Better plant breeding, lessons from US and price points

Mike Smith tells HW how breeding has boosted uniformity and season length.

Smith: says exchange rates are helping British growers
Smith: says exchange rates are helping British growers

Essex-based WD Smith director Mike Smith says breeding has "got so much better" with uniformity and a longer selling season prominent features of the 14th annual pansy and viola trials at Meadow Croft Garden Centre.

The festival trials featured 496 different pansies and violas - 270 pansies and 226 violas. Smith was expecting 80% of the public's chosen top 10 to be violas, though he said pansies are making something of a comeback.

He pointed out that "phenomenal work" has been done on making colours and habits more uniform, but added: "Another colour of petunia or viola, if it's not completely different, just makes your life more complicated."

Smith helped lead a British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) tour to the USA last month. With Donald Trump now president, the US has similar concerns about workers and efficiency as Brexit-era Britain, Smith adds.

He says the visit focused on US/Canadian nurseries to which delegates could relate. The previous BPOA North America trip to east USA and huge nurseries such as Metrolina was "spectacular, with every stop being a 'wow, look at the size of that'. We got lots from it but some was difficult to relate to what is achievable in our own marketplace."

Smith says deVry Greenhouses and Rainbow Glasshouses are examples of smaller businesses pushing ahead: "The important thing is to keep moving forward. Sometimes if you feel they haven't invested, there's a big step to go."

He adds that the use of "Lean" working ideas helps mitigate rising wages and worries over losing migrant workers - "similar concerns to ourselves". One example is using flags to help workers find the crops to spray or pick.

The trip also looked at hardier crops and Smith says retractable roof structures give simple protection for cooler-grown plants. "As our seasons become less defined, people will come to our garden centres all year round to visit the coffee shop and also to pick up stuff. April and May is important but the other months are becoming more so." He singles out micropropped heuchera from Terra Nova as an example of a season-extending line, as well as garvinea from Florist Holland.

Price points

Smith says price points are important, with garvinea changing production last year to hit a price and sales rising as a result. Primrose sales have been "very good" this year after people "cut down" in 2016, with exchange rates helping UK growers on "commodity products like primroses". He adds: "Some customers who don't have much from us are wanting to buy bulk numbers in the last few months, where they bought from Holland before."

But he has had to put off some customers so he can serve existing retailers. Should spring be as bad as 2016 he would "jump" at the chance to supply those new bulk customers. He says 2016 was "not brilliant", adding: "Mostly I put that down to the weather," with 2017 already starting better.

Benary is 175 years old in 2018 and Smith hopes that an event in conjunction with the breeder will take place during the festival.

The BPOA has undergone a review by consultant John Hall that is now being considered by the NFU. BPOA technical committee head Smith says his group is working well and he would like to see more engagement across the sector to speak up for ornamentals.

Smith points out that the BPOA has cut costs this year after losing members. "The membership we have got is at a good level," he adds. "We just need more people to be proactive."

Festival - Selected favourite violas

Early top picks in the festival, which ran until 26 March, include:
Floranova Viola Bel Viso.
Syngenta Viola 'Deltini Rose Pink'.
Benary Viola Admire Orange Purple Wing.
Ball Colegrave Viola Honeybee Sorbet Orange.
Sakata Premier Range.

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