With uncertainty over the coming winter weather, a fragile economic outlook and a new impatiens downy mildew outbreak affecting crop choices, how are the spring order books shaping up for UK bedding growers and suppliers?
At Cheshire-based Quality Ornamentals, the numbers are stacking up exactly as they should, according to general manager Paul Brooking. He says strong demand in the bedding market coupled with a shrinkage in the number of UK growers is helping the firm to remain buoyant.
"Our normal customers have committed to us in the way we would expect and we've also got one or two potential new customers showing a lot of interest in what we do because finding quality bedding supply is becoming increasingly difficult," he explains.
Production growth forecast
Despite cutting impatiens production by nearly half, Brooking anticipates production growth of between 12 and 15 per cent over the next 12 months with increased volume in other ranges.
"We are very pleased that we expanded our range of primroses considerably for next year because the interest in that line has been very strong," he adds. Brooking points out that production of red, white and blue lines will increase for the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations and the London Olympic Games, both taking place in 2012.
He says although they have no specific orders yet, they need to be prepared. "People won't think about it until just before the events and as producers it is our responsibility to be looking at the possibilities and to ensure that we have stock available for our customers."
Others, however, report strong order numbers for various jubilee and Olympic products. Arden Lea Nurseries in Preston will produce around 12,000 jubilee baskets and around 4,000 "Going for Glory" Olympic primrose planters for B&Q stores. Director Nick Taylor says the orders came off the back of the success of the nursery's royal wedding hanging basket range earlier this year.
Early spring orders are also looking healthy, says Taylor. "Our nurseries are completely full this winter. In comparison to last year, we have an increase in volume and turnover, so we are really pleased." The firm will produce more than 120,000 packs of bedding, 600,000 primroses, 100,000 packs of pansies and violas and a range of hanging baskets and planters as well, he adds. It will also cut impatiens production for the summer season, increasing output on around 10 other standard varieties to plug the gap.
Healthy spring orders
At Burston Nurseries in Hertfordshire, begonia, petunia and marigold production, among others, will be substantially increased to make up for a 60 per cent cut in impatiens. But ahead of that, business manager Paul Young says the spring order books are already looking healthy despite a slower response from customers this year.
"It's taken longer to negotiate prices and to get spring orders in than we would normally experience," he explains. "Customers are being cautious, probably because of potential weather issues and the economic climate we are operating in, but we are pleased with what we have achieved."
Despite taking longer to agree on orders, Young says the amount of stock that is being reserved has not been affected and is, in fact, up on some lines from last year's figures. "Our growth over the past few years has been in the jumbo six-pack and that hasn't dropped away this year, which has been encouraging," he adds.
Dorset-based Golden Acres Nurseries takes no contract orders upfront but produces 40 per cent of its stock for its own garden centres and grows 60 per cent speculatively.
It too is feeling "cautiously bullish" about spring purchases in 2012, but operations director Simon Edwards says the two "big unknowns" are what the weather has in store over winter and what will happen to impatiens sales. Unlike many others, the nursery has chosen to produce the same volume of impatiens as it sold last year in the hope that it will pick up sales lost from others cutting production.
Edwards explains: "The punt I am taking is that enough people will drop it to allow us to take up a bit of the slack. We didn't have a problem with it on our nursery last year, otherwise I may be feeling a bit different."
Like many other suppliers and growers, the site is increasing production on other lines in an effort to make up for any losses, he adds. "We are expecting our increased sales effort on other lines to counterbalance the probable reduction in sales from those people who know all about the downy mildew threat and will be avoiding impatiens like the plague."
At Cornish supplier Kernock Park Plants, the outlook is one of similarly tempered optimism. Although orders are slightly ahead on last year with a small increase in demand for summer-flowering patio ranges, some of the larger expected orders have not yet materialised.
"We get the feeling people are holding off this season based on the fact that there is some uncertainty over the weather ahead of the spring, so the orders are slower coming in than they have been in the past," business development manager Mark Taylor explains.
A notable increase
Meanwhile, West Midland-based supplier Young Plants, which only produces to order, is finding that although orders are indeed slower to come in this year, there is a notable increase in the numbers being reserved by its existing customer base.
"Orders are coming in and the volumes are considerable," says managing director Alex Newey. "Our own sales numbers for next year's spring bedding plants are ahead of last year despite the fact that some customers are yet to place orders. We are also being asked for specific colour blends to satisfy demand for the big events of 2012."
Newey says despite the order delays, which he puts down to garden centre buyers holding off on committing to growers, he anticipates "double-digit" growth on spring bedding orders for 2012. "That is pretty unusual in this climate and it is down to product innovation," he maintains. "People want what's new."
Top predicted varieties for 2012
Kernock Park Plants
Business development manager Mark Taylor describes his top three for 2012:
"The Diascia Breezee series is an exceptional range with four new colours added to our catalogue for next year - 'coral', 'flamingo', 'pastel' and 'red'. All varieties carry huge flowers, added to the fact that they bloom from spring right through the summer and will happily withstand the vagaries of the UK summer.
"Petchoa SuperCal(TM) has been brilliant in the trials and we are now starting to see growers pick up on this. Pink Ice was the longest-flowering basket in trials this year - it always looked good whatever the weather. Among the other colours in the series are 'blue' and 'cherry' - again topical for 2012.
"The Lobularia 'Snow Princess' variety has been extraordinarily successful in both Europe and the USA, and its appearance on the international stage has prompted growers to try it as a replacement for traditional alyssum. It has a very long flowering season and doesn't self seed - again, I am sure it is being chosen for the many red, white and blue themes next year."
Geraniums, Petunia 'Potunia', Confetti Garden
Begonias, petunias, lobelias
Begonias, petunias, lobelias
Petunias, marigolds, Begonia semperflorens.