When the collapse of the construction market finally hit home in the landscape sector, amenity growers found themselves eyeing the retail market with envy. Four years on and things have changed.
Two poor-weather years damaged the market for retail plant sales while "weatherproofing" of garden centres has sidelined plants to some extent.
Meanwhile, several surveys suggest that the knowledge and enthusiasm required to grow all but the easiest, most rewarding plants is not there. The HTA says only 30 per cent of garden owners have much horticultural knowledge.
This means that even in a good weather year and with the economy improving, hardy nursery stock sales have struggled. Over the past decade, nursery stock has switched from being 65 to 75 per cent of sales with bedding making up the rest to the opposite.
Shrub grower Mahood Brothers is going into liquidation and John Woods Nurseries has undergone a company voluntary arrangement, underlining the pressures brought by depressed shrub sales. Nevertheless, overall plant sales are up by five-to-10 per cent on average this year, according to latest figures from the Garden Centre Association.
New category emerges
Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker, who is a Tillington Group plant buyer, says a new category has emerged between bedding and shrubs that encompasses seasonal plants such as dahlia and osteospermum sold in bud and flower in large pots. But he admits that berberis, buddleia, forsythia, ribes and Buxus are "struggling".
"There's a shift in the type of plants bought because people want instant colour. Look at the new generation of gardener. Five years ago people would come to fill their garden with trees and shrubs but the problem is the window for looking impulsey is very short. That generation of gardener wants colour."
Another problems is price "becoming prohibitive", adds Bunker. He says a forsythia might be £12 now when it was £6 three or four years ago "but a dahlia with five or six flowers and five or six buds at £12.99. What would you buy compared to a forsythia with green leaf?"
International Association of Horticultural Producers secretary-general Tim Briercliffe says impulse has taken over with today's shopper. "Shrubs being down is a little surprising given the perfect year for gardening".
He adds that underlying economic pressures have had "more of an impact on the market than was assumed" and good weather has had less of a positive impact. "It's not just a case of if the sun shines, it sells".
He continues: "People are looking for instant, impulse, colourful product that is going to provide a lift to the garden and it's fair to say retailers have focused on that. Most sales are largely impulse - not many people say I'm going to the garden centre to buy a weigela. They just want to fill a space with what they're most impressed with at the garden centre."
As a solution, Briercliffe says Defra's ongoing ornamental round table might discuss how UK growers can "capitalise on what their customers have come to value in UK products - quality and service. Right time, right place is going to be key."
Business consultant Neville Stein says the financial difficulties of growers "is what happens in a free market - the strong survive and the weak aren't able to. I think the big problem at the moment is money supply and the banks are so nervous. You might be a solid business and have a good business model but if you want finance the banks are being so risk-averse and cautious."
He adds: "Garden centres have had a good year, are buoyant and everyone feels good but people don't really want shrubs anymore - the gardening public don't. So seasonal people are doing well selling colour and instant gardens."
The production cycle of seasonal plants is so much shorter and easier to fund than shrubs, he points out, with less labour and a greater level of automation.
Amenity far better
Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson supplies amenity and retail hardy nursery stock but says amenity has been far better than retail for more than just 2014. He adds: "I don't think people are buying plants in the way they used to."
He says the keen gardeners are gone, some driven away from plant buying by the recession, and warns "the industry is only clocking on to it latterly and it's too late".
The typical garden centre customer now is younger, with less horticultural knowledge and a smaller garden. They "haven't planned to buy plants at all. They've gone out and bought something in flower and colourful, not a planned purchase."
He adds: "For some time the industry has hidden behind the fact there has been adverse weather, but this year in reality the weather has not been bad."
Richardson says his company was 15 per cent down on retail sales by the end of August but managed to claw a fair bit back in autumn by supplying keen garden centres through until October.
However, because of the logistics of supplying fewer centres late in the season, this was less profitable, despite mixing supply with amenity deliveries. He says amenity sales were 15 per cent up on budget by the end of October.
"It's very busy on amenity sales and we can make better margins. It's amazing how it has changed around. The retail side is now just two or three months in spring and amenity is all year round. Three or four years ago we had plans to increase sales to garden centres, but the market just isn't there now."
International Statistics - Flowers & Plants 2014, containing the latest data on the global production and trade of ornamental flowers and plants, shows that in 2013 the UK's ornamental crop production area fell for hardy nursery stock by almost 10 per cent but rose for herbaceous perennials by almost 20 per cent. Protected crop, Christmas tree, cut flower and bulb production areas were all slightly down.