that have considered how customers shop for products, so all the edibles (fruit, vegetables and herbs) might be brought together in the same area, with clear signage.
In recent years, some garden centres have gone one step further. Lady Green Garden Centre in Merseyside, Highfield Garden World, Gloucester, and Van Hage at Chenies in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, all have good promotions of fruit trees this year. Whitehall Garden Centre in Lacock, Wiltshire, offers nearly 200 sizes and varieties of apples alone.
One of the finest displays is at Stewarts Gardenlands in Christchurch. Brake says: "For several years now we have created a special kind of 'orchard'. It's under cover and we use the area that has recently been vacated after the main rush of bulb sales. We believe it is important to promote fruit in a friendly way as customers sometimes get confused over which type of fruit is appropriate. It's a complex business, so we want to make it as easy as possible."
Brake and her team group different varieties of fruit trees together with point-of-sale material and dress them with seasonal colour - including pumpkins - to make them into a feature.
She adds: "We get most of our stock from Blackmoor Nurseries and normally we need two major deliveries for the season. This year we have had to get a third delivery, which came from Darby Nursery Stock of Norfolk. It has been a bumper year for us."
7. Branch out beyond apples
Jon Munday, nursery manager of Hampshire-based Blackmoor Nurseries, says: "In past years, garden centres have generally been poor at promoting fruit. It was usually tucked out of the way and as far from the tills as you can get. This was mainly because the planteria managers didn't understand fruit; it is, after all, not the most straightforward of subjects. Pollinators, pests and diseases, pruning - these are all subjects that sales people should understand."
He is keen to point out, however, that there is more to fruit trees than just apples. "One area that deserves more attention is pears. We stock 15 varieties, mostly two-year-old trees in 10-litre pots," he says.
Munday adds: "The good thing about pears is that they can be supplied in a number of different forms. They come in conventional bush form, but are also good for training into cordons, U-cordons, espaliers and minarettes. These trained forms are perfect for the smaller garden and this is how garden centres should be promoting them. There is also a good but steady market for family pear trees."
Worcester-based nursery Frank P Matthews managing director Nick Dunn agrees. "The market for pears generally is good. In fact, I sometimes feel we don't produce enough of them to meet demand, which is a real shame.
"A few years ago, we launched 'Invincible'. This ticks most boxes for amateur gardeners. It doesn't need a pollinator as it is self-fertile. It is tough (even in exposed Scottish gardens), a good cropper and responds well to training."
8. Sell the message
Promote the simple message: "Plant a tree and make a difference." Trees, whether fruiting or decorative, are wonderful and planting them can really mean something. If they produce edible fruits as well, that is just a bonus.
Garden cultivars of Malus (apple), Prunus (plum, gage, damson, cherry, peach, apricot, nectarine) and Pyrus (pear) are especially good where space is limited. They are a great way of marking an event or providing a focal point in the garden.
Dunn is certainly keen for this message to reach gardeners. All of the 150,000 container fruit trees he grows each year are destined for the garden trade and some of his 350,000 field-grown trees are sold bareroot, particularly via mail-order companies and his own Trees For Life brand.
9. Offer linked sales
Customers who are new to fruit-tree growing need guidance on what products are required to get the best from their investment. The key is to develop displays that tell the whole story by linked sales. This could be a simple placement of products around your plant display, so a row of container apples could have large patio pots, compost, stakes, tree ties and a range of appropriate fertilisers. You may even want to promote plastic netting and fruit cages for fruit protection close by.
Use signage to highlight the products on display. Particularly useful are labels such as "Reminder", "Time to... " and "Don't forget... ".
10. Do it yourself
Finally, encourage staff to try some tree fruits at home (you can decide if you want to subsidise this) and grow them in your own garden. If you and your staff have had success - and fun - with fruit trees, you will be more effective at promoting them.
POINT-OF-SALE FROM BLACKMOOR
Hampshire-based trade supplier Blackmoor Nurseries manager Jon Munday says: "Now is the time to bring fruit forward and promote it in your planteria."
To take advantage of the grow-your-own trend, Blackmoor has designed new point-of-sale fruit labels for its container plants. Munday says: "These labels include new images and all the information that your customers might need to be able to select the right trees. On the labels are the variety name and characteristics, planting instructions, pollination groups and rootstock guide. Pre-priced, bar-coded lock-tie labels are also supplied."
Bed cards and a Fruit Growers Handbook are supplied with all container orders over £550.
In the past few seasons there has been a nationwide problem of overwinter losses of 'Victoria' plums, as well as other varieties. This has put many amateur gardeners off the fruit.
While there is no evidence of disease, it is thought that the cause is physiological and has worsened due to the changing climate. As a result, the advice to amateur gardeners on the planting time for plums has changed.
East Sussex-based New Place Nurseries supplies fruit trees to the trade. On plum losses over recent years, managing director John Hedger says: "We have seen unprecedented levels across the industry, to the point that we will now only advise uptake from July to September. Any stock taken after this time will be at customers' risk."
Nursery consultant John Adlam says the problem is not caused by a particular supplier or batch of trees, but the impact of milder winters. "Garden centres and their customers should be assured that this is a national problem," he explains.
The Horticultural Development Company and HTA are looking into the issue.
CONSUMER FRUIT RESEARCH
New research from the HTA's Plant For Life campaign reveals that the trend for grow-your-own has more than doubled. More than half (54 per cent) of those people questioned said they now choose to grow their own, compared with just over one-fifth (22 per cent) two years ago. Yet, despite this increased interest, less than two-fifths of the UK gardening public (36 per cent) grow fruit trees and shrubs.
Plant For Life has teamed up with Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins to champion the next phase of grow-your-own gardening by educating people with simple tips on how easy it is to plant and grow fruit trees.
While the research highlights a lack of fruit growing in the UK, when asked almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of consumers agreed that they would like to grow their own fruit.
Visit www.plantforlife.info/fruit to download Collins' tips on how to grow and maintain favourite fruit varieties.
Market research conducted in August 2009 by One Poll; 2,000 people were interviewed.
FRUIT TREE SUPPLIERS
Tel: 01420 473576
Darby Nursery Stock
Tel: 01366 728380
Frank P Matthews
Tel: 01584 810214
New Place Nurseries
Tel: 01798 973774