Is Scotland set for a resurgence in ornamental production?

Renewed interest in local sourcing could mean garden centres can help revive the Scottish growing sector, which has shrunk in recent years.

Growers at the RBGE Dobbies event
Growers at the RBGE Dobbies event

Growforth managing director Stan Green says there are "green shoots" growing in Scottish growing — "if I put my rose-tinted glasses on".

The Dunfermline-based hardy plants supplier adds: "But its early doors. If there are green shoots they are small and tentative. There are opportunities and as with everyone else we are thinking what way they will pan out. No one is talking to the bank manager yet about how they can extend the glasshouse. But is it better than a year ago? Yes. Than 10 years ago? No."

Green says the response to the opportunity of Brexit, sterling, local supply and phytosanitary issues such as Xylella fastidiosa have promoted the optimism. The 2012 demise of £2m+ annual turnover Argyll grower Highland Heathers, which laid off 43 people across four sites, was the nadir the for Scottish industry.

As with elsewhere in the UK, some small Scottish growers have decided they do not want to do wholesale and that it is more efficient to go online and deal direct with the public, he adds.

That has given Growforth an edge and unique selling point, but Scotland's biggest garden centre group Dobbies has not used local growers much in recent years. Tesco owned Dobbies from 2007-16 and grew it to 35 centres and £153m turnover. But the supermarket could not deal well with local and small-scale supply.

Rallying call

Green says new managing director Nicholas Marshall's rallying call to local growers is welcome. Marshall told an audience of his garden centre managers and Scottish nurserymen at a 200th anniversary event at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh in late September: "We already know that our customers would prefer to buy locally grown, Scottish plants and the weakness of the pound against sterling now gives our nursery men and women a great opportunity."

Marshall said Dobbies "may have to help some young growers in Scotland get growing again" to fill the gap left in the industry north of the border as nurseries have closed in recent years.

Green, who hopes to resume supplying the chain, says it "all depends on what they're prepared to do", adding: "Dobbies could be very important. It's good to get that level of commitment with any retailer, be it Dobbies, Klondyke or Jimmy down the road that has potential with volume. But that comes with its own challenges."

Falkirk-based Klondyke purchasing head Andy Smith says the biggest challenge is getting enough UK supply of plants. Before joining Klondyke, Smith was national accounts manager at Allensmore Nurseries and was garden plant buyer at Waitrose in 2013 after joining from Dobbies. "UK production needs to step up," he insists.

Klondyke recorded its best year ever up to 30 September 2017, turning over £54m, 11 per cent up on the previous financial year. Chief executive David Yardley says the rebuilt Garforth centre in Leeds has been a top performer after re-opening in late 2016.

Klondyke's Edinburgh centre is next for a revamp, with £3.5m being spent on trebling the size of the shop. The restaurant will be similar to Garforth's and will grow from 80 seats to 240. There will be more car parking and a slightly smaller planteria.

Local suppliers

Dobbies has said it will allow each centre to buy some of its own plants from local suppliers, which means nurseries having to supply large amounts nationwide need not be an issue. Green says: "Lines of communication are all very positive — there's an interest. It's much better than them saying they’re too big or they can't."

He adds that there are only about a dozen Scottish growers left big enough to supply bigger retailers, including bedding growers Pentland, Reynard, A&G Young and Clyde Valley Plants. Cumbria-based Blomfield supplies bedding to Dobbies.

Pentland Plants is supplying 10,000 poinsettias for this Christmas for the first time and owner David Spray says: "I think this will encourage Scottish growers quite a bit. Up until now, Dobbies didn't want to know. They only wanted to buy centrally and didn't want supply to local stores."

Craigmarloch is supplying heathers to all Dobbies for the first time this autumn, while James McIntyre is supplying soft-fruit plants and Angus Heathers is supplying gentians. Drynie is growing Christmas trees for Dobbies, including eight pot-grown varieties.

Macplants, Growforth, Reynard, Clyde Valley Plants, Drynie, Highland Liliums, Angus Heathers, Craigmarloch, Pentland and others were at the botanic gardens event. Armagh-based McGrane Nurseries also attended.

Former Dobbies chief executive James Barnes, who was also at the event, says a greater focus on plants and heritage "has to be a good thing". He has opened Crieff Food Co, a food hall specialising in local produce. "Localness is the key" to good farm shops, he adds.

Business minister Paul Wheelhouse said at the event that growth of the supply chain from Scotland is "an opportunity to reduce risks plant health pose to our countryside".

Marshall, in his speech to the growers, said: "Now is the time for British nurseries to step up to the plate. I realise we live in uncertain times. Brexit is upon us and scaremongers are trying hard to frighten us, but it is a real opportunity for the horticulture industry and we should grasp the nettle.

"Scottish nurseries, we want to do business with you, but we want a fresh approach. Our customers will support you but, in return, they deserve to be offered the best quality, range and value for money. We will work with you to provide what the customer wants. You will then be pushing at an open door."

HTA regional business manager for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland Neil Cummings says: "The whole idea of working with Scottish growers makes absolute sense. That can only be good for the industry." He adds that the HTA — in the form of himself, Stan Green and Simon Fraser of Aberdeen-based-Ben Reid Nursery and Garden Centre — has been working for the industry in Scotland and on an action plan for the country's horticulture.

Fraser says the Scottish bedding industry is strong but investment in the areas of the country where there are good transport links is difficult to get. There are lots of opportunities, he adds, but starting up is tough. He adds that Scottish-grown crops such as lavender or rosemary may not be saleable until late May or early June, which puts the local growers at a disadvantage. He adds that it is as easy for him to floy to Holland or southern England nurseries as it is to drive to central belt Scotland suppliers. But he says he would love to see the regional sector grow back to where it was 20 years ago. He warns that will take external investment, and he does not know where that will come from.

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