Growers of shrubs and trees recognise that buyers usually want the same items, year after year. They want plants that give good colour, are fairly hardy and represent good value for money. But some distinct trends are now shaping the market.
Over the past few years there has been an increasing interest in hedging. Householders are concerned about privacy and maintaining the value of their property, and they see hedging as a way of achieving the effect they want. Developers are also concerned about noise reduction and the ecological impact of sites because they want to appear green. So sales of hedging are brisk.
Robin Tacchi Plants director of marketing Gill Tacchi says hedges are being specified by commercial landscapers and landscape architects. "We're seeing them appear in contract tenders," she adds.
Traditional types such as box (Buxus) are in great demand. "We have rootball (field-grown) and container-grown specimens. We're also seeing a lot of demand for yew (Taxus). It has reasonable growth and makes for very good ornamental hedging. It's also reasonably easy to maintain and it can be clipped beautifully," says Tacchi.
Security and the environment
Wyevale Nursery has also noted more interest in hedging, according to managing director Steve Ashworth. "We're selling quite a variety. We have interest in box and yew, but we're also selling a lot of holly - particularly Ilex aquifolium. I think people want things with prickles as a security measure."
There is also a move towards traditional native hedging. Trees such as blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and dog rose are particularly popular. "People will use these in the back garden or in anything that claims to be a field. They are a good barrier. There's also a trend towards having a more simplified landscape scheme. It can be very cost-effective," says Ashworth.
The environment is also a major factor. Local authorities will often specify shrubs and trees that are native to the particular region where they will be sited. The various development and regeneration bodies are also having to take environmental considerations into account, and many commercial developers - either through genuine concern about the environment or a desire to win over public opinion - boast about their environmental credentials.
Many nurseries have taken action to emphasise which of their products are friendly to the environment. Boningale Nurseries is preparing guidance for buyers, informing them which plants are most beneficial to wildlife. It gives a long list of plants, explaining how they benefit biodiversity. So, for example, the document explains that ivy attracts moths, beetles, bees, butterflies, house sparrows, tree creepers, wrens, woodpigeons, blackbirds and mistlethrush. Sales director Frank Sandford explains: "We have teamed up with a firm of ecologists and we'll soon be publishing a guide for specifiers. We've isolated varieties that have a particular environmental value."
In Britain, this emphasis on the environment has encouraged the planting of relatively common plants, such as Ceanothus, Hebe and lavenders - as against the rarer imports that people seemed to favour a few years ago.
Nurseries have also been affected by the serious weather of last winter. The prolonged cold spell killed off many plants. This has had two major effects, which have partly cancelled each other out. On the one hand, parks and landowners have been keen to replace the plants that were killed, which has boosted the market for the more tender plants. On the other hand, landowners have been trying to buy more hardy varieties to ensure they don't suffer a recurrence of the losses, which has depressed the market in tender plants.
"We're seeing a shortage this year because of the plants that were killed at nurseries and at the end-location," says Sandford. "There is a big market for replacing laurels, such as Lauris nobilis, many of which died last year. They certainly seem to be in short supply." However, he points out that many people are now moving towards hardier varieties, such as Prunus lusitanica, "which can take the cold".
It is difficult to see how these contradictory trends will resolve themselves, but most growers feel that buyers are reverting to tried-and-tested plants. Tacchi reports an "increasing enthusiasm for traditional evergreens", citing Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata), Ceanothus repens and Hebe as plants that landscapers have rediscovered.
Landscapers and groundskeepers want plants that fulfil a number of roles. Most nurseries seem to be reporting strong sales of lavender. "They are aromatic, have good flowers, can be kept small and neat, are easy to maintain and don't need much water. Moreover, they attract bees," says Tacchi.
Hillier director of retail division Kevin Hobbs says that although commercial landscapers are tending to stay with old favourites, plenty of amateur gardeners still want new products. Some growers suggest that the internet has encouraged experimentation by giving keen gardeners in-depth information on launches, while there is general agreement that, among the more upmarket landscapers, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show remains an important influence on which plants and colour schemes to use.
At James Coles Nurseries, sales executive Andrew Garner has noticed a strong market for favourites such as Euonmymus, Cotoneaster and Berberis. "The bad weather destroyed some of our crop, but we could have sold many more of these. They were primarily being used for amenity schemes. These are standard items but they are popular right now." Meanwhile, Sandford reports increasing interest in ground-cover plants such as Bergenia cordifolia.
Price is a factor, but this is more important for the commercial developer or amenity manager than the amateur gardener. The common wisdom is that amateur gardeners will generally pay up to £50 for a good shrub. "When you compare a shrub with a barbecue or a garden table, it represents extremely good value," says Hobbs.
Commercial firms are looking to cut margins by spending less on plants. Garner notes that some are no longer specifying Elaeagnus and are moving to cheaper plants such Euonymus. They have also moved from Lonicera 'Baggesen's Gold' to L. 'Maigreen' for the same reason. Because of pressure on margins, there is less stock available. "A few years ago we could afford to throw out 15 per cent of our stock. Now we have to avoid any waste," says Garner. Customers are also buying smaller plants or bare-rooted plants as a way of saving money.
Meanwhile, nurseries report good sales of fruit trees. Gardeners and developers are also looking for feature plants that can make a big impact. Hobbs says: "We're selling a lot of small trees. A lot of garden centres want Japanese maples because they are easy to handle."
Some plants seem to have fallen out of fashion, such as Berberis - because it has poisonous berries, tends to trap litter in parks and is seen as old-fashioned. However, at least one nursery, Wyevale, suggests that it remains an important seller.
This all goes to show that things are cyclical and many of the items that are in decline this year will be more popular in a few years' time. Shifts in the market are relatively modest, but growers of trees and shrubs are keeping abreast of them.
Top five sellers
James Coles Nurseries
Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'
E. fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold'
Lonicera nitida 'Maigreen'
Prunus laurocerasus 'Otto Luyken'
Robin Tacchi Plants
Lavender - various
Hebe - various
Buxus - various
Elaeagnus pungens 'Maculata'
Heuchera - various
Lavender - various
Buddleja - various
Coprosma - various
Hamamelis (witchhazel) - various
Buxus - various
Taxus - various
Blackthorn - various
Griselinia - various
Berberis - various