Horticulture Industry Preview 2011

Welcome to Horticulture Week's preview of 2011.

Waterlow park - image: HW
Waterlow park - image: HW

Below we explore the factors that will shape prospects this year for each of the horticulture industry's key sectors.

You can click on these links to skip to a particular sector:

Green space

Edibles

Turf

Retail

Arboriculture

Contracts

Landscape

Ornamentals

Professional gardening

 

We begin below with the local authority green space sector, where partnership working and adaptability will be the watchwords as managers prepare to drive through huge savings.

The 2011 gardening season is set to start more brightly with the royal wedding on 29 April, creating four bank holidays in just 11 days. Garden centres and growers are theming products and expect a sales bonanza. But VAT rising to 20 per cent, higher unemployment and rising labour, raw material and freight costs are all serious issues with which to contend.

Public spending cuts are a concern to growers and contractors too, but there is plenty of optimism. Former Gardeners' World presenter Toby Buckland predicted: "Garden centres will be doing brisk trade in Mediterranean plants, succulents, palms and exotics this spring as the thaw reveals how many plants have been killed by the cold."

HTA director-general David Gwyther added that interest rates will stay low, inflation will reduce and unemployment will remain "manageable", which will combine "to help restore consumer confidence gradually from the spring".

In contracting, ISS Facility Services Landscaping managing director Phil Jones said: "More public-sector groups are looking to outsource to find savings. As a large-scale contractor for mostly public-sector work, we are reasonably optimistic." But commercial landscapers and designers said economic uncertainty will continue to take its toll.

Pest and disease management will remain at the top of the worry list for growers of both ornamental and edible crops as well as for many of those maintaining green spaces of all kinds. NFU board for horticulture and potatoes chairman Sarah Pettitt said: "Pesticide availability continues to be a source of major difficulty for many growers."

 

GREEN SPACE - Efficiency strategies designed to cope with local authority cuts

Partnerships, strong business plans and adaptability will define 2011 for parks bosses as they formulate efficiency strategies to help them cope with tighter budgets, according to predictions from green space specialists.

Many parks managers are being forced to make huge savings following cuts to local authority budgets of up to nine per cent, unveiled by the Government in December's localism bill.

Sheffield City Council parks and countryside director Mary Bagley said although savings had already been built into the council's green space business strategy, it would continue to consider new efficiencies and alternative ways of working to help maintain the region's park services: "We will do everything to keep improving standards - we can't abandon our green spaces. It doesn't just depend on reducing staff but is also about having a strong business plan and the ability to do things differently."

Bagley added that working with other local authorities, services and trusts was key to success: "Working in partnership is the way forward. It enables us to pool business plans and share best practice. It's not always easy but can provide inspiration and innovation."

Parks consultant Sid Sullivan said as well as forming standard partnerships, councils could save more money by teaming up to contract out services: "Authorities would have a great hold over contractors if they started joint contracting. It would produce substantial savings across the board."

Another option being discussed by many sector practitioners, Sullivan went on, is setting up trusts to run green spaces. But it is a move that holds risks: "Anyone considering it should go and see a successful trust and find out how it works first. Most parks services just don't have the skill set needed to run a trust and unless they can show evidence-based benefits to the community they should steer clear."

GreenSpace general manager Dave Tibbatts said another worry is that parks services could be included in larger leisure or culture-based trusts. "In this case we would potentially still be treated like a poor cousin within a smaller, poorly resourced organisation," he warned.

Tibbatts added that another problem with setting up trusts would be the loss of specialist staff: "Basic horticultural teams will be the most skilled people applied to parks and green spaces. But there will be smaller development teams, most of whom will come from leisure centres and building-based services who won't know anything about developing parks in conjunction with communities."

But London Borough of Richmond upon Thames parks and open spaces head David Allister suggested that handing over parks to a trust could be a better option than partnership working for some councils. Trusts can apply for grant funding that is not available to local authorities and can therefore often avoid such bureaucratic hold-ups.

"It can be hard for the political parties involved in a partnership to get over their differences and there are very different standards between authorities," said Allister. "The industry needs to expand its thinking and be more open to the idea of trusts instead of trying to retain a tight hold on their sites." But he stressed that there was no "one-size-fits-all" solution.

According to Allister, the survival of parks services over the coming year will depend on proactive attitudes and flexibility: "Parks managers need to be open-minded and understand the ideas of partnerships, trusts, asset transfers and social enterprises," he pointed out. "If they don't understand them and do their research, whatever model they adopt won't survive."

