This year, once again, the big garden retailers will have included plant producers from Holland and Italy when stocking up for the new season. Buyers tell us they are increasingly using a network of agents and distributors to get the best deals.
They might have to pay more in terms of commission, but this arrangement takes away many of the headaches of distribution, shipping and quality control. It allows the retailers to get on with the business of selling, rather than chasing up lorryloads of wilting plants that may have got stuck in French docks.
"We have nothing but praise for the Dutch growers," says Andy Bunker, director of Alton Garden Centre and plant group chairman for the Tillington Group of garden centres. "It’s not just that they have lots of very high-quality plants. They are also very adaptable."
Overall he aims to make a ×2.4 markup — if an item costs £10 he will sell it for approximately £24.99.
"The Dutch understand our needs. They’ll drop the price on certain items so we can sell at a price that attracts better volume sales."
He cites the case of Buxus: "I know that our customers are happy to spend around £50 for two balls of Buxus to put by the front door. The Dutch might use a smaller pot or insist that we buy a slightly larger quantity, but they generally try to get the plants at the price we need." Alton Buxus sales amount to some £20,000-£25,000 a year.
Bunker uses wholesalers because in most cases you cannot go directly to the growers. This also means that the quality is checked and, most importantly, they can reject stock before it leaves Holland. He often buys through the Green Direct trade show at various times throughout the year.
"One good point is the good Dutch wholesalers are very transparent on the prices and you can quickly work out rough cost and retail for yourself before you decide to order," he explains. "There is obviously extra cost in travelling to these shows but this is easily covered by margin increase you gain."
For example, on many lines his margin will increase to around ×2.6, or from 50 to 54 per cent profit on return. "The wholesaler will make clear the costs for transport, labelling, pre-pricing and his margin/commission in most cases. For example, a three-litre hebe per pot delivered to our centres will be around €3.50 — about £2.90 at today’s rate, then selling for £7.99. We are happy to pay the wholesaler, because it avoids all the headaches."
Bunker points out that the margin is still very good and there is still a good profit to be made. "We still buy a lot from UK growers and the quality is still really good."
Others who source plants in the Netherlands praise growers for their consistent quality and for the large stocks they keep in their nurseries. Notcutts plant buyer Colin Dale says: "We always buy the later lavender from Holland. The Dutch supply it in flower. We usually go to Van der Salm, which grows 30 million plants a year."
With rapid transport and cheap air fares, buyers regularly attend the foreign trade shows. "We go to shows held by Impulse Plants," says Bunker. "The Dutch are keen for us to come so they pay for food and accommodation. We just pay for flights. This makes it easy to justify a couple of days away from the office."
Haskins Garden Centres plant buyer Colin Brickell goes to Green Direct three times a year and to Plantarium, both in Holland. "We usually talk to our agents in the morning and we’ll go with them to the nurseries in the afternoon. It’s a very simple process," he says.
Retailers are not just doing business with Holland. Suppliers such as Heine in Germany and Vannucci Piante in Italy are also very popular. Retailers tend to buy the larger plants from Italy. Bunker says a plant that might take 10 years to grow in Britain can often be grown in Italy in just four years because of the warmer climate. In practical terms this means that British plant costs twice as much as the Italian equivalent.
Haskins buys 80 per cent of stock from the UK, but specimen plants — usually in 40- to 60-litre pots — have to come from Italy. At Notcutts, Dale buys popular lines such as topiarised holly bamboos, palms, photinias and half-standard laurels from Italy. He also gets a large number of bay trees from Belgium and France.
Specialist nurseries pride themselves on buying locally. But even they have to go abroad for some plants. Wisley Plant Centre buyer Malcolm Berry reckons that fewer than 10 per cent of stock comes from overseas. "We try to buy locally but sometimes the Dutch do a better job than British growers," he says.
"We get a lot of Salvia ‘Caradonna’ and Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ from Holland because there is a demand for it. We usually go through the wholesaler Javado."
Of course, there are pitfalls in buying abroad. Plant health is a key consideration. Dale describes Xylella as "the new big scary disease on the horizon", adding: "This week I have sent 10 different emails to Defra. I insist that all plants I deal with have a plant passport. I get people coming here to sell me trolleys of stuff from a lorry, but I refuse to take anything I’m not sure of."
Border issues can also cause problems. Last year the Channel Tunnel was closed on occasion because of immigrants trying to get through. However, buyers point out that if they are using an agent to distribute and freight the plants, the agent will generally accept the cost of any disruption.
Dale advises buyers not to get carried away by bargain prices. "You often go to a huge nursery and get offered cut-price deals to take large amounts of stock," he says. "People tend to overbuy."
Another problem is the fluctuating euro. A few months ago the pound was worth around €1.41. Now it is around €1.25. These shifts make it harder to plan ahead.
As for the future, the big issue is the EU referendum. Most buyers reckon Brexit would make life harder for them — they would need to pay import duties or face problems with plant passports. "It would hurt us," says Bunker. "But we’d cope. Britain has a big economy. European growers would still want to sell to us. It might create problems, but we’d survive."
Different approaches used to source nursery stock for landscape projects
Landscapers who are buying overseas stock today are mainly focusing on the larger or more specialised items that they cannot get in the UK. Dan Bowyer of landscaper Fisher Tomlin & Bowyer explains: "We tend to use UK stock for anything below a 10-litre pot. But we will use importers such as Classiflora Zelari to buy items such as large olive trees or really big Quercus ilex."
Landscapers point out that the quality of British tree nurseries has improved in recent years. Until five years ago, specimens were almost invariably sourced abroad. Now landscapers are likely to ask firms such as Hilliers or Barcham Trees to quote for work. "It’s nice to be able to take clients to UK nurseries so they can see what the trees look like," says Bowyer.
There is a demand for big-ticket items, according to John Wyer of Bowles & Wyer. "The housing market is at its peak. Developers want really large trees to give an instant effect." One recent development used 10m Liquidambar styraciflua, which give good autumn colour and tolerate shade. In addition, he is using courtyard trees such as gleditsia and ornamental cherries, which fit neatly into city centre developments.
Developers want items that are bright and eye-catching. "In the past, designers were more austere," adds Wyer.
Some landscapers, such as Willerby Landscapes, go directly to the overseas nurseries for stock. But most use agents and importers. "We get trees from Germany, Holland and Italy," says Bartholomew Landscaping design director Andy Coles. "On big jobs, when we needed a whole avenue of large trees, we had to go to big German suppliers such as Bruns Pflanzen, although these days we’re likely to use Barcham, Majestic or Deepdale. English nurseries are much improved."
Imported trees include amelanchier, magnolias and multi-stemmed silver birch as well as pleached hornbeams or large hedges of yew, which can provide screening for developments. Coles will also buy a limited number shrubs from Europe, including large rhododendrons and azaleas.
Some landscapers simply do not know where their plants originate. Paul Cowell at PC Landscaping says: "We go to British nurseries with our requirements and they’ll get the stock for us. I assume that much of the stock comes from Italy, but we don’t specify point of origin. Unless the client is interested, and most of them aren’t, we don’t bother to find out." This supply method ensures the landscaper does not have to worry about plant passports or quarantine — responsibility lies entirely with the nursery.
For landscapers who are generally only buying modest numbers of plants, transportation costs are relatively low.
Traditionally Italy, Germany and Holland have dominated sales from overseas. But some new countries in Eastern Europe and beyond might soon be entering the market. Bowyer points out that he recently did some work in Turkey and needed to source some plants locally. "We were very impressed by the quality of the nurseries," he says. "We’d certainly consider taking more supplies from Turkey in the future."