Bright new ideas

With wayward weather disrupting expectations, growers have had to innovate and adapt more than ever, says Magda Ibrahim

The vicissitudes of the UK’s weather may be impossible to predict, but optimism for sales in the year ahead is high among ornamentals producers exhibiting at Four Oaks Trade Show

With new plants and products on show from 440 exhibitors, growers are aiming for a positive year bolstered by plans to lengthen the season, innovate and expand into new markets.

While the dramatic weather has been a continuing challenge since last year’s washout summer, Kernock Park Plants business development manager Mark Taylor says it "can’t afford to have a knee-jerk reaction".

"It is a case of ploughing a furrow and carrying on regardless," he believes. "Up until the first week in July, the Met Office was saying we were in for 10 wet summers. We then went into a heatwave, so with regard to seasonal bedding, there has been an opportunity to catch up."

The nursery is showing 50 additions to its 2014 catalogue at Four Oaks and is looking to "lengthen the seasons in all directions," according to Taylor.

"We are now looking at [plants] that will fit in for autumn sales from a consumer point of view," he says, highlighting euphorbia.

However, he points out that the sun has created a feel-good factor that will have a knock-on effect for retailers. "The more time people spend outside, the more money they will spend on enhancing that experience," he says.

Earley Ornamentals product manager Keith Gittens agrees. "It is very difficult to predict what the market will be like," he says. "Everyone thought after last year it couldn’t get any worse.

"But we have had a really long, cold spring, which dramatically affected sales right up to the end of April. If the weather hadn’t improved, we would be in a very poor situation."

He adds that after the usual six to eight-week bedding sales period was reduced last year to a two-week window, there has been an improvement in 2013.

But Gittens also notes that the heatwave has demanded a rigorous watering schedule to ensure tip-top plants. "There is certainly more optimism now that the weather has come good, and a real sense of relief," he adds.

Whetman Pinks managing director Carolyn Bourne — whose Dianthus "Memories" plant won best new herbaceous perennial at the Grower of the Year Awards in March — says the nursery is holding prices "because of the rotten past 18 months".

She is encouraged by the fact that consumers don’t seem to be put off by the weather: "There is a real passion for gardening, which has shown in strong sales this summer. Most of our sales of young plants are made in spring and autumn, so it affects us when our customers can’t shift their products. But sales in the past six to eight weeks have been fantastic and I think confidence is there."

Mahood Brothers is showing new varieties of Cordyline, ‘Can Can’ and ‘Cha Cha’, and Escallonia ‘Golden Carpet’, and has increased production of 3-litre hebe ‘Baby Boo’. "It proved a great seller,
even in the challenging early months," says garden centre sales manager Chris Baughan. "This plant really stands out from the crowd on a plant area."

Meanwhile, Seiont Nurseries manager Neil Alcock says: "It is the second year the weather has affected our season, and we are the ones who get the poor sales and cancellations.

"You can’t force unwanted stock on people, but we are looking closely at volumes and at wider markets, as you don’t get cancellations from Europe. With bigger customers, we will be looking for more commitment to take ordered stock and are also planning to go for more premium products."

However, Allensmore Nurseries sales manager George Price explains that by focusing on Christmas products such as planted containers and wreaths at Four Oaks, a strategy it has followed for three years, "the weather doesn’t become an issue". He adds: "We know Christmas is going to happen."

Bowden Hostas owner Tim Penrose has "identified a gap in the market" and will start offering a mixed trolley of 240 hostas, ferns and grasses in 1-litre pots, for dispatch in the last week in April, with point of sale material and banners.

"There is a catch-22 in that, because there often aren’t decent hostas in the garden centre — people don’t have a good image of them," he says. "We will hopefully change the way hostas are seen."

The nursery is also "tentatively" planning 10 unique ferns, which it hopes to put into propagation shortly, that will be available from its chosen wholesaler, Seiont Nurseries.

Fairweather’s is focusing on agapanthus at Four Oaks, with about five new varieties of the plant on show, including ‘Brilliant Blue’, ‘Strawberry Ice’, ‘Indigo Dreams’, ‘Sweet Surprise’ and ‘Purple Fountain’. "We have identified some selections that will flower a year after potting the liner in normal growing conditions," explains sales manager Sharon Lowndes. "We have seen our agapanthus sales rise in the past couple of years, and we want something that customers are going to put in a pot and a year later they have a flower."

She adds that growth in exports to France in particular is helping to weather any storms in the UK market.

In the tree market, a trend towards more compact-growing plants has informed New Place Nurseries’ offer for 2013-14, which includes about five new varieties of Pillar Apple in the Starline series.

Sales director Steve Lee doesn’t believe the hot summer will help sales "break any records", but says "the biggest advantage is that people have been out in their gardens". He adds: "They might be looking for something in the future and that is where maybe the autumn sales will come."

For James Coles & Sons, the ash dieback threat has been a key factor affecting its planning.

"At the moment, [the ash] are still sitting here, because we don’t know how it is going to go," says marketing manager Harry Hitchcock. "If it turns out we are going to have to destroy them all, there will be a lot of space to fill. As a substitute, we are suggesting using mountain ash or Prunus avium. Birch is also very popular."

Its biggest introductions are its airpot-grown trees, which Hitchcock says give stronger, more fibrous root growth, and its 5-litre container range.

Exhibitor Tamata (UK) is making its debut at Four Oaks after launching in the UK with a site in Rugby that is currently home to 500 New Zealand-grown Japanese maples. "It is early days for us and we want to get established in the UK first," explains marketing manager Patrick McDaid, "but it is a chance for us to get to know European nurseries."

By looking up the supply chain, Lancashire-based Hic Bibi Nurseries is hoping to expand beyond the hebe market with a range of bee-friendly plants.

Tapping into media and consumer interest in the UK’s bee population, sales and marketing co-ordinator Fern Lee says the firm sees a real demand for plants such as lavandula and buddleia.

Delamore is intro-ducing two new tray formats — its Powerliner range and Easicell tray — which marketing manager Adam Parry explains have been led by demand. The 28-capacity Powerliner offers a quick turnaround, allowing quick-growing perennials to be potted, grown to flower and dispatched in eight weeks — "Customers won’t have stock on the ground for so long," he adds.

For Young Plants managing director Alex Newey, Four Oaks is a chance to show additions to its range, including the Sweetunia ‘Johnny Flame’, as well as engage with customers.

"We have high-volume pack and pot bedding plant growers, whose requirements are consistency, reliability and price," he explains. "And they tend to be less focused on product innovation and higher value, whereas our medium-sized customer group are very receptive to exploring these groups of plants and concepts, which delivers added value and a more exclusive offer."

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