- Hannah Jordan

 

EDIBLES - Campaign to strengthen sector gains pace with recommendations list

Growers are hoping to see some positive results this year from their tireless campaigning and brainstorming over the past couple of years.

Several leading growers who joined the Government's fruit and vegetable task force last year produced a list of 21 key recommendations for the Government and industry to help strengthen the UK's edibles horticulture sector.

NFU board for horticulture and potatoes chairman Sarah Pettitt said: "This report has set the scene for a number of the policy challenges ahead in 2011. Not least among these is the Government's planning architecture and the need to ensure the importance of food and commercial horticultural production is recognised within it.

"Indeed, across many of the task force's recommendations there is a clear reminder that horticultural production is a legitimate use of the countryside and that Government policies need to take it into account."

The results of other campaigns and consultations are also expected to come to the fore this year - including the industry's call to reduce the UK's lengthy pesticide re-entry periods.

Cucumber Growers Association technical officer Derek Hargreaves, who is involved with this continuing campaign, said cucumber growers were going to be affected by pesticide losses this year. Chlorothalonil-based products such as Switch, which is used by cucumber growers to treat Mycosphaerella, will be removed from the end of September.

"These products will then only be supplied in mixture form to reduce the risk of resistance - but none of them are approved for use by cucumber growers who find the product a useful treatment for Mycosphaerella," he said. "We can only apply for a specific off-label approval if another country in Europe has approved its use."

Hargreaves added that some cucumber growers in the north of England were hoping for better light this year because low light levels had reduced production from 170 to 155 cucumbers per square metre in some areas.

Pettitt said: "Pesticide availability continues to be a source of major difficulty and is linked in the research and development agenda. In 2011 we will continue our campaign to remove any regulatory barriers that disadvantage us compared to our EU counterparts. I also hope that this year will see us finally securing a UK producer organisation scheme that is fit for purpose, thereby preventing repeats of the crises that have affected it over successive years."

British Leafy Salads Association chairman John Allan added that growers of all sectors were facing rising costs this year. "Input costs are going up and energy costs as well," he said. "The price of fertilisers is also a concern."

-Rachel Sixsmith

 

TURF - Managers set sights on improved performance with lower inputs

Many grounds care and turf managers will be looking to reduce inputs and increase productivity with fewer staff and/or fewer machines as part of the necessary cost controls this year.

All of the current equipment will be expected to work harder as managers anticipate keeping kit for longer before replacing it. That will lead to "distress" purchases made at the last minute, when it is deemed that machinery is no longer cost effective to repair. It will also lead to increased interest in secondhand or used equipment - a market that has already seen dramatic price rises over the past couple of years.

Many managers have talked of reducing mowing frequencies in order to save money. Instead of weekly or fortnightly cuts, mowing may become four-weekly or even six-weekly events.

Amazone Groundcare sales manager Joe Weston explained that this change could result in a need for new machinery: "A lot of the machines traditionally used will find it difficult to cope with the material and conditions in which the operation will have to take place.

"The grass will be twice as long, perhaps three-times longer in some cases. It will be denser, it may be wet and there are likely to be clumps from the last cut that haven't fully decomposed. Under such conditions, operators will no longer be able to race over the ground with the usual mowing fleet."

Amazone has reported an increased interest in flail mowers. Able to mow pitches or tackle cuts on wild flower meadows, the flail is likely to become a valued piece of kit when the going gets tough. A flail-mower/collector can mow all spring and summer and then collect leaves and debris in the autumn.

It is likely to become more unacceptable to have machinery lying idle for 10 months of the year. Specialist items will be hired instead and multitasking kit, like spreaders that can be adapted for materials as different as top dressing and salt, will be much sought after.

But, in the battle to control costs, managers must not forget the basics of turf maintenance. Oxygen, water and nutrients are the essentials for turf that is expected to perform well. Operations such as deep aeration go a long way to maintaining healthy, disease-free surfaces and as such should not be side-lined in the scramble to save cash.

- Sally Drury

 

RETAIL - VAT rate rise dominates concerns but royal wedding boosts sales hopes

For garden retailers January is an important month, with the VAT rise to 20 per cent dominating new year concerns.
There are also fears throughout the sector of a Danish trolley gridlock because of the new Container Centralen radio-frequency identification tags that are to be introduced this month.

