Grow-your-own young plants benefitted from the late season in 2016 as gardeners sought to catch up. Seed companies had a slow start because March was colder and wetter than average in England and Wales, putting off gardeners from getting going. This meant many gardeners sought young vegetable plants to catch up when the weather turned good in May.
Quantil sales manager Mark Clementson says 2016 had a cold start but "veg ticked along very well". He adds: "Last year was steady and once it got going this year it has not been particularly up and down. We saw very good growth in grafted plants." Quantil has 15 grafted vegetables available in weeks 14, 16 and 18.
The Lancashire-based grower is also increasing production of sweet potatoes, mostly introduced by FitzGerald Nurseries. Next year it hopes to introduce a purple-fleshed variety. Quantil supplies 600-plus retailers, making up 1,000 individual centres, with 120 varieties of vegetable plants available.
A new range on the market for garden centre buyers this year is Dynamite Chillies, with 15 varieties in 10cm bright-red pots. The tag line is "How hot can you handle?" and Clementson says the range goes from mild to ridiculous - from 70,000 up to 1.5 million Scovilles. He hopes to have some even hotter next year, though reliable supply of the very hottest can be an issue.
Clementson says chillies trialled this year at garden centres and went down well, with free stock sold out in two days. The product gains a new market, he explains. "It's aimed at blokes and it's all about growing the hottest chillies you can."
Gardeners Kitchen manager Helen Boers says 2016 saw "a lot of juggling in the beginning then May came and it went ballistic - it was crazy. Our season never stopped. We benefit if people grow by seed because it was so cold early on. It was a late season and there were a lot of rabbits around this year, and we gained sales with that."
New from the Worcestershire grower this year is the resistance range of blight-free tomatoes, club root-resistant brassica, rust-free leek and downy mildew-free onions. The firm has more than 300 varieties available and offers "extra shelf life" of two weeks on products. For 2017 there will be an expanded grafted range, after a doubling of sales of grafted tomatoes from this year.
Herbs are a growing area of the market. Quantil has 50 8.5cm varieties available.
FitzGerald Nurseries managing director Pat FitzGerald says he has increased exports by making his range more defined with Evercolor grasses, My Plant, Irish Primroses and Beotanics ranges spotlighted. Sweet potatoes are his largest-growing line. Growers and retailers need to look differently at consumers. A complaint from the industry is how it cannot get to the younger market - they do not spend much "but they certainly spend a lot on blueberries and raspberries".
"Beo" translates from Gaelic as live or life and Beotanics focuses on novel and nutritious vegetables for modern dietary and lifestyle needs, FitzGerald explains. "Our aim is that these vegetables or fruits must be grown sustainably in our northern European climate using simple methods. Work began on the first crop, sweet potato, in 2007. We use elite virus-free in-vitro stock material and work with the cleanest possible plants in crop development."
Hawkesmill has a summer herb range of decorative gift pots, while bedding grower WD Smith & Son also offers vegetable plants. Suppliers such as Allensmore, Farplants, Glendale, Bridgen and Colour Gro are also in the market.
Quantil dominates supply lists, with common products such as Runner Bean White Emergo strips, Lettuce Little Gem strips, Tomato 'Moneymaker' and Tomato 'Gardeners Delight' the most popular items sold. Lettuce Mixed Baby Leaf strips, Carrot Chantenay strips, Cucumber mini and Courgette Golden are also very popular items that the supplier says are "must stocks".
Farplants has done well with its herb ranges such as Thyme Variegated Lemon one-litre, Mint Moroccan, Mint Epicure and Chives in 9cm pots.
Coolings business development manager Neil Jackson says: "We had our best May ever and as part of that grow your own will be up in that month. Grow your own is quite steady now and not something we write home about.
He adds: "A potential recession caused by Brexit could possibly help sales as people want to become more self-sufficient, but nowadays growing your own is more of a lifestyle choice. Though recession will probably have some bearing on it, it's more about where people want to be in terms of their place on the earth."
Oca touted as next big thing for the market
Next on the horizon, but yet to be taken up by UK growers and retailers in any numbers, is oca (Oxalis tuberous), grown by FitzGerald Nurseries in Ireland.
FitzGerald began a selection programme to single out the best varieties - the first programme of its kind in Europe. The nursery now produces a range of young oca, yacon and sweet potato plants. Mashua and ulluco plants are due to follow.
Oxalis tuberosa 'Gold' Smallanthus sonchifolius is also known as yacon and produces sweet-tasting tuberous roots with white or red skin that have a very low caloric value and are beneficial for human health.
The plant itself is tropical in appearance with very large bold foliage. It produces yellow flowers.
Oxalis tuberosa 'Crimson' produces dark-purple tubers in late autumn. The tubers start to form when days are getting shorter and they can be dug up from November onwards. The plants, which need to be protected against early frosts, are hardy to 0 degsC.
Research calculates savings made by gardeners growing their own food
Gardeners can save £268 a year on average by digging for their dinner plate, according to research. Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of people have grown their own in the past five years and more than half (56 per cent) plan to in 2016. Saving money is important for 40 per cent but health and taste benefits also top motivational factors.
The survey, commissioned by the Edible Garden Show, found tomatoes (59 per cent), herbs (51 per cent), strawberries (46 per cent), potatoes (42 per cent), lettuce (36 per cent), onions (29 per cent), peas (24 per cent), raspberries (23 per cent) and chillies (20 per cent) are the most popular.
Nearly half (49 per cent) of those surveyed grow their own with their partners, while almost one in four (23 per cent) are growing with either their children or grandchildren.