Need for focus fuels fresh retail divestments

Decision to sell Garden Centre Plants and Northern Liners extends list of garden retailers choosing to divest nursery arms.

Nursery: Garden Centre Plants
Nursery: Garden Centre Plants

A desire to focus on other parts of the business has been cited by the latest leading garden retailer to cease growing its own plants.

Barton Grange Group's decision to sell Garden Centre Plants (GCP) and Northern Liners (see, 26 September) follows a string of retailers selling off, relinquishing management or no longer growing at their nurseries - Golden Acres Nurseries (GAN), Morley Nurseries (Wakering) and Blue Diamond, which is to contract out Fryers Roses production to a specialist grower.

Barton Grange director Peter Topping said: "Our focus is on other areas of our business so we have decided to explore the possibility of finding a buyer who can take the nurseries forward either in their current format or by consolidating them into their existing business. This decision has no effect operationally so it is business as usual."

The nurseries employ 45 people and already have plants in the ground for 2015 sales. Topping said he has seen a shift of retailers divesting growing arms and sees a specialist grower taking over GCP and propagation unit Northern Liners, which Barton Grange set up in 1986 after expanding GCP in the early 1970s. In 1993, the firm added Brookhouse Nursery, which specialises in houseplants and bedding. Quinton Edwards is agent for the latest sales.

Barton Grange plans to expand its leisure offer in late 2015. Ideas include a curling rink, tenpin bowling, cinema, crazy golf, American diner and fish-and-chip shop. But Topping said: "We don't need to sell to carry on with the other developments."

Morley Nurseries is stopping growing bedding after this year. Managing director Robert Wright said its grower is retiring and "we can't find anyone to put in the hours" to replace him. Morley has always been a retail nursery but has cut bedding growing in recent years, although it still has 1ha of glass.

Wright said internet competition and heating costs, as well as the way the trade has changed, are factors behind stopping growing. "We used to grow 35-40 varieties of petunia but people only want mixed red or white now. People don't bed out. They want hanging baskets." Morley now buys from Quality Ornamentals and WD Smith.

Blue Diamond is getting another grower to manage Fryers Roses after the 15-centre group bought the grower and its garden centre in 2011. Greetham Nursery in Hartlepool has been leased from Klondyke Garden Centres and Quinton Smith says there is interest in from prospective letters.

GAN leased its nursery to Dorset Plants this year to focus on retailing and catering at its five garden centres.

Bransford Webbs managing director Geoff Caesar, who was part of the move to take over Webbs Garden Centre's nursery in 2005, said: "On the face of it, growing and retailing looks like a good idea because it's a vertically integrated business, but it doesn't seem to always work."

Hillier grows and has 12 garden centres but recently took a "new direction" after appointing Chris Francis as garden centre director. Managing director Andy McIndoe said he now has more time for the growing and amenity sides of the business.

"The biggest problem is the enormous pressure on pricing in the last few years as garden centres have diversified," he added. "The plant side of centres has become a smaller percentage so that aspect of the market has probably not seen the growth that it should have done."

International Association of Horticultural Producers secretary-general Tim Briercliffe said: "Running a nursery and running a retail operation are two different types of business - you have to run them distinctly. We are seeing, as a result of the economic conditions, people having to scrutinise the detail of the business. Once they look at the detail, growing your own is maybe not a big advantage."

Perrywood Nurseries owner Alan Bourne said growing while retailing is still important to the Essex business. "It's our grass roots and where we started, and we're still increasing the turnover on plants while a lot of garden centres are dropping off," he added. "I hope that will always carry on."

Sales agent - Offers invited for nurseries

Quinton Edwards is selling the assets of Garden Centre Plants in Barton near Preston, Lancashire, on about 10ha of land, with 0.8ha of glass and 1.2ha of multi-spans.

Quintons is also offering the assets of the Northern Liner Company, located in Pilling, Lancashire, about 20km away.

Offers for Garden Centre Plants are sought at around £1.2m for the freehold land, infrastructure and buildings while Carr Lane and Fernleigh are valued at £675,000.

In 2014, Garden Centre Plants turnover was £1.924m. Northern Liners turnover is £650,000.

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