Buckingham Garden Centre plant expert Chris Day said there was plenty of potential for retailers to grow in 2011, including in areas such as:

-    Poultry sales: "Plenty of potential in the market area."
-   Promoting more use of perennials in beds and pots: "Better deals on one-litre perennials give instant effect and for much longer."
-    More advice and plant information, especially on grow your own.
-    "We’ll see more budget range and multi-buy deals offered, perhaps to mask the VAT increase."
-    More savvy online "e-tailing".
-    Increased fruit sales, perhaps with more imagination — for example, the brightly-coloured pots that are being offered by Suttons Nurseries.
-    Convenience gardening — instant ready-planted or sown pots.
-    Austerity winners — seed and grow-kits sales will rise.
-    Sharing your spoils — gardeners will share their seedlings, plants and crops, helped by online communities and social networking websites.
-    Increased interest in low-cost undercover structures such as polytunnels and growhouses.
-    Plants — more focus on creating the eco-biodiversity garden, "so hopefully plants will be pushed and featured in garden centre displays and new plant launches will be held more often to help stimulate customer interest throughout the year".

Dennis Espley will take over as chairman of the Garden Centre Association (GCA) and Alan Titchmarsh and Christine Walkden are due to headline the GCA conference on 24-26 January.

Other anticipated news includes Dobbies moving forward with plans to build new centres in Ashford, Speke, Carlisle, Peterborough, Braehead, Houston Mains, Livingston and West Lothian. Also, Homebase is set to launch a Jamie Oliver-branded garden products range.

Retailers will also undoubtedly be looking ahead to the royal wedding on 29 April, after predictions of record-breaking sales during April’s four bank holidays in an 11-day period.

Matthew Appleby


ARBORICULTURE - Planning discussions and climate change push trees up agenda

Barrell Tree Consultancy managing director Jeremy Barrell has told HW that he feels 2011 is going to be a big year for the sector thanks to the Government’s "Big Society" agenda and prevalent environmental concerns.

"Things are changing quite dramatically in arboriculture," he said. "There is a different philosophy, by which the Government sets broad overall policies but then leaves it to locals to work out how to implement them. That’s a great opportunity for us as consultants — we are on the ground to help them and I expect we will become more involved in advisory roles. My company is looking to start expanding soon."

Beyond the immediate financial situation, the response to climate change is something local groups will push forward in the new year and arborists will be well placed to help with that, he continued. "Trees will be central to creating a more sustainable environment. Already we are seeing them incorporated in new sustainable drainage schemes for their interception capacity."

The forthcoming British Standard for amenity trees "will put the needs of trees in the environment above the convenience of nurseries", he said. "I think the future for arb is really good."

Legislative changes to the planning system and the use of tree preservation orders (TPOs) also lie ahead, with a consultation due to be concluded next week. But according to a London Tree Officers’ Association (LTOA) representative:
"We are not convinced that the proposals would significantly strengthen the protection offered to trees — in some cases they would diminish it."

She gave a guarded welcome to the coalition’s plans for a national tree planting campaign: "While again we welcome the sentiment, we need to direct politicians to consider tree maintenance, which is a major consideration when budgets are being cut."

Arboricultural Association technical officer Guy Watson added: "There is nothing too controversial about the revision of TPOs, though some people wanted it to go further. There could be more conflict around the relaxing of planning controls — the hope is that keeping the two under one roof will prevent that."

The Association’s own Arb Show at Bathurst Estate in Gloucestershire will have "a new focus" in 2011 — though details of this are still under wraps.

The first steps in relocating the Ass­ociation’s headquarters to nearby ­Stonehouse will also be taken this year.

For consultants reliant on the construction sector, "work will continue to be patchy", said Consulting Arborist Society (CAS) chairman Mark Chester. "But for the CAS, raising the profile of the profession is one of our aims for the coming year."

Usually, a severe winter such as the big freeze of 2010 serves to kill off many pests, but worries about the spread of oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) remain in the south.

"The loss of resources to deal with the problem and the lack of attention to the health aspects are letting this one out of the bag," said LTOA chair Dave Lofthouse. "A hard winter is not going to bother a pest like this. Expect it to be far more widespread in summer 2011," he added.

Meanwhile, Massaria, a newly arrived fungal disease affecting plane trees, has been flagged up as a concern by both the LTOA and Royal Parks. The fungus weakens trunks and branches of the trees, which are widely planted in urban areas.

Such damage greatly increases the costs of monitoring — an added burden on local authorities at a most unwelcome time.

Gavin McEwan


CONTRACTS - Cuts to public sector budgets will not rule out major opportunities

Contractors who will have to squeeze overheads, materials and procurement costs may nevertheless be able to seize massive opportunities this year.

ISS Facility Services Landscaping managing director Phil Jones said: "It will be a challenge to make current levels of service fit the requirements to reduce revenues. But there will also be opportunities for contractors in 2011.

