For many years, imported trees have dominated the market for growers wanting to plant the main "commodity" varieties of apples and pears.
Continental tree nurseries have a Europe-wide customer base for the most popular varieties and the new marketing-restricted Club varieties, so UK growers have been able to buy good-quality trees at very competitive prices.
During this period, established UK fruit-tree nurseries such as Blackmoor Nurseries in Hampshire and Frank P Matthews in Worcestershire have changed market focus and diversified into other areas rather than supplying the professional grower. However, this may be about to change.
The apple tree market is buoyant with good long-term confidence for replanting orchards and some modest expansion, especially for Club varieties like Jazz, Cameo, Kanzi and Rubens. Many growers supplying the supermarkets are in the process of changing the mix of their dessert apple orchards from about 65 per cent Cox to nearer one-third Cox as the premium for this mainstay of the industry is eroded.
Gone are the days when growers waited until just before they wanted to plant and expected to buy trees on spec from nurseries and importing agents. Pre-ordering the year before to secure the exact specification of tree required is now the norm.
Fewer nurseries are growing trees speculatively - even the most popular "commodity" varieties - so any grower wanting to buy trees to plant this autumn will find they are in short supply. For instance, owing to a shortage of Gala for last year's planting season, growers ordered early, so apparently there are no Gala trees available if not already ordered. One of the most popular clones of Braeburn for planting in the UK, Hillwell, is also sold out. Growers may be luckier if they are looking for Cox or Bramley trees.
The weak pound/euro exchange rate will make imported trees that have been pre-ordered for delivery in 2009 significantly more expensive. The rise in transport costs by about 10 per cent will also add to the expense.
According to Peter Kelley of Kent Fruit Services, trees ordered now may be up to 50 per cent more expensive than last year. The price for a well-feathered two-year-old apple tree from a Dutch nursery is about £3.15, excluding royalties.
Kelley considers that Braeburn and Gala are the most popular varieties in terms of orders this year. Fashions in clones have meant that Mondial Gala, which was the most popular clone five years ago according to Kelley, is now short because Continental growers favour redder clones.
Clones that have block colour have also become more popular due to colour development problems caused by the lack of day/night temperature contrasts in more southerly parts of Europe. For the UK, the more highly coloured Galaxy is now the most popular Gala clone and Kelley has also noticed a revival in the fortunes of Gala Must as some supermarket technologists have changed their perception of this particular clone.
For Cox, Kelley thinks the new clone La Vera is superseding Queen Cox as it provides more regular cropping, less russet and more Class 1 fruit. Another trend Kelley reports is the entry of Polish nurseries into the market as their labour costs are lower and their longer, warmer summers produce apples with good branching and bud development.
John Breach, of JR Breach, has been importing apple trees from the Pepinieres du Valois nursery near Paris for many years. He has always dealt in sterling so his prices are not affected by the exchange rate.
Breach offers a mix of mainstream varieties and promising new selections. He offers both Gala Galaxy and two Braeburn clones that do well in England, Royal and Lochbuie, and is also a supplier of Cameo to Cameo Club growers.
For the adventurous grower, Breach is also offering two clones of Fuji for 2009 - Aztec and September Wonder. The latter, as its name suggests, picks in September and is at present being trialled in Breach's brother Vic's orchards. For organic growers, Breach has high hopes for Crimson Crisp, which has the scab-resistance gene Vf, as has Goldrush, a late-picking variety with excellent storage qualities in normal cold store, which is ideal for small growers supplying farm shops and farmers markets.
Tree stakes are another factor to take into consideration when planting new orchards. Kelley warns that stake prices are rising too, not just because of the weak pound and rising transport costs but also because of competition for the raw material. Tree stake producers in northern Europe have traditionally sourced their wood from thinnings from young forestry plantations but they are now in direct competition with alternative fuel providers who will take any size and quality of wood.
Nursery manager John Munday of Blackmoor Nurseries, which grows a wide range of traditional apple varieties and other fruit trees, says: "We saw a change by many growers five to 10 years ago to buying cheaper trees from Holland and Belgium. We are not selling huge numbers of trees to professional growers now and we aren't geared up for them unless they pre-order."
Blackmoor has a thriving business, supplying garden centres as well as filling mail orders and online orders. Munday has seen a 25 to 30 per cent sales increase in the past 18 months as the grow-your-own trend took hold in the amateur market.
Frank P Matthews managing director Nick Dunn is equally bullish about the strength of the amateur market - all 150,000 container fruit trees he grows each year are destined for the garden trade and some of his 350,000 field- grown trees are sold bare-root, particularly via mail-order companies and his own Trees For Life brand. He is also able to offer UK commercial growers a range of commercial varieties that are all home-grown and propagated in the nursery at Tenbury Wells.
"We love growing trees and propagation. All our propagation is done on site and this means we have work for our staff 12 months of the year." Dunn is committed to employing local people and offering full-time work. At present he employs 65 people in the business.
For apples, Dunn does not offer what he terms the "supermarket" varieties, where competition from European nurseries is fierce but has specialised in varieties ideal for smaller growers with a farm shop or farmers' market outlets. For recent trends in varieties he commends two varieties bred by Kent-based independent breeder Hugh Erwin: Scrumptious, which is early, popular with amateurs and now catching on in orchards and with retailers; and Herefordshire Russet, which has a fantastic aromatic flavour and stores well.
He also reports good sales of Red Falstaff, which is a good juicing apple that can be successfully grown organically and is also a good pollinator for Bramley.
Sales of Bramley trees are reportedly very steady across the nursery trade. Dunn also supplies Northern Ireland and reports good demand there too. Cider apple and Perry pear trees are also steady sellers (Frank P Matthews produces 10,000 to 15,000 trees per year), particularly for small producers and hobby growers in the West Country who have established a high demand for their locally produced products.
Demand for pear trees is static and no trends are evident. Dunn thinks there has been little evolution or progress with varieties or rootstocks and that growers struggle with yield in the UK. However, the situation with stone fruit is completely different, with developments in both varieties and rootstocks stimulating new plantings and demand for trees.
For cherries, there is a very high demand for trees, largely stimulated by the advent in the past 10 years or so of the significantly dwarfing cherry rootstock Gisela range. For this year, however, some nurserymen report that a shortage of the most popular Gisela 5 dwarfing rootstock is affecting supply. But Dunn is confident he has enough G5 rootstock to meet buoyant cherry orders from commercial growers and garden centres.
He is also head licensee for the Cherry Breeding Programme at East Malling Research (EMR), providing the link between EMR and the industry. He thinks that the new EMR-bred variety Penny, which has very large, dark fruit produced late in the season, is a winner. Cherry expert Don Vaughan from FAST says Penny is a "meaty" cherry that crops well and regularly on Gisela 5, but he points out that it is not self-fertile.
English plum varieties are not grown anywhere else in Europe, so UK nurseries are the main source for trees, except perhaps for Victoria. The market has remained steady for years according to Dunn, the main development being the introduction of the EMR plum varieties with Arthurian Legend names such as Avalon and Excalibur.
These large-fruited varieties from EMR have been joined by Guinivere (some growers may recognise it from trials at East Malling as WJ96), which Dunn thinks has potential as it is also a heavy cropper, self-fertile and as late as Marjorie's Seedling, but with extended cold storage for improved prices.