Opportunities for niche UK houseplant growers

Exchange rates make UK-grown product more attractive to garden centre buyers.

Indoor plants: specialising in small number of genera paid off for Dibleys with houseplants coming into fashion - image: HW
Indoor plants: specialising in small number of genera paid off for Dibleys with houseplants coming into fashion - image: HW

British flowering houseplants are on the rise thanks to exchange rates, with specialist supplier Dibleys Nurseries showing best practice in the field. The Welsh streptocarpus specialist Dibleys has shown how specialising in a small number of genera has paid off as houseplants have come into fashion over the past year.

With the "vast majority" of houseplants being imported from Holland and Denmark, niche suppliers such as Dibleys are in demand as exchange rate changes mean UK-grown product is now more attractive to UK garden centres.

Dibleys' Gareth Dibley says there is "not that much competition" in his field. Most houseplants come from the continent thanks to the decline of the UK houseplant industry, when oil prices and more efficient overseas growers made glasshouse heating uneconomical in the 1970s.

Houseplant growers

But, just as niche cut-flower growers are on the rise, there is a feeling that houseplant growers can make a comeback. Garden centre groups increasingly want to buy British for economic, environmental and patriotic reasons.

Dibley points out that had exchange rates gone the other way after last year's Brexit vote there might not have been such a surge towards UK-grown. But, as it is, he has seen a 12-13% uplift in wholesale sales this year at the 40-year-old grower. "The pound is helping," he adds. "Wholesale has been good this year and we've picked up quite a few new garden centres."

Wyevale Garden Centres is Dibleys' biggest retail customer and Dibley has high hopes that Dobbies, which has a new buy-British policy under chief executive Nicholas Marshall, could be a more consistent customer in the future.

Glendoick Garden Centre is also among big customers. Director Ken Cox says: "Dibleys' streptocarpus are one of the great UK plant breeding heroes. Nobody else even touches their innovation and quality. We love them and sell hundreds every year. A houseplant which flowers for months, needs little watering, is easy to increase - what more could you want."

Dibleys grows more than 100 varieties of streptocarpus and begonias, while the Dutch model would be six streptocarpus. "We do a wide range and hope to take the customer with us as a collector. The Dutch and Danes grow them as disposable items. Our customers ask how to keep them over the winter and they collect them and want more varieties. That's why we put so much effort into our breeding programme - to stay ahead of the competition." Dibleys also promotes the brand and sells from 20 shows a year, although it once did as many as 45. "I like shows but business needs to come first," says Dibley.

He adds that 70% of houseplants are imported, with large UK producers such as Double H producing bigger volumes of a few lines, such as being the UK's largest producer of Phalaenopsis orchids. Hills Plants, which is also based on the south coast, also specialises in poinsettias and orchids for supermarkets.

Indoor poinsettia

Poinsettia production in the UK remains one of the biggest indoor crops. Woodlark Nurseries' Colin Edwards says he is growing an extra block of one-litre poinsettias this year, to make it 45,000 in all, after not having enough in 2016. He grows 10cm, one-litre, 1.5-litre and two-litre pots at his nursery in Surrey.

Edwards has garden centre customers lined up and hopes to get a nationwide promotional campaign off the ground in garden centres. "I think most garden centres like British product if they can get hold of it. Poinsettias don't travel well. I won't knock the Dutch, because most of their product is very good, but transport is the killer and our customers are within an hour away."

Biomass, better growing techniques and less waste have helped to make the product a more sustainable crop to grow, but he says the UK grows poinsettias for longer too. He adds that wholesale prices are only 5p more than in 1999. "Draw your own conclusions on that."

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