Following a poor weather-hit three weeks, garden retailers say the 2017 season is back on track to be well ahead of last year after the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and better weather. But they point out that careful management of seasonal plants and promotions are required to make the most of the rest of spring.
Hillier managing director Chris Francis says he is using the record-breaking 72nd gold medal-winning garden to showcase 90% Hillier-grown plants. "In the past we've had rhododendrons (for instance) from other nurseries but here we have 90% of our own nursery material." He adds that after a "phenomenal" April "we had a couple weeks to gather our thoughts and now we are ready to go".
Francis says the link between the 12 Hillier garden centres and Chelsea is "stronger than ever" with every centre having a Chelsea display "so people who can't get to Chelsea can see for themselves". The display will have seasonal changes throughout the summer.
Hillview Group chief executive Boyd Douglas-Davies says Chelsea helps extend spring into June. "We had a great March and April," he adds. "It slid backwards a little bit in May but we're still nicely ahead of last year and last weekend was up on last year. Let's put the first 20 days of May behind us.
"The weather has come good for Chelsea Flower Show and the bank holiday is coming up. There's loads of TV coverage and on Radio 2 (with five Radio 2 themed gardens at Chelsea), which is another audience that doesn't necessarily watch BBC2 and daytime BBC1 - and plant quality is superb from the nurseries. It will be a reasonable season.
"May is a six-week month because it goes on into June. (BBC TV show) Springwatch is in June. Trade understanding about spring is different to what the public think spring really is.
"Summer bedding is only just getting going. Pack and pot bedding is gearing up. From the start of May we've been proactive in trading bedding through by price pointing and working the planteria, so we're only keeping fresh stock.
"We've not cut staffing in May, which despite poor sales in early May would have been a temptation. This time last year we were running light on garden furniture so we will see better sales this June and July because we have better stock. Some best-selling sets you can't get hold of but we have committed to stock in quantity for our 11 stores."
All to play for
HTA president Adam Wigglesworth, of Ayletts, says after a "difficult two weeks" trade is "all to play for". Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker adds: "It will be virtually impossible to get May back realistically to anywhere near 2016. In the planteria it will be 20-25% down. However, a good Chelsea week and bank holiday hopefully will eat away at that figure, which should see the year still around 10-15% up."
Guy Hands, chairman of Wyevale Garden Centres owner of Terra Firma, says the group's trade has been "pretty much the same as the rest of the industry". He adds: "The weather affects us like the rest of the industry. We had a strong first quarter then the weather has not been great in the last month. Chelsea helps and good weather helps even more. We just need a couple of weeks of sunshine."
He points out that "people's tastes are changing in gardening" with "the variation of weather one of the reasons for that, so people want their gardens to look their best in a short period of time". The market is "more segmented" than 10 years ago and the "variation in the weather" is more difficult to cater for, but demand is increasing and the "question is how to fulfil that demand", he adds.
Hands explains that customers are splitting into three different groups. One of these is specialists, who will always put in the time to garden and make up 10% of customers. Another comprises "those that want something easier to understand - no Latin names - and want something that will give them colour and is less weather-dependent". He says meeting their need is an "industry challenge". The last group is the "family-day-out" crowd who use garden centres as "one of the most enjoyable and cheapest forms of entertainment out there".
Themes at Chelsea included edible plants, with Suttons' Morus 'Charlotte Russe' winning best plant in the show and five edibles among the 20 plants shortlisted for the prize. The plant has sold out. Suttons' David Robinson says fruit plant sales are 50% up this year. Thompson & Morgan's Paul Hansord says he believes new breeding in edibles justifies a separate class in the Chelsea plant of the year competition.
The other edibles shortlisted for best plant were Tom Smith Plants' chilli pepper 'Dragon's Breath', Hillier's Malus x purpurea 'Crimson Cascade', T&M's Strawberry 'Just Add Cream' and Pennard Plants' sweet pepper 'Popti'.
Revival - Better Chelsea prospects
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is poised to bounce back after a Brexit-hit 2017, according to two of its biggest plant suppliers. Hortus Loci says big-name designers will be back next year after only eight show gardens won sponsorship in 2017, half as many as in 2016, while Kelways says it has had an encouraging number of enquiries for 2017.
Hortus Loci managing director Mark Straver says: "We have never had this amount of people asking so early on. There are big hitters coming back." Andy Sturgeon and Diarmuid Gavin are rumoured to be returning for 2018. Cleve West could also return.
Kelways' plant sourcing expert Dave Root says budgets were tight this year and there were no international show garden designers, but he already has two gardens pencilled in for 2018. "It was an unusual Chelsea this year," he adds. "The main avenue feels weird. Every garden confirmed later and every garden had budget restrictions. Brexit happened just at the wrong time."
Television presenter Alan Titchmarsh says: "It reflects the fact that when everybody was booking for Chelsea last year it was when Brexit happened and everybody got a bit nervous. But I think next year it's going to get back to normal."
Speaking to the BBC, RHS director-general Sue Biggs said: "I think it (the lack of show gardens) has everything to do with what happened in the country," adding that it was "understandable" that chief executives did not want to sponsor gardens because of the uncertainty caused by last year's Brexit vote. She pointed out that the issue was about sponsorship, not about big-name designers staying away.
Chelsea show manager Tom Harfleet said: "It feels the membership and the public retain appetite for it." He said he had heard that big garden designer names could back in 2018 but won't know for sure until entries open on 4 August. He added: "Chelsea is often a barometer of the environment of what's going on around the world, for instance in [credit crunch years] 2008/09 but look where we got back up to."