Annual plant sales are worth around £1.7bn in the UK, but with more than one-third of that accounted for by imports and interest in provenance on the rise, there is potential for growers to claim a greater share of the home market.
Food products increasingly use origin as a point of differentiation to attract consumers, but in the ornamentals sector there is no obligation for sellers to state where a plant was grown.
The idea of appealing to customers by branding plants as UK-or locally-grown has been around for a while. But this year the British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) aims to take its Home Grown label to the market in a big way.
Relaunched to the press in February, the redesigned label will be presented to both the trade and the public at several events this season, in anticipation of its widespread use next year.
At the entrance to the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show in July there will be 7m-high towers draped in bedding plants topped with flags displaying the new logo. BPOA secretary David Fox says: "We will be there to answer visitors' questions. We have also been invited to attend the Woking show and will be promoting it at Four Oaks, too."
Customers are likely to be feeling more patriotic this year, he adds. "The royal wedding has fallen at the right time for us and has boosted interest in bedding plants, particularly in red, white and blue."
So what is the scale of the initiative following the latest flurry of activity? "It's coming along very nicely. The number of registered growers is still reasonably small, in double figures, but a lot more are supporting it," says Fox. "When we are up to more than 100, that will show the potential of the scheme."
Label firms drive interest
Recent interest has come partly via label suppliers, he adds. "Growers have contacted their chosen label companies to ask whether they can print with the Home Grown logo on. They have then contacted us to ask if it's permissible."
BPOA chair Sarah Fairhurst explains: "Plants produced in the UK are specifically grown for the home market to meet local climatic conditions by variety, garden performance and preconditioning. This means there are environmental benefits, too. They can reduce the environmental impact of production and transportation, reduce trade miles and the industry's carbon footprint."
She adds: "We've already had some new members of the BPOA on the back of it. So far retailers are interested, and though the larger ones haven't yet committed, we are working on that."
The scheme is open to any grower who is a BPOA member or prepared to pay a £100 registration fee. To use the Home Grown logo, suppliers confirm in writing that they comply with relevant legislation on health and safety, employment, pesticides and environmental protection. BPOA inspections are carried out to ensure compliance with the rules.
Home Grown was formerly overseen by the Horticultural Development Council (HDC). "It has done a fantastic job - it's on good foundations and there's a lot of point of sale already available," says Fairhurst. "But it's not really in its remit, and it was looking for someone else to take it forward."
One of the co-founders, Morris May, is still actively involved through his membership of the BPOA's management and marketing committees. "After the HDC withdrew from the scheme, we went to the NFU, and they said: 'Why don't you do something, and we will help you?'" he explains.
As part of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, the HDC was unsuited to promoting "buy British" schemes under EU law. "The legal chaps said the red-white-and-blue marked it as a UK promotion, because it was seen as UK taxpayers' money paying for it," says May.
Yet a lack of British branding "had been a problem with the scheme before", he adds. Now the logo, redesigned last summer after the BPOA takeover, includes a Union Jack - "something that growers wanted", says May.
Winning over retailers
Meanwhile, May, who has been involved from the start of the scheme along with fellow grower Bill Godfrey, recognises that there are still challenges ahead. "We are looking at how to roll it out to the industry, so it will be adapted like the Red Tractor for farm produce. But retailers and buyers might not necessarily want Home Grown on the product.
"Behind the scenes, we are putting together something we can show retailers - supporting material, point of sale, a website that will explain to their customers the benefits of British-grown - to back up the label and encourage them to sign up."
The BPOA will hold a meeting in June to finalise arrangements. "This needs to happen quickly - you need to get the labels printed in June or July for the following season," says May. "And if you want big retailers behind it, you need the supporting material and media coverage sorted out."
But he is convinced of the scheme's potential. "We have tried simply showing the logo to the public and asking: 'What does this mean?' They come back with things like value, quality, grown on-site, fewer plant miles - all positives. They are used to assurance schemes, which of course this isn't.
"We're not saying imported plants are bad plants - no shop would stock those. We all buy from abroad. The original aim was to say: 'You do have a choice, but why not choose UK-grown?' Plenty of garden centres source from nearby nurseries, but big growers ship plants all over the country. If you say 'fewer plant miles', that's hard to quantify."
Another issue is the word "local". "That has been taken to mean within 50 miles," he says. "We're told it's best avoided unless you can say what you mean by it, but it's something we're still arguing about. Why not do as the supermarkets do and tell them about the 'localness' of each product, pointing out that it's Welsh rather than New Zealand lamb, say?"
Fox points out another potential similarity to more established schemes: "Before it didn't have traceability, but we need that to take it forward. You should be able to trace back any plant you see at a garden centre to its grower.
"A lot of large retailers already promote British-grown plants. For them, what is needed is not so much point of sale as point of difference - we are working towards that."
On the perennial question of funding, May says: "£100 to participate is fine. The big question is whether enough people will fork out - but if 100 or 150 do, you have a reasonable pot to play with. There is goodwill towards this in the industry and I am determined this will work."
WHAT IS A BRITISH PLANT?
The Home Grown label design has been refreshed and its meaning made clearer through the inclusion of the Union Jack.
But the question of origin remains tricky. The BPOA website says: "Home Grown does not guarantee the origin of the pot the plant is sitting in, or the compost the plant is growing in, or indeed the origin of the plant seed or the original cutting the plant has been grown from."
Some say this complicates the issue irretrievably. "How can you have a plant that is grown in Irish peat, in a French pot, from Dutch seed, and still call it British?" asks former Bridgemere Garden World owner John Ravenscroft.
The BPOA's Sarah Fairhurst says: "It was really difficult to get that definition. But it's important to have agreed rules that growers can abide by, and that customers know plants have had care in a British nursery."
BPOA marketing committee chairman Ian Riggs says "localness" is more important. "Underneath the logo they can put the region it's grown in, or even the name of the individual nursery," he suggests.
As commercial development manager of Kings Seeds, he says: "It's a debate we're having. Some of our seeds we grow, some are contract-grown for us in the UK. So far we are saying that Kings Seeds supports the Home Grown initiative."