Cash and carry - time to replenish

After a harsh winter hit trading hard, cash and carry customers are now replacing lost plants, Gavin McEwan reports.

The winter chill affected exotic plants such as Cordyline both in gardens and nurseries - image: HW
The winter chill affected exotic plants such as Cordyline both in gardens and nurseries - image: HW

The UK's worst winter in 30 years has hit trading hard and knocked many plants for six. But the cash and carry sector is now responding to demand for replacement planting.

One of the worst affected outlets was Craigmarloch in Lanarkshire, predominantly a supplier to plant retailers, which lost "a six-figure sum" due to lost stock and lack of sales, according to director Grant McFarlane. "It was down to -18 degsC and stayed cold for sustained periods," he says.

"But now it's boom time for us because there are so many holes in people's gardens - we're definitely catching up." Homeowners have lost many Clematis, Lavatera, and even hollies, he notes. "The native holly, Ilex aquafolium, is pretty hardy in the ground but plants in pots get frost from all sides and the variegated forms are less hardy."

This has not checked customer demand for more exotic plants though, he says. "People are still screaming for things like Ceanothus and Buddleia, but they're hard to get hold of because suppliers' stocks have been hit too."

The long, tough winter has also left gardeners eager for a splash of colour, he adds, which has meant a surge in demand for bedding plants and perennials. "The supply of things like Delphinium, Lupin and Astilbe from Holland hasn't been affected by the weather," he points out.

However, Rochfords Nursery sales manager Andy Moreham reckons exotics may now see a dip in popularity. "Things like Phormium and Hebe have suffered - we lost some on the nursery too," he adds. "But I think there was already a shift away from those - it was a bit of a fashion trend."

The Hertfordshire nursery grows most of its own stock so has been less affected by events on the continent, he says. "The weather restricted us during winter, the ground was frozen and we sold very little in January and February. But we have made up for that since then.

"Prunus laurocerasus 'Rotundifolia' is usually quite a big seller for us in winter, but field-grown supplies of it in Holland and Belgium have been badly affected. There are areas that were less badly hit, but their prices are now higher."

The situation is mirrored even in areas of the country more used to milder winters, says Ian Gibb, sales manager of Saxon Plants in East Sussex. "Even down here people have lost a lot of plants, which has been good news from our point of view, though it has also made people more cautious in their choice of plants," he notes.

"We try to produce plants as much as possible from our own cuttings. We were fairly lucky on our own nursery in terms of losses. We bulk up supplies from elsewhere, but some things like Penstemon have been hard to get hold of due to the winter losses. We have also noticed a high demand for lavender, again to replace lost plants."

In the North West, Four Oaks Cash & Carry representative John Sproson says: "A lot of Phormium, Cordyline and other Mediterranean gear has been lost. People haven't stopped buying them, but they are now a bit more careful, putting them in tubs or big pots and bringing them in for winter.

"We didn't lose much ourselves - a few Griselinia and Hebe but a lot was under glass. Some laurels had their leaves scorched but are coming back now. Our supplier Spanish Plants brings over fresh stock every month from over there and added value lines like hanging baskets and containers are flying out."

Over on Teesside, A Hill & Sons director Simon Hill says: "There has been damage everywhere - on species that you wouldn't expect like hardy Hebe as well as those you would like Phormium and Cordyline. You might think people would avoid those now but they are still moving for us.

"We're also still selling reasonable amounts of Photinia and a miniature flowering cherry called Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-mai'. Mainly we sell to landscapers, who are still cautious - smaller orders are down. It will be interesting to see how the next 18 months go. Hopefully we'll see a steady increase if the new Government can restore confidence."

According to Kent-based landscape and amenity supplier Palmstead Nurseries sales manager Nick Coslett "We found winter trading very tough, both because of the recession and the effects of the weather, which stopped us trading for two weeks. It was a slow pick up from there, but since Easter we have seen good trading - we had a record April on the nursery.

"Some of that may be replacement planting or simply refreshing customers' gardens. Cash and carries are a good indicator of the housing market though and we have seen less trading coming from show homes - the market hasn't really woken up yet. It's down to the money supply."

The harsh winter had an effect on both Palmstead's own stock and that of its suppliers, he says. "We lost a few and had others knocked back, which puts back the period you can sell them to later in the year. But because of the range we stock, we can usually find a comparable plant to replace any we don't have."

Continental suppliers have been affected too, although not all to the same extent, Coslett adds. "Astelia (silver spear) took a bash and there's now a shortage of them. Due to the frost in Europe there are no single-stemmed Cordyline to be had. You will get multi-stemmed plants next year instead - and there were periods when they couldn't export. The Pistoia area of Italy was particularly hit. They had a drop from 9 degsC to -18 degsC in three or four days. The speed and severity of the cold caused them some problems. But Spain has been relatively unaffected."

People may now have some reservations about planting less hardy plants, he warns. "But my own garden was down to -10 degsC, yet I'm now seeing things like Dahlia and bamboos coming back, just a bit later than normal. Plants are sometimes tougher than you think."

NURTURING GROWTH

Wyevale Nurseries plans to roll out a network of cash and carries following the opening of its first Greenline Plants outlet near Solihull in the West Midlands.

According to Wyevale sales manager Doug Reade: "We are already trading there but the official opening will now be in September, once we have the National Plant Show out of the way." The launch was delayed due to planning issues.

He continues: "It's in Wyevale's strategic business plan to open more outlets. We are optimistic but cautious - we want to make sure we can run what we have efficiently and profitably first. But new developments always cost more and take longer than you think, and there have been lots of practical lessons from establishing this one.

"Also, it took a while for our Wyevale East outlet in Kent to establish itself when we opened it seven years ago. There's not a mad rush of interest initially. You have to work to gain customers' loyalty and trust."

Four weeks of consecutive nightly frosts took a toll on Wyevale's own production nursery in Herefordshire this winter, he adds. "We got a massive Calor gas bill from heating our polytunnels and there has been some wastage due to root damage and loss of plants in pots.

"Some customers have come back saying stock has failed, which we've investigated. A plant can look healthy when it leaves the nursery - root damage may not be apparent. But we have been able to come to amicable arrangements. We have to accept that we are in the risk business."


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