"More public-sector groups are looking to outsource to find savings. As a large-scale contractor for mostly public-sector work, we are reasonably optimistic. But I think there will also be more Connaught-style failures and suppliers will have a lean time.

"It’s difficult to see EU directives and other legislation such as pesticide changes having a big impact this year. I think all that will quieten down as companies focus on survival."

Quadron managing director Clive Ivil added: "Contractors for councils will see turnover drop, so many may look at integrating management models, reducing duplication, sharing IT and using volunteers more for work like hoeing and litter. Our turnover may go down but we will try to retain profit margins by driving down procurement, material and overhead costs so we don’t have to cut staff or standards. Some firms may try to diversify into the commercial sector.

"This is still a good market — council’s don’t default. They pay on time, have reliable cash flow and offer long-term contracts, which are good for company order books."

Tree Care director Russell Coombs said: "This year will be mixed for arb contractors. There’s plenty of work out there but it will become more cut-throat. There are so many more smaller firms swamping the market that aren’t VAT registered, so the percentage rise won’t affect them, while the medium-sized firms have all the same overheads of a large company.

"The drive for localism cuts will filter down so council and housing association work may drop off. Health and safety will become reactive rather than proactive, so big firms with staff to cover emergency call-outs will do well.

"I am, however, optimistic — there’s no point going into 2011 under a cloud. Contractors will have to be more dynamic in what they do and fixed ideas will be out. This year, more than ever, will be a time when you must change with these difficult times."

Green space consultant Peter Wilkinson said: "It seems inevitable that the trend towards grounds maintenance and whole-service outsourcing will grow as councils seek commercial partners to help share the financial risk. The sense of panic from some areas has to be one of our concerns. Short-term financially-driven fixes can begat serious and long-term problems for green space services that could take years to remedy."

Jez Abbott

 

LANDSCAPE - Tough market but hopes high for Chelsea and diversification

Gloom about the economy in 2011 may be lifted by landscapers forging a fantastic RHS Chelsea Flower Show or diversifying into other areas, such as green roofs and living walls.

Garden designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin said: "The market is going to be incredibly tough for residential design and public-sector design will get tougher as cuts come into play. The market may pick up later this year if people become more sure of their jobs.

"In contrast, I think we will have a fantastic Chelsea. Lots of people want to promote their brands and with limited pots of money they will focus on promotion that pays dividends. How this will affect other shows, I don’t know.

"I also think people will go for more expensive plants instead of a complete overhaul — a £50 plant is perhaps less daunting than a redesign for thousands of pounds. Finally, RHS and National Trust members may make more use of their free-access cards, so visits to these attractions are likely to go up."

Aidan Lane, landscape construction director at Frosts Landscapes, said: "Next year will be tough in commercial landscaping. But projects are still coming on stream and ongoing big schemes, such as the Olympics, will ease burdens for a few.

"I think a north-south divide will widen in favour of the south. Fortunately, we will be working flat out next year and despite talk of inevitable company closures in landscaping, this rarely materialises for medium and large firms. I think this year firms will do what we have done — diversify into areas like green roofs or living walls."

Landscape Institute policy expert Ian Phillips added: "A few positives this year include Defra’s The Big Tree Plant programme and the upcoming white paper on the natural environment, which could have positive spin-offs for companies across the landscape sector.

"But continuing confusion on localism will dampen development, while cuts or the abolition of groups such as CABE and Planning Aid will cause more uncertainty to building sectors in need of advice. Progressive initiatives like eco-homes could stall.

"That said, landscape is relatively low cost but has high impact. So there could be some pleasant surprises — though experience suggests otherwise — of landscape being spared the chop.

British Association of Landscape Industries chair Paul Cowell said: "I expect the first few months will be quiet as consumers get over Christmas and then they will put out the feelers in March. So much uncertainty nationwide will have fallout across domestic and commercial landscaping, but consumer worry about VAT is not materialising.

"In planting trends, design seems to be going naturalistic. Maybe this is about biodiversity or maybe the recession. People are scaling back, thinking small and being less ambitious. If something seeds naturally, why buy an expensive alternative?"

Jez Abbott

 

ORNAMENTALS - Challenges expected with implementation of trolley system

Growers supplying the retail trade are set for a challenging year, with the implementation of the new Container Centralen radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging system and a bumper bank holiday weekend in April that is set to put the supply chain to the test.

Bransford Webbs Plant Company managing director and HTA ornamentals committee chair Geoff Caesar said: "The Container Centralen re-tagging is a big issue for the supply chain and if there’s a gridlock in the system there will be a serious problem for both retailers and growers.

