Seabrook's notebook

Peter Seabrook flags up the tax changes that will put extra pressures on costs this year.

Garden centres are being hit by 20 per cent VAT demands on sales of herbs in containers over two litres and other ornamental edibles such as crab apple trees. I find it difficult to understand how the pot size affects whether or not herbs are edible and feel our trade associations should take the matter up with HM Customs & Revenue.

At the International Flower Trade Exhibition in Holland last November one of the traders was offering prepacked "edible rose petals" in hermetically sealed bags with a 14-day shelf life. Presumably, edible rose petals are zero rated and if so what about plants with flowers in full bloom that can be harvested to eat?

UK mainland retailers have applauded the removal of Low Value Consignment Relief from April on postings of up to £18 in value from the Channel Islands. Removing this VAT advantage will do little to affect mainland ornamental plant sales but could prove another nail in the coffin of Channel Island horticulture.

The big cost now for the mail order young plant and seedlings companies is postage and when 20 per cent VAT is added on top of the delivery charges it is tough to compete with prices offered by the supermarkets.

However, the innovation by our best growers that allows costs to be consistently reduced amazes me.

Findons is introducing a cartridge plug system for seedlings which will allow posting through the letter box.

This means fewer delays caused by customers having to collect undelivered parcels and reduced replacement costs. Anyone in horticulture not ready to make such changes is unlikely to survive.

Pre-Christmas visits to Ayletts, St Albans and Van Hage Ware were a good illustration. Van Hage is today more a department store with a wide range of non-gardening lines and an ice skating rink in the compost area certainly filled the car park.

Ayletts remains faithful to its core business with home-grown poinsettias of exceptional quality. While both centres could well have had equal quantities of flowering houseplants, customers were unlikely to have any doubts over their priorities.

I await with eager anticipation the speech by Dr Dave Hessayon at the Garden Centre Association conference this month. It must be 30 years since he last spoke at this kind of gathering but his theme of "Green pets" at the Pot Plant Growers meeting in Coventry is still well remembered. Surely the measure of any conference presentation is its long-term effect - the Bygraves lecture at the HTA conference in Llandudno in 1962 on container plant growing changed the rest of my working life.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster.

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