This year's Four Oaks Trade Show could be, as the saying goes, "a defining moment". Spring and early summer have been superb weatherwise - a big relief following two washout years - so the 443 exhibitors (at time of going to press), and visitors galore, have good reason to be confident for this high point of commercial horticulture, now in its 44th year. The sun is out, as are many new plant varieties, and the vibe is upbeat.
The past 10 years have brought steady growth to the nursery sector, according to the organisers, especially specimen plants and mature stock from the UK and the rest of Europe. Lots of the newest and best plant material will form one of the world's best horticultural window displays, across a 9.3ha site in Cheshire with 17,000sq m of glass - a third of the exhibitors are from abroad.
But it has been a close thing, insists Whetman Pinks managing director Carolyn Bourne. "The weather has been good but the knock-on effects of the previous two bad springs have not," she points out. "Lack of confidence in buyers has given us difficulties, and big backlogs of material that couldn't be shifted by the big DIY chains have rattled down the chain."
Meanwhile, recession in the USA has meant less "bang for your buck", adding to the "testing times" faced by Whetman Pinks and other exporters. So why in the very next breath is Bourne confidently plotting an outlook as pretty as the pink dianthus with which her company has made such a name for itself over the decades?
"We have taken steps to mitigate the shy orders and are fine," she explains from her base in Dawlish, Devon. "All our orders are in place, we are flat out and putting in a lot of overtime to get them on the benches. We are lean, fit, fighting and cracking on. We have masses of ideas, especially with cut flowers, where we are strongest. Watch this space for 2015 - it will be a great year."
Such fighting talk will hearten visitors to Four Oaks, which is situated close to the famous Jodrell Bank radio telescope. Commercial growers, multiple retailers, garden centres, farm shops, landscapers and designers, local authorities and florists will once again descend on the nursery site to check out not just plants but associated supplies and services from production to point of sale.
Kernock Park Plants is bringing 69 new launches from its nursery in Saltash, Cornwall, to the show, which runs on 2-3 September. They include five begonia, five delphinium and six heuchera. In a nod to Bourne's focus on cut flowers, business development manager Mark Taylor also insists that plant-buying trends are moving towards these types of plants, in part for their ease of use.
"Gardeners who grew fruit and vegetables two years ago probably didn't succeed because it is not easy and they don't always know what to do with the produce when it's grown," he says. "Add to this the time-strapped nature of life these days and fewer people are making chutney and jam. It's fantastic they want to grow, but it's hard. Cut flowers are easier and you just put them in a vase. Lovely."
This, Taylor insists, is "affecting our strategy as a business" and Kernock is UK and Ireland licensee for Proven Winners, the brand from a pan-European group of producers and breeders. Some 300 plants in its catalogue are Proven Winners. They are top performers, he says, not just because of their robustness but because they are easy to grow, playing to the demand for fast growth and good looks.
Seiont Nurseries manager Neil Alcock has seen fast-growing, fast-flowering herbaceous perennials shifting fast from his base in Caernarfon, Gwynedd. Old-fashioned long-season shrubs, by contrast, are on the decline. The short production cycle of the fast-flowering plants is an added boon for both growers and buyers keen for hassle-free flexibility.
But it does not all come down to cost. James Coles & Sons in Leicester, which is using the show to highlight a new website and branding, is noticing buyers favouring container production over bare-root plants. Marketing manager Harry Hitchcock says customers are willing to pay more for the container variety because being able to grow the plants all year round outweighs the extra cost.
A series of open days at Ball Colegrave has given the the Oxfordshire-based seed-distribution company a sharpened sense of what is driving plant-buying trends. For marketing manager Stuart Lowen, people want multifunctional plants. The concept of the patio pot variety is catching on and bedding is moving into pots, he adds. People want performance from plant combinations in all manner of containers.
"The weather has been great," says Lowen. "We had a tremendous May and June, and the season is averaging out well. But in terms of market drivers, the growing housebuilding sector is shaping what buyers want. New homes have small gardens, often with poor soil. Meanwhile, people are short on time but have reasonable amounts of money for impulse plant installations. Pot bedding lends itself well."