"The other issue is the run of bank holidays we have got coming up in the spring. It’s superb but the Container Centralen trolleys need to be sorted by then."

Johnsons of Whixley joint managing director Andrew Richardson agreed and said the retail market lives in fear of a trolley gridlock. "The first time this system will be tried out is during the big fill-up for the garden centres. Things could be very difficult at a time when we can’t afford for the trucks to be waiting."

On the amenity market, he said despite a full order book at the end of 2010, he was unsure whether the market will pick up again in 2011. He added: "With road schemes we are going from 25 projects a year to about seven or eight. At the moment, I cannot see that the projects are going to be there for this year."

Coles Nurseries managing director James Coles said it was too early to assess the full impact of local authority spending cuts but the construction industry was showing no signs of improvement. "We are going to continue with internal training to ensure that when we come out of this we will be in as strong a position as we can be," he added.

Wyevale nurseries sales director Doug Reade said it was not all doom and gloom because growers were benefiting from the "staycation" boom but he predicted a "tough year" for the sector.

He backed concerns about the new tagging system and said he feared lorry drivers would not be able to offload stock at garden centres not operating under the new Container Centralen system. He added: "All of us are worried that it could all grind to a halt or we could end up going out with RFID-tagged trolleys and coming back with non-tagged ones."

However, bedding growers were optimistic about the year ahead and remained unperturbed by local authority spending cuts. British Protected Ornamentals Association chair Sarah Fairhurst said: "It’s too early to say what councils are going to do but I don’t think the cuts are going to be too much of a concern — a lot of people are keen on parks and gardens and they still like that splash of colour.

"There’s potential for a lot of growth — there are all these department stores that could look into horticulture and there’s plenty of opportunity for people who want it."

Gemma Mackenzie

 

PROFESSIONAL GARDENING - Higher cost of living poses threat to staffing levels

Professional gardeners face the ongoing threat of pests and diseases and the challenge of retaining and attracting visitors to their gardens in 2011.

The aftermath of the comprehensive spending review is also likely to have a knock-on effect and Professional Gardeners Guild chairman Tony Arnold has expressed concern over gardeners coping with rises in the cost of living.

He said: "There will be an aftermath of the cuts and an increase in everything that people have to spend on and gardeners will be struggling to do it on low wages. The cost of living is really going up and gardeners’ wages are bottom of the pile — it could see lots of people going out of the industry. I hope not but there’s no telling."

Myddelton House Gardens head gardener Andrew Turvey reiterated Arnold’s concerns. "I think 2011 and the years to come will be dominated by financial implications. We are already undervalued so it’s an increasingly easy target for funding cuts. It may not be hitting us at the moment but it’s something that we will have to prepare ourselves for."

On the issue of pests and diseases, he added: "One of the ongoing concerns is Phytophthora ramorum and the recent outbreaks in Wales and Scotland make it more of a concern for a lot of us with rhododendron."

He added that attracting visitors to gardens will be a key issue in 2011 and warned against increasing admission charges to make up for capital lost through funding cuts. He said: "As an industry we have to be very clever about how we attract people to us and we cannot try to make things up by charging more because soon you can price yourself out of something. You have to be very realistic and think about what you as a head gardener can afford to pay.

"Attracting new visitors is a challenge. A lot of the larger organisations have managed to get smart phone apps, so some smaller gardens will need to improve their websites. By getting ourselves out there, it will hopefully help visitors find us."

National Trust for Scotland head of gardens and designed landscapes Robert Grant also raised concerns over pests and diseases, in particular P. lateralis, and said 2011 will see the trust working towards reducing its carbon footprint. He added: "As a body we are moving forward by looking at our peat sustainability and searching for a long-term sustainable and economic growing media peat alternative.

"We also want to have a much better understanding of the implications of the increasing numbers of pests and diseases — everyone who has a plant collection should be aware of these issues and keep an eye on particularly vulnerable species."

He backed Turvey’s concerns about visitor numbers: "All the attractions are competing for the same audiences and a lot of effort will need to be spent on trying to maintain numbers."

On training in the sector and the anticipated level of new recruits for the new year, Historic & Botanic Garden Bursary scheme co-ordinator Fiona Dennis said: "I think people will still want to do lots of training because it’s still an excellent career to go into.

"The desperate cuts we have had will cut deeply into what’s happening in horticulture at the moment but I think there will be a lower level of standards unless we maintain training. It’s all very well having volunteers but we need a skilled workforce and we will continue to support training — we’re taking on 19 trainees this year, up from 16 last year."

Gemma Mackenzie


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