The HTA Garden Futures Conference, held appropriately at the Roof Gardens in Kensington, attracted a diverse range of industry leaders. Where else are directors of Homebase, Dobbies, the Garden Centre Group, Strikes, Solus, Webbs, Squire's, Delicious Magazine, Scotts, Westland and many more to be found chewing the fat?
Delegates were told we're through the worst of the recession and on the up and, after a year of reasonable gardening weather, spirits were high. One of the multiple garden centres told me turnover was over £40m and profits over £3m, so it can't be all bad.
I must be missing something, because 2010 looks to me likely to be a really tough trading year. Making a one-day trip to Holland, the taxi fare from Schiphol to the Aalsmeer trade show had doubled in a year.
Exhibitor numbers at Horti Fair look to have halved, many of the major flower seed and young plant companies were absent and, with the current value of sterling, UK prices will have to rise.
There was a much better buzz at the Aalsmeer trade show, which is a lower cost for exhibitors and entirely plant-focused when compared to Horti Fair. At the latter a machine to graft tomato seeds, with input from UK firm Hamilton, caught my eye. This piece of robotic kit costs £50,000, glues rootstock to cultivar seedling and is operated by two unskilled workers. It will do the work of nine skilled grafters.
Grafted tomato plants are now being sold to gardeners by Suttons, which is also introducing grafted peppers, cucumbers, melons and aubergines. From my experience over two seasons, these grafted plants will give the new army of grow-your-own enthusiasts strong growth and very heavy crops.
One of the topics that kept coming up at the HTA Conference was grow-your-own and how long the tremendous enthusiasm for this trend will last. From all I see and hear, we have it for the coming year but we do need to ensure that new gardeners experience success.
The recent Gardening Which? report on seed germination was not very encouraging in this respect. It will be interesting to see how the Unwins Gro-sure range, which sets new standards in seed performance, is taken up.
Packet seed margins have left little money for the all-important seeds they contain in recent years. Anything that improves the quality and results achieved by gardeners is to be recommended and supported.
At the RHS Autumn Show one of our most skilled propagators, sadly now retired, rightly criticised the quality of apple trees on sale. Garden centres are now taking delivery of superb container trees from the likes of Blackmoor Estate, Darby Nursery Stock and Frank P Matthews.
Planted this autumn into reasonable soil, they will give gardeners good crops for years to come. We have to get this message of planting the best across to consumers. Bob Hewitt of Strikes Garden Centres raised the question of maintaining plant quality at centres and looks to nursery stock suppliers to help.Nicholas Marshall has certainly put emphasis back onto plants at his centres.
Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster