Consolidation in the garden centre industry is leading to "the slow death of Scottish nurseries", according to Glendoick Gardens director Ken Cox. In the second edition of his book Garden Plants for Scotland, Cox says issues raised by chains dropping suppliers after taking over centres include increases in plant miles and use of more non-local suppliers.
When a garden centre takes over an independent that used to buy in Scotland, "the knock-on effect is the slow death of Scottish nurseries", he added. Cox said he believes Scottish-based chain Dobbies "sources no plants in Scotland as far as I know except Christmas trees". The Tesco-owned chain has consolidated supply so only growers who can deliver nationally are used, which is uneconomic for many Scottish nurseries, he explained.
"Klondyke still buys in Scotland - bedding, for example," said Cox. "But Dobbies doesn't. It would be great if the Dobbies in Aberdeen and Inverness were allowed to buy local stock, but they can't. They get a central office tick sheet to call stock off. The whole 'local supplier' thing of Tesco is a myth. In Perthshire the Tesco trumpets local suppliers for raspberries and potatoes. But that is because they supply everyone in the UK with potatoes and raspberries. They are not a local supplier, they are a national one."
Dobbies has 15 centres in Scotland and 20 elsewhere in the UK. A representative said: "Dobbies is proud to be headquartered in Scotland but we are a UK national retail brand with garden centres throughout the UK. Some 70 per cent of the plants we sell are grown in the UK, with the remaining 30 per cent sourced from Dutch nurseries and a small number of more exotic plants such as topiary and palms being sourced from further afield. We always try to source from UK growers. However, where there is no comparable plant - size, quality, volume, price - available in the UK, we instead source from abroad. We would love more Scottish suppliers to work with us and we would always consider partnerships with Scottish suppliers if they are able to supply the volume and quality our customers are looking for."
Cox added: "Food miles are a significant consideration for many customers and perhaps 'plant miles' should be just as important. Why should a plant that can easily be obtained from a Scottish grower be bought in from Europe in order to save a few pence? Think about the environmental impact of the transport involved in getting it to Scotland."
He pointed out that hardiness is also an issue with international sourcing. "Tempting imported specimen plants - make sure that they are really suitable for your garden, especially if you live in a harsh climate," he advised.
Cox, a rhododendron and azalea specialist, added: "The most ill-chosen selections of plants tend to be found in the shops of DIY chains, in those add-on garden centres out the back. From Land's End to John O'Groats, they sell the same plants at the same time of year, whether suitable for local conditions or not.
"A survey of one such store in Dundee revealed that over 30 per cent of the stock on offer was unsuitable for eastern Scotland - palms, olives and oleanders were all being offered for planting outdoors, with little or no warning on the labels to indicate that customers should beware. None of the nursery stock was grown in Scotland.
"The store was full of tender bedding plants for sale in late March, most of which would be dead within weeks because of late frosts. Such stores do little to help Scottish gardeners make informed choices. Better ranging and customer guidance would help."
Stan Green, managing director at Scottish plant wholesaler Growforth, said: "It has been ever thus since the early 1980s when I started. I've never seen anything but decline but I can't say I'm seeing it accelerating - and it's not just centres being bought by chains. I've seen five centres sold or close this year."
These include Mayshade Garden Centre in Dalkeith (bought by Aldi), Floors Castle Plant Centre (closed on 1 November because "substantial investment is required to the plant centre building to bring it up to the standards of a Visit Scotland five-star attraction"), Williamsons in Aberdeenshire and Allium Garden Centre, Pitlochry (sold to an outward bounds company).