Grow your own is now recognised by garden centre planteria managers as an established section in its own right after taking off during the allotment boom of a few years ago. While the heat has gone out of the market, continued innovation and improved quality mean there are still new products to offer customers.
In 2015, a cold start to the season delayed sales of young plants, while seed sales remained steady rather than spectacular. Beckworth Emporium horticulture manager Mike Easom says the season was short but sweet. Home-grown tomato plants were the star and he says cutting the price to 99p made sales soar.
"It was a very short season because it was so cold and late," Easom confirms. "But seeds are up and tomatoes are up. At our 99p price point that made the difference of 800 young plants to make 2,700 sold. We grow them ourselves and including a label they cost 12p to produce, so it's a good earner. But you have to get your timings right to hit the good weather or you will be sorry. We also buy in from Roger Smalley Houseplants, which took over some of Baby Plants' business when they closed. We sell cell pack punnets from Gardeners Kitchen too and the quality is fantastic."
The biggest supplier of grow your own products to garden centres is Quantil, with Gardeners Kitchen serving many independents. Gardeners Kitchen manager Helen Boers says the 2015 season has been extended, with customers buying into June, mainly because of the cold start. Overall sales were similar to last year, she reports, with the edibles market mirroring the overall market in that once underway, sales were steady.
Boers adds that cucumelon has done well, influenced by Suttons Seeds' James Wong range launching the unusual variety. Grafted tomatoes, another area pioneered by Suttons, has also done well for Gardeners Kitchen this year. Spaghetti squash was also new. Another new area is online sales, with 130 varieties available this year. The company has met the market at the Garden Press Event and National Plant Show. It will be at the Four Oaks Trade Show and Glee again in September.
Quantil retail sales manager Mark Clementson says 2015 has been a "very good year" after a slow start. "Everyone said we were two or three weeks behind at the beginning of the season but our 8.5cm veg range pot product did exceptionally well from the beginning."
He adds that Lancashire-based Quantil has picked up extra market share and is now the biggest in the market, in which few growers specialise in young vegetables. He says the main competition is from Gardeners Kitchen and bedding growers who have added some young vegetables to their range.
However, he says he does not know what the effect will be of Merediths re-entering the market, having been bought by Glendale in August 2013, and adds that Farplants' new pot range is "more of a competition for us".
Clementson says the market sector "is not going away" and talk that it peaked around 2010 was premature. "We're possibly at the top of the peak," he suggests. "It doesn't seem to be going down - it's still a very buoyant market." Nevertheless, there is no decent data on market size, although Clementson agrees the sector is worth tens of millions.
He says the vegetable range is "established and static", but after a limited trial with 50-60 garden centres in 2015 he hopes sweet potatoes will take off in 2016. "Sweet potatoes will go very, very well," he predicts. "Hopefully next year it will be much wider in the market."
Quantil, which supplies 600-plus retailers, making up 1,000 individual centres, says the outlook for the sector is "very strong", adding: "People see grow your own as a lifestyle choice. They don't see it as a way of growing cheap food. There are a lot of people out there having a go but we need to try and get the younger gardener into the market and develop that side of it."
The shift that Clementson believes is happening is gardeners planting a mix of seed and young plants. "Most people don't have adequate germination facilities for a lot of seeds," he says.
Head start for customers
Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker says £2.99 one-litre vegetables from Parkers, Merediths and Farplants have been a sales feature of 2015, as customers decided they wanted a "head start" after the cold start to the year. Sweetcorn, peppers, aubergine, runner beans and tomatoes went best, with sales in these areas up by 25-35 per cent.
The background to sales is reflected by new gardens having vegetable plants installed as a norm. Using perennials on allotments and in vegetable plants is becoming more common as they become more established and plot holders realise how much work is involved.
So fruit trees and bushes, asparagus, artichokes, strawberries and herbs often form the basis of plots, with seasonal crops such as salads, potatoes, beans, brassicas, courgettes and pumpkins filling the gaps. Then a few exotics to try out - such as sweet potatoes, cucumelon or unusual fruits - for those who are bored with the same old varieties.
Frank P Matthews' cherry Stardust was best in category for trees at the National Plant Show. The sweet, self-fertile variety also won the visitor vote award and a category silver. Assistant managing director Stephanie Dunn James says for retailers, having a good core range is very important, but garden centres are looking for unusual varieties such as Stardust to give the range sparkle.
The Saskatoon antioxidant juneberries (Amelanchier ainifolia) and giant fruit mulberries three times the size of normal mulberries are her picks for 2016. "We're definitely seeing an increase in interest for unusual fruit varieties such as Mirabelles and Saskatoons (new to the UK). Stardust has some unusual features, being a white-fleshed cherry, and it attracted a lot of attention at the National Plant Show."
Other additions to the range include Mirabelle Countess and Apple 'Core Blimey', which the Tenbury Wells nursery has grown in association with the Urban Orchard Project in London.
Protection for allotments
Legislation that could protect the grow your own market has seen a last-minute amendment to the Scottish Government's Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill, which has given statutory protection to the standard size of an allotment.
Members of the Scottish Allotments & Gardens Society (SAGS) celebrated as the Government confirmed it would defend the standard plot size of 250sq m (820sq ft).
The group thanked the Government for "supporting legislation that recognises the importance of allotments in the modern world".
There were concerns that allotments could be downsized by councils looking to reduce their waiting lists under the new law, but a series of changes to the flagship legislation mean smaller plots will only be offered to those who ask for them. Councils will also have to consult Scottish Government ministers before closing an existing allotment site.
The measures will give more legal protection to allotments in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK, say the campaigners. A statement from SAGS says it "reverses the previous position which has resulted in nearly 90 per cent of Scotland's allotments disappearing since World War Two, compared with only about half in the rest of the UK".
The legislation will oblige local authorities to "take reasonable steps" to increase the amount of land available for allotments should waiting lists exceed a certain length. If anyone on a waiting list faces a five-year wait, or the number of people on the waiting list exceeds the council's capacity by more than 50 per cent, the local authority will have to look into allocating more land to allotment sites.
However, BBC2 television show The Big Allotment Challenge is over after two series and allotments in the rest of the UK continue to face pressure from development. Aside from high-profile campaigns at places such as Watford's Farm Terrace, waiting lists are falling and the sector is settling.
In 2014, HW reported that about 3,000 plots, two per cent of the national total, had been destroyed since 2010, according to official figures, with the final decision being taken by Whitehall in each case.
The then communities secretary Eric Pickles rejected just two out of 83 applications by councils to sell sites for development. The number of plots in England has fallen from a peak of 1.4-million in 1949 to around 150,000 today.