Landscapers can benefit hugely from good relationships with their suppliers and there is no better way of keeping plant suppliers happy than to be clear and unambiguous when specifying plants.
The plant trade has made several attempts to simplify and standardise this task in recent years, most notably with the introduction of the National Plant Specification (NPS). Though developed over a decade ago, this has taken a while to gain acceptance, admits HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe.
"Reports from growers show that NPS has been taken up a lot more over the past year, partly down to the fact we've made it freely available," he says. "The HTA has invested tens of thousands of pounds in it. There was a hope that it would be self-funding, but that hasn't happened."
NPS still offers added benefits to subscribers, such as printable plant descriptions and interfacing with landscape CAD programmes.
Briercliffe explains the benefits of the NPS system for both parties: "Growers sometimes get specs for plants that are not widely available, not suitable for what they have in mind or out of date and superseded by other, better varieties."
James Coles and Sons Nurseries is one supplier that has seen an increase in the use of NPS. According to marketing manager Lynn Hunter: "NPS is something we hang our hat on - all our documentation, both printed and on our website, is in line with it and we are always promoting it.
"But it hasn't been widely publicised," she continues, "and it's still too rare for an order to come in with all the information. What we want is for the pot size, form, girth and height to be clearly specified. If customers need help on what forms to select, we have staff who can advise them."
To boost understanding of NPS in the trade, Coles is planning to host accredited training later this year aimed at all of those involved in plant specifying.
Wyevale Nurseries sales manager Doug Reade was part of the original committee that drafted the NPS and prepared sections on shrubs and bamboo.
"A huge amount of effort went into it, both from the HTA and from the trade," he says. "It's important to get it used throughout the supply chain."
However, he is at pains not to berate plant specifiers. "I sympathise with landscape architects," he says. "Plants are only a small part of what they do — which also encompasses legal and planning issues and CAD — whereas it's our job to be knowledgeable about plants. We shouldn't expect them to be too."
But he adds: "Plant specifications are critical and toiling for many years with poor specifications is frustrating. The landscape architect's wishes may not have been passed on right by the contractors. You price against the contractor's spec - to the lower end, if it's incomplete — then the landscape architect is disappointed with the plants and antagonism can creep in. The next time round, they may over-specify — we see a lot of specifications that aren't achievable."
Reade argues that using NPS would overcome this problem by "creating a level playing field" that would remove the temptation for plant suppliers to gain an edge through under-bidding.
"Specifying is complicated," he says. "Not only is there a huge number of species and varieties, they also come in a great many sizes and formats. We have more than 100 different permutations of Betula pendula alone."
That's just the problem, says Gill Tacchi, director of Robin Tacchi Plants, which has developed the Spec21 system to make plant specifying easier for landscapers.
"The trouble with NPS is that there's all that information there, but you need a huge amount of knowledge to choose the right sort of plant," she says. "And because it's produced by a trade association, it has to please everyone."
Tacchi says the Spec21 system "fits nicely within NPS" but concentrates on "core varieties from which you can develop your design".
She adds: "The NPS will list plant sizes from one litre to 15 or 20 litres, but what we are saying is there's an optimum size for supplying a plant. A lot of perennials, for example, should be supplied in two-litre sizes. We wouldn't recommend a one-litre perennial except for something like a roof garden because the plant's too immature.
"But if you get a tender saying '1.5 to two litres' or 'two to three litres', obviously you're going to quote for the smaller size because that's what the next nursery down the road will do, even though there may be a huge difference in the maturity of the plant.
"With Spec21, it's clear how big the plant should be, how many breaks it should have and so on, so the customer knows what quality of plant they can anticipate."
By setting out clear quality standards for core landscaping lines, it will give customers the confidence to reject plants that fail to meet them, she adds. "There's a lot of variation in the quality of plants arriving on site. But though it's easy to look at a brick and say that's not right and send it back, not many people have the confidence to do that with plants. Spec21 gives them that confidence."
According to Tacchi, Spec21 has been "very well received" in the landscape industry and is popular with regular customers. "For big landscape practices, they find it answers the questions they would have asked us anyway, and it is also useful for people such as planners," she adds.
Robin Tacchi Plants would be happy to see Spec21 adopted more widely. "We are quite happy for the industry to use it, though there would need to be some benefit for us," she says.
"We regularly update it to reflect both the feedback we get from plant users and improvements in the varieties available. We would like to bring in other specialists to broaden the coverage, though there is a danger of going down the same route as NPS, where so many people have input."
The nursery supplied plants to the recent BALI Award-winning rooftop development at Ropemaker in the City of London, designed by Townshend Landscape Architects. Principal Robert Townshend says the practice draws on different sources when specifying. "We don't rely on any of them as a lead source because we have built a library of sources and references that we use as base information and then back this up with reference to the documentation," he explains.
Tim Briercliffe says Spec21 "serves a different role" to NPS, which he defends, saying: "There is a vast number of plants in NPS — it was supposed to be like that."
He points out that for a short, accessible list of widely-grown plants for specific situations, the HTA already has material available to specifiers.
Prepared in consultation with the Landscape Institute, and mailed to all its members, Top Plants for Amenity Landscapes lists 100 shrubs, 50 trees and 50 herbaceous plants and will shortly be revised and extended. In addition, the PlantSpec website provides a searchable database of these lists.
"Spec 21 is really a combination of these," says Briercliffe. "They are all complementary — the NPS is the ultimate digest, but Spec21 and PlantSpec make it more useable."
Design-and-build firm Landform Consultants managing director Mark Gregory says all this is a move in the right direction. "Anything that makes designers better understand what they are getting from growers is good. Things have got a lot better than 10 or 15 years ago. Architects used to reject lorry loads of plants without understanding what they should have looked like." Having a reference photograph to consult, as NPS does, helps prevent this, he says.
He adds that "spec busting", where suppliers undercut each other by bidding beneath the specification, could be overcome by the practice, common in France and the US, of selecting mid-ranking rather than lowest tenders for jobs. "That way you don't encourage suppliers to exploit loopholes in the spec," he says.
COME AND SEE
Wyevale sales manager Doug Reade urges landscape designers and other specifiers to visit nurseries in person, while acknowledging that few will be able to do this for every job.
"We get a lot of landscape architects visiting and it always pays dividends through building up trust," he says, adding that this then gives designers confidence to take on board suppliers' planting suggestions.
"The more landscape designers who come, the better, though often they don't have the time or the budget. Mostly they will come to look at big items — trees for an avenue or specimen topiary, rather than 10,000 Cotoneaster."
But a personal visit can bring other advantages, he says. "You may see an alternative to the plant you had in mind at a better standard or at a better price."
University of Gloucester landscape design lecturer William Burford shares Reade's belief in the value of personal visits and urges his final-year students to spend a day at a nursery such as Wyevale to better understand plant specification.
"Students see full production process and get to grips with what NPS information actually means," he says. "It helps them be more adventurous and use a wider palette of planting species and sizes, while avoiding problems caused by overand under-specification. Hopefully the better the specification, the better the planting quality."
Billing itself as "the home of the NPS", GoHelios (www.gohelios.co.uk) is a portal for plant specifiers.
The HTA's PlantSpec (www.plantspec.info) provides a simple guide to dependable and widely available landscape plants for different situations.
Robin Tacchi Plants' Spec21 is part of the grower's "planting the future" initiative (www.plantingthefuture.co.uk).