This, he insists, is no fly-by-night fad but a "whole lifestyle" drift that is likely to affect what is hot for next season. People are "continuously moving towards instant colour and portable gardens". He is also seeing more interest at the company's open days in vertical gardens such as VertiGarden Easy modules of small pot plants set in a frame that brims with colour within two weeks.
"The whole lifestyle-inspired garden has created a huge amount of interest and made a lot of growers and retailers think much more deeply about what they are preparing and presenting for retail next season," adds Lowen.
The patio plant strikes a chord with Earley Ornamentals product manager Keith Gittens, who is taking two new colours in the company's SunPatiens range from his nursery in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, to the show. Plants such as fuchsia and geranium have not sold so well. Rain may have played havoc in recent years, but mild temperatures have prompted people to overwinter plants in their gardens rather than buy new ones.
"In any case, the market is becoming more patio oriented," says Gittens. "Traditional bedding is slowly declining, probably for several reasons, one of which will be the time factor. Fortunately, this has been a much better trading season. We've had plenty of sun but also plenty of rain - it's a more favourable gardening season because people are getting out there and buying plants."
Farplants group business development manager Mike O'Conner has also noticed people going back to their more natural roots. His nursery, based in Arundel, West Sussex, is using Four Oaks to target Christmas value-added ranges.
But what is really taking off regardless of the season is what he calls "plants for use", such as bird-, beeand butterfly-friendly varieties. "The weather has been better than previous years, the season is steady and forward orders are very strong," he says. "This year will be a good one."
People are buying not just plants but everything related. Dalefoot Composts, for example, will be showing visitors its range of sustainable, peat-free composts from bracken and sheep's wool made on a small hill farm in the Lake District. Vital Earth, meanwhile, based in Derbyshire, will show off peat-free container nursery stock media - "Summer" and "Autumn" - as well as peat-reduced sister brand Growise.
"Each product has essential base nutrients, mainly in slow-release organic form, while the handling properties have already been proven compatible with potting machines such as the Super Javo and with all irrigation and other mechanised systems," says a spokeswoman. "All the products have excellent physical stability and drainage properties, allowing for strong root development."
This chimes heavily with the growing drive for environment-friendliness in all areas of commercial horticulture, not just plants and growing media. Modiform has created what it calls the UK's first bedding pack made from 100 per cent recycled drinking bottles. "This new design is not only made from recycled material but can also be put into recycle bins, something that is not possible when using standard PS or EPS packaging," says UK sales manager Shaun Herdsman, who worked on the product with Coletta & Tyson and B&Q, saving 22,500cu m of EPS from going to landfill a year.
Stock showcase: pick of the new plant introductions
Kabloom, billed by Ball Colegrave as the world's first seed-raised Calibrachoa, will be at the show. It is tolerant of wider pH characteristics than typical vegetated stock and offers production flexibility and cost savings because no royalties are required.
Boweco is to introduce a new line of hibiscus created by the Belgian specialist earlier this year. New cultivars include Hibiscus syr. Rosso and Hibiscus syr. Cielo. The five hibiscus cultivars from Best Select will be put on the market this year as Hibiscus Belli Colori. They follow the almost seedless blue cultivar Hibiscus syr. Azzuri introduced a few years ago.
Among the 69 new plant launches from Kernock Park Plants at this year's Four Oaks are three new additions to the company's Begonia Summerwings series - 'Apricot', 'Vanilla' and 'Dark Elegance'. Calibrachoa Superbells Banana Chocolate boasts well-defined colour and form. Erysimum 'Winter Party' throws out multi-toned flowers in spring. Delphinium range New Millennium, including 'Dusky Maidens', is finally available after years of testing.
Earley Ornamentals will introduce two vibrant new colours - Hot Coral and Electric Orange - in its SunPatiens range, which it says is increasingly popular in the UK due to the plants' weather and disease tolerance.
Elsner PAC Vertriebsgesellschaft of Dresden, Germany, will show a new range of regal pelargoniums with different flower forms for indoors and outdoors. The PAC Bermuda series has flowers with large white centres and red and pink petals. The variety PAC Bermuda Pink won a best-plant award at IPM in January.
Keeping its eye on the festive horizon, Farplants will be launching a Christmas Wreath range at Four Oaks called "Christmas Magic - Believe in the Magic of Christmas". It will feature named themes such as Classic Christmas, Santas & Snowmen, White Christmas, Christmas Past, Winter Wonderland, Christmas Fun and Holly 'n' Berries.
