UK retailers and growers have mounted a robust defence of the quality of wholesale-grown supermarket plants after Gardeners' World presenter Monty Don claimed supermarkets sell a poor selection of "cheap" plants.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's You & Yours programme, broadcast on 5 June, Don said the ranges of plants for sale are not big enough for him. "You have these vast wholesale nurseries now supplying supermarkets and actually that's a diminution of choice that's bad, because all you get it's rather like vast suppliers supplying food. You get lots and lots of exactly the same thing, mass produced to be as cheap as possible."
In response, Waitrose said: "Gardening is the second most popular pastime for Waitrose customers after cooking, so we take the quality of our offer seriously. Our plants are supplied by two nurseries that are long-established and extremely reputable, and our growers only supply garden centres, not other supermarkets." Waitrose suppliers include Farplants in-store and Crocus online.
Also commenting on the broadcast, Sainsbury's said: "We have long-standing relationships with our suppliers. Many are secondand third-generation family businesses who also grow plants for their own nurseries and garden centres. We have limited space in our stores but always aim to give customers as much choice as we can, and for the best possible value."
Meanwhile, Asda added: "We work with a network of expert growers and nurseries that allows us to offer fantastic quality and value plants to our green-fingered customers. We would be more than happy to invite Monty into one of our stores and to talk to our buyers to find out more about how we source our plant selection."
Greg Hill, British Protected Ornamentals Association chairman and director of Hills Plants, which supplies Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Homebase with pot plants, said: "We started out as a small independent nursery with a retail outlet and I believe we are still as passionate about plants now as we were then."
Newey Group's Alex Newey said: "Because something is good value for money that does not define it as being lowor poor-quality, and there is an assumption that he makes there because something is fitting a particular place in the market it is low-quality, and that is rubbish. I would defend the input quality that goes into any of our large non-garden centre retailers as equally as good as any independent garden centre. They may take a more aggressive approach on volume and format but it does not define it as being a lesser-quality product.
"If anything, when you deal with a major multiple, quality standards (demanded) are actually higher (than smaller retailers)." He explains that garden centres may have different specifications than multiples, such as bigger pots. "You can't be as sweeping as he has been."
HTA operations director Martin Simmons added: "People often make impulse purchases of plants in supermarkets and if this then encourages them to buy more plants then this is good for the industry and helps to grow the market. Buying a plant in a supermarket may be the first step for some consumers, particularly younger ones. If this grabs their interest they will naturally seek out garden centres and retail nurseries."
Getting younger people involved
Neame Lea Nursery managing director David Ball added: "I think the HTA were 100% right when they praised what the supermarkets have done for getting younger people involved in gardening, which is great for the industry. Supermarkets will never have the range that you would get in the garden centres, but they are making gardening affordable and supermarkets' sales are generally going through significant growth on outdoor plants, which shows they are reacting to their customer base and getting more people gardening.
"Garden centres, however, provide a whole other experience that gives the customer a great day out, with a huge range of plants alongside fantastic restaurant and shopping facilities, and I think they have done a great job in reacting to the market and offering the customer a fantastic experience. We regularly go to the garden centre as a family for a nice day out.
"Neame Lea is a second-generation family business that supplies supermarkets as well as garden centres, and we have a huge amount of people who have dedicated their lives to horticulture within the business. Their commitment and technical knowledge is exceptional, and so I don't think this is just limited to independent nurseries. We are just very lucky to have an industry full of people who are passionate about horticulture and exceptional in their field.
"The best decision I made was to join the family business after finishing university. However, it is a very tough and hard-working industry, particularly with the cost pressures we are all under, and this forces people to invest to remain competitive, creating what Monty describes as 'vast' nurseries. I'd quite happily invite Monty to our site to meet some of our team so he can see their dedication and expertise first-hand that goes into every product."
Small independent growers
Don said he would rather use small independent growers to talk to plant experts. "I'm a huge a fan of independent nurseries and that is where you get the expertise - that is where you will find people who have devoted their life to growing something and know far more about it than I do or anyone else on television. They will grow geraniums or they will grow fruit trees and they will really know about it. So when you contact them they can give you great hope and assistance."
Garden writer Peter Seabrook said plants including geraniums from Kado Flowers, which supplies Waitrose, and lilies from Pinetops Nurseries on his 40 Sunbury Road RHS Chelsea Flower Show exhibit were of "unbelievable quality" and represented good value for ordinary as well as dedicated gardeners. "The large production nurseries growing for supermarkets are producing an unbelievable quality that 20 years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of and all offer remarkable value to new homeowners and very keen gardeners alike."
NFU horticulture adviser Amy Gray said: "British flower growers produce a superb product and the public greatly benefit from the quality and value of flowers available in supermarkets, which make up 56% of the market. Wide availability allows seasoned gardeners to continue their passion, as well as opening up the flower industry to newcomers. The NFU continues to call for increased provenance labelling on cut flowers so the public are able to make an informed choice when they buy from supermarkets."
Daniel Richards, co-founder of online gardening app GardenTags, said: "Supermarkets can sometimes be a route into gardening for many new gardeners. However, we have seen on GardenTags that once a novice gardener builds in his or her confidence, they increasingly value the expertise of independent nurseries and growers as a great source of knowledge and planting inspiration."
Market analyst Kantar has found that nearly 40% of gardeners purchase plants, bulbs and seeds from supermarkets.