The long-predicted demise of grow your own has been slow in coming, with one of Britain’s biggest sellers, Homebase, saying there is still plenty of mileage left in the category. The wettest season for a century meant retailers struggled with the shelf life of edible and non-edible plants.
While edible seed sales have risen sharply in recent years to make up around 70 per cent of the market, in 2012, for the first time in at least five years, the growth stopped. Overall seed sales were down around 10 per cent and edible seed sales slipped in comparison with flower sales.
But Homebase managing director Paul Loft told the recent HTA Garden Futures conference the "gardening passion is still there at Homebase" and selling edible plants is a big part of its future. He said grow your own is "not a fad" and is expanding. One-in-five plants sold at Homebase are edible. Two million people visit its stores each week and one million visit via the internet.
Loft says 70 per cent of his gardening customers are women and most customers at the 330-centre DIY/garden chain are relative novices. Labelling is simplified: "We edit out issues to make it foolproof."
So with big retailers having confidence in the market, what do the suppliers think?
Quantil supplies 100-plus varieties to the Garden Centre Group, Dobbies, 300-400 independents and one of the big sheds. Retail sales manager Mark Clementson says reserves for 2013 are "buoyant" and many of his customers actually showed growth in the sector in 2012.
"I think grow your own held its own this year," he adds. "I don’t think it’s been hit anywhere near as badly as the ornamental market and on the back of that people are still optimistic for the product for next year."
Clementson admits that April and early May were bad for everyone because of the rain, but he says the season carried on longer than expected. "The grow your own market is still there. I don’t agree with people who say it’s on the decline." Quantil has a new range of 30-35 8cm pots featuring tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines (pictured below), chillies and melons to sit alongside its strip vegetables range.
Garden centres can avoid wastage by using Lancashire-based Quantil’s little and often ordering system, says Clementson. "It worked for our customers this year. We have low minimum orders and we can deliver four days a week. Independent garden centres can react quickly to the weather."
Also to deal with wastage, Worcestershire-based grower Gardeners Kitchen, which supplies 400 garden centres with 11 million plants a year, claims to have doubled the shelf life of its young vegetable plants. Managing director Philip Boers has developed a cultural system that can add as much as two weeks selling life to most of the 140 vegetable varieties produced by the company.
Ball Colegrave marketing manager Stuart Lowen is also optimistic for 2013. "We are still seeing a healthy and growing interest in sales of vegetables, fruit and herbs, notably for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and strawberries. This September saw the launch of our 2013 Vegetable,
Fruit & Herbs Catalogue, with more than 400 top-performing varieties. Plugs have proven particularly popular with many customers, fitting neatly into bedding programmes for quick and easy pack, pot and basket production."
Mr Fothergill’s saw 25 per cent growth in its mail-order-only edibles range DT Brown this year. However, retail sales were down 10 per cent, reflecting a weather-hit market, which was the toughest in 25 years, according to general manager Tim Jeffries.
Suttons Seeds marketing director David Arnold reports that the company’s seed sales were 10 per cent down in 2012. But he has high hopes for 2012 with the James Wong Homegrown Revolution range of unusual vegetable seeds, which is to be sold in 500 garden centres.
Elsewhere, Westland has launched its mail order Marshalls edible seeds brand onto the retail market as well as a Garden Organic range of seeds. Marshalls has a range of 100 vegetable and herb varieties for the experienced gardener. Displays will feature landscape packs and rustic stands. Westland marketing director Keith Nicholson says: "The range will appeal to consumers who visit garden centres to browse."
Unwins has launched a Chilli and Peppers Collection for retailers that is merchandised by heat. It includes Orange Habanero at 350,000 Scoville heat units and the one-million unit
Gro-sure Naga Fire Flame. It is also launching a Gro-sure Chilli Kit aimed at men and an Organics range of 24 vegetables and herbs.
Thompson & Morgan’s vegetable of the year is Tomato Rainbow (£2.99), a baby plum in four colours. The firm has also introduced SowStrong, a naturally coated and coloured seed for improved vigour, as well as a World Garden seed range.
Meanwhile, grow your own products have seen a dip since the trend peaked three or four years ago and this had led one leading company, Haxnicks, to look to another, Smart Solar, to run its distribution, sales and marketing after the manufacturer and retailer of plant-protection and plant-care products decided to shrink down to become a new product development company only.
Managing director Damian Cardozzo says the company employed 52 people 18 months ago but is now just him. He adds that the grow your own market is "very difficult" for 2013 because "most people don’t have a lot of money for new product development and garden centres have not been looking for it because they have a lot of stock".
Cardozzo says the surge of new products in the market over the past five years has included a lot of "followers" selling grow your own aids that are "not particularly great". He predicts that they will fall by the wayside and core ranges of plant-protection tunnels and cages for allotment holders and window box products, such as Haxnicks’ Vigoroot air-pruning fabric, will continue to have a place.
Smart Solar managing director Jonathan Stobart adds: "The Haxnicks brand is similar to us — innovative and high-quality — but is also different to us and complementary to us. We have good advantages of economies of scale and over time Haxnicks will be in more garden centres.
We can add financial strength to the business. In year one it will be reassurance and continuity and in year two we’ll push the boat out."
Bad weather conditions hit seed potato harvest
Some seed potato varieties will be in short supply by next March after the worst harvest in Scotland for 50 years. JBA Seed Potatoes representative Iain Barbour says all of Scotland has been hit by the bad weather, making it difficult to harvest.
"It’s hard to get potatoes out of the ground. It’s been the wettest and most difficult harvest season ever. My dad has never known anything like it and he’s been at it for over 50 years.
There’s going to be restrictions and shortages."
He says his retail seed potatoes have gone up 50p to £4.49 for 2.5kg. Wholesale prices are 20-40 per cent up. Homeguard, Charlotte and Lady Crystal are in shortest supply, with a 10-acre field of Charlotte rotted away. He adds that 40 per cent of potatoes have rotted in fields for most growers.
South West Scotland-based Barbour says he was halfway through the harvest when he should have been finished and could be harvesting into December, when garden centres are expecting deliveries, but potatoes have to be graded and inspected before that.
Taylors Bulbs director Adam Taylor says: "There have been tough conditions. The growing year has no been good and yield expectations are 15-20 per cent down and I have heard 40 per cent. Lifting conditions are slow and laborious and potatoes went into wet conditions and got underwater and now are sitting under floods.
"It’s difficult for growers but we only work with reliable people and should be okay too get enough supply. But those making late decisions could be caught out. I keep saying to customers, if you do one thing, get seed potatoes booked."
Some garden centres put in stocks in mid December but most wait until January. Peak sales are February/March. Taylor says seed potato prices are 25 per cent higher wholesale but because retail catalogues were printed pre-season, retail prices are similar to last year and Taylors will take the hit on margin.
Taylor adds that some varieties such as Homeguard, Charlotte and Lady Crystal "you can’t buy now at any price until growers know what they have". He says the retail market will be hit in 2013 by higher prices because it was too late to raise prices this year when the extent of the bad harvest became apparent. Additional orders garden centres make in mid season "will be tricky" and will "take away the choice from the customer of what variety is available in season".