Steep rises in oil and gas prices have raised the prospect of sky-high glasshouse heating bills for some growers this winter.
Our recent product feature (HW, 21 August) looked at technical routes to more fuel-efficient production. But can the choice and scheduling of crops themselves also provide savings?
Hertfordshire-based Burston Nurseries supplies bedding plants and roses to garden retailers. Director and nursery manager James Alcaraz says: "We grow hundreds of thousands of F1 geranium seedlings from October onwards, which can be an energy-intensive crop, especially in a cold winter.
"But our customers would be mortified if we didn't - you can't have a bedding display without geraniums. And if we didn't supply them, foreign growers would still be under the same pressure - and have the strong euro to contend with."
The only way to make such growing efficient is to "fill the house to the gunwales", he says. The company is also installing technical measures such as thermal screens and even double glazing.
"We're also looking at scheduling due to heating costs. But growing busy Lizzies for Easter will require heat, and there will be cost implications of that," says Alcaraz. "Together with the cost of road fuel and also the likely rise in agricultural wages in October, it means we will be putting our prices up."
Fellow Hertfordshire grower Aylett Nurseries provides plants mainly for its adjoining garden centre. Director Adam Wigglesworth agrees that fuel costs "will have a whopping impact". He adds: "Fortunately, I set prices with my supplier a couple of years ago, but one day I'll come off that. We have already changed the temperature at which we grow some crops along with our cropping plan, and some we just don't grow at all any more."
Wigglesworth believes the tide may be turning in terms of customer expectations of plant availability. "In the past few years, with good early season weather, we've seen people demanding bedding earlier in the year," he says. "But should you be selling frost-sensitive plants in March?
"Growers and retailers need to be honest with their customers. And actually now I think we're seeing a reversion back to the older way of timing things. Customers are increasingly aware of seasonality - even the very occasional gardeners."
On that most energy-hungry of crops, poinsettias, Wigglesworth says: "We're not competing with the ginormous growers - we're marketing them as a premium product, locally grown. Not selling into supermarkets means that we can protect prices. Next year we may have to look again at them, though, like Christmas trees, the market for them will not go away."
Young-plant supplier Yoder Toddington of West Sussex sells into the Farplants wholesale company. Yoder managing director Patrick Bastow says: "For the growers we supply, higher fuel prices are a concern, but they've not so far indicated they will grow any less next year. It's more a long-term issue of how viable it is to grow."
The company has itself already taken steps to reduce fuel use, he says. "We don't heat until January, and also across the industry we are moving towards growing a degree or two cooler."
Already some breeders are selling "lower-energy" varieties. But Bastow thinks it will be some time before this becomes widespread among seed and cuttings ranges. "Breeding takes 10 to 12 years to produce a new variety, but the current spike is only two-years-old."
However, Norfolk-based breeder Floranova has managed to bring to market a Pelargonium series, Inspire (formerly Infiniti), that offers considerably quicker maturation, reducing glasshouse costs.
Commercial manager Ralph Cockburn explains: "Most seed-raised varieties take about 120 days to grow, but Inspire takes more like 80 days. That's quite a saving in heating and lighting, and we've had a lot of interest in them, from growers wanting to get their crop in and out."
That this series has come out now Cockburn says is partly down to good fortune. "The breeding may be started for a different reason at the time, like earliness, but it has conveniently come out at this time of high fuel prices. And it's something we're working on in developing other varieties too."
The series is not the first geranium to offer a short growing time, he adds. "But the others didn't have the garden performance."
However, the original and most popular shade, 'Scarlet', proved its garden performance by winning a Fleuroselect medal on its introduction. "This benefits the grower and the consumer," he adds.
But Arden Lea Nurseries director Nick Taylor believes it will be a while before such varieties offer a comprehensive solution to high heating bills. "There's talk of lower-energy varieties but they have still not come through," he says.
"There is a lot of concern among growers and suppliers about rising costs. It's not just heating - high fuel costs affect the whole supply chain. You try to be efficient - to keep waste to a minimum, growing in volume without compromising quality. However, eventually something will give and either price will go up, or we will struggle until we can't struggle any more."
Scheduling crops away from the coldest periods would be one option, he says. "The difficulty is that the customer orders for a given date and you work back from that to get your growing schedule. We can't just decide to do everything two weeks later - though we are trying to get our customers to schedule them later."
West Midlands-based Baginton Nurseries is a major supplier of bedding plants to councils and others. Managing director Will Lamb believes that his customers are coming round to later crops. "We were growing far too early," he says. "Actually, there was limited demand for early crops. Over the past several years, we have started producing plants later in the year - instead of starting in January, we wait until mid-March when the weather's getting better anyway. That decision hasn't affected sales.
"The focus is also on low-energy species that need only frost protection, not high heat, such as senettis and Dianthus. We also over-winter around 120,000 primroses. Temperature is still in the lap of the gods though - you might still be heating in May."
But even with such economies, Lamb expects prices to increase. "All our other costs - plastics, compost, transport - are also going up," he says.
Begonia benariensis BIG This new series of F1 hybrid begonias from specialist German breeder Benary aims to offer savings to growers and end users. Early flowering reduces time in the glasshouse, while a large mounding habit reduces the number of plants required.
Pelagonium Inspire These F1 zonal geraniums take up to a third less time in the glasshouse to reach flowering. The first of the series, 'Scarlet', was awarded a Fleuroselect Gold Medal on its introduction two years ago and the series has since been expanded to six colours.
Ranunculus Magic Among a number of crops suggested by breeders for low-temperature growing alongside pansies comes this series from Goldsmith, offering large blooms in nine colours including 'Scarlet' on naturally compact plants suitable for spring bedding.
High fuel costs may prompt growers to reconsider a strategy that has failed to take off in the past, believes Priva UK director Chris Addis: "Temperature integration is still the thing that offers the greatest potential, and now is a good time for growers to think about it," he says. "It can give you energy savings of 7.5 per cent. With energy costs now around £20 per square metre, that's a lot of money."
The strategy involves allowing temperatures to rise naturally above what is considered optimal, then allowing the glasshouse to cool to below that point at night. It can be adopted with little extra investment, he says. "It's been a standard feature in Priva software for over 10 years. Anyone who has bought a Priva system in that time already has it. Some are already using it, and getting good results. The stumbling block is that they don't feel confident about the effect on humidity or yield. But the truth is, there is no downside."
Priva technical manager Nick Field says it is already making inroads. "It's crept in quietly over the past two years. When we first tried to promote it, we felt we were battling against a brick wall.
"It's still difficult to get people to accept it. But it's during autumn and spring that you can make the biggest savings. You have to be brave enough to use a higher vent setting - it can be up to 3 degsC hotter than normal in the day. Such muggy conditions can feel wrong to growers, though actually it puts the plant in a more natural state of temperature swings between night and day, rather than conditioning them to a flat temperature."