Year-round garden plant specialist Atkiro, based in Poppleton, York, is promoting one-litre nursery stock under the Gardening with Colour brand including flowering and evergreen shrubs, perennials, conifers and seasonal bedding plants.
Thompson & Morgan UK will flag up its new catalogue for 2015, with more than 30 new introductions to its perennials plug range for early-spring delivery. New releases from the company this year include Penstemon Blackberry, a new addition to the Ice Cream series, and Petunia Black Night, a compact double black variety.
Channel Island Plants in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, is pinning its hopes for new product awards on Surfinia Green Edge Lime, with lime-green flowers. It is suitable for pot, basket and bedding production.
Petunia Designer Red Star from Kerley & Co is a pot, basket or patio plant with red and white starred flowers, while Petunia Tumbelina Diana adds a white-flowered double petunia to the existing Tumbelina range. Petunia Happy Magic Dark Caramel Star has shades that alter as the flowers open and it is suitable for growing in pots, baskets or patio containers.
Whetman Pinks will use this year's Four Oaks to unveil two new varieties - Twinkle Star and Starlette. Twinkle Star was a category runner-up and silver award-winner at this year's HTA National Plant Show and is a new addition to the Whetman Star range of dwarf Dianthus. Available exclusively through Lovania Nurseries in 2015, the sweetly perfumed flowers are an antique pink. Starlette is a Whetman-bred, double-flowered plant available in the USA and now to be introduced into the UK market. Vivid cerise flowers define this plant with a deep morello cherry centre.
New varieties and ranges from Young Plants include the Red Fox Confetti Garden, featuring three cuttings in one plug, reducing costs and saving time for growers and retailers. Red Fox Geranium Big Ezee series offers quick-to-finish landscape-type weather-tolerant geraniums in red, neon, fuchsia blue and pink. Red Fox Interspecific Geranium Sarita series is a high-contrast, dark-leaved geranium, while Red Fox Geranium Survivor 'Pink Batik' has dark-pink dapples and a light-pink background. Red Fox Calibrachoa Aloha 'Cherry Cartwheel' is a semi-trailing plant that gives baskets a tropical feel, while Red Fox Petunia Peppy 'Sunset' and Peppy 'Plum' can be grown in pots and baskets. Petunia Sweetunia 'Hot Pink Touch' was this year's visitor vote winner at YPL's Florafest open week and Red Fox Petunia Origami series is a new range of double petunia with cold tolerance.
Blechnum brasiliense 'Volcano', created from the Brazilian Tree Fern, has red new foliage that turns to a glossy green as the fronds mature. The new launch from Seiont Nurseries will reflush in June and makes a good architectural container patio plant. Eryngium Neptune's Gold is billed by the nursery as the world's first golden eryngium, bred in the UK. Bright-lime/yellow foliage in spring is followed by golden thistles that gradually turn electric blue. Following a launch by Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, it was shortlisted in the top 20 plants of the year. It will be launched to the wider trade at Four Oaks.
Big names from abroad
Around one-third of the companies at Four Oaks Trade Show will be from overseas, including some of the world's biggest-name suppliers.
- Holland Bulb Market, set up in 1868 as a bulb and perennial grower and supplier, is exhibiting for the first time in the UK at Four Oaks. It supplies bulbs to the Dutch royal family.
- Sicamus Productions in Angers Cedex, France, is a European leader in hydrangeas, producing two million of the plants across 35ha, 80 per cent of which are exported all over Europe.
- Floranord in northern Italy supplies a vast range, from ericaceous plants such as acers, azalea and camellia to trees such as Betula and liquidambar.
- Gebr Griffioen, exhibiting at Four Oaks for the first time, supplies trees and perennial plants to wholesalers, garden centres and landscapers in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.
- Gimall Plants based in Lochristi, Belgium, offers wholesalers, garden centres and distributors indoor and outdoor plants such as green and flowering azaleas and seasonal bedding.
- De Jong Plant in Boskoop, the Netherlands, specialises in hydrangeas and also supplies lavatera, malva and peony to wholesalers, exporters, horticulturists and garden centres.