Seed companies remain confident as cold start to the year sees vegetable sales peak

Grow-your-own sales peaked last year, according to some industry figures, but seed companies say it is too early to conclude that the bubble has burst.

After the coldest winter for 31 years and the driest year since 1964, gardeners have struggled to keep their fruit and vegetables alive. Seed companies predicted a 20 per cent increase in sales for 2010 on top of a 14 per cent rise in 2009 in the £60m-a-year vegetable seeds market, but their hopes were foiled by the bad weather.

Thompson & Morgan (T&M) head of retail Neil Sharpe said: "The weather had a big impact early on. Some early-sowing varieties missed sales. A lot of people missed out on seeds and went straight to plants.

"Veg sales have held up very well considering. Compared to the past two years, this year had a much slower start, though later sales were good. The seed market has been static as a whole. Last year was a record year for seed companies and we can't expect to top that. There has been a slight increase in flowers, but only very slight. Vegetable sales are holding almost level or just below."

T&M sales across the board are up seven per cent through distribution gains - particularly with Dobbies Garden Centres - and new ranges, "rather than real growth in the market", Sharpe added.

An Unwins representative said: "Overall we have seen an increase in sales of both our veg and flower seeds. However, the market as a whole has seen a decline, but this could be due to the bad weather at the beginning of the year."

Suttons Seeds sales and marketing director David Arnold said: "The first part of the year was incredibly slow because the weather was dreadful, but sales have caught up with a vengeance. The grow-your-own bubble has not yet burst."

He added that increases in volume sales had been lower than 2009 but said precise figures were not yet available. He said he expected a six to seven per cent rise in vegetable seed sales in 2010 after a 14 per cent rise in 2009. For 2011, Arnold predicted "continuing consumer interest".

Suttons will launch "For Your Space", a campaign to grow vegetables in small spaces, at Glee this September. Arnold said the company had "bullish" targets of five per cent sales growth in vegetable sales in 2011.

He added that vegetable seed sales should reach 71 per cent of total seed sales by the end of the year, up from 70 per cent last year, with flower seeds at 29 per cent. Garden Centre Association figures showed seeds and bulbs sales up 6.5 per cent by the end of July.

Mr Fothergills joint managing director John Fothergill said: "Vegetable seeds continue to dominate sales, particularly from a retail perspective. Gross retail sales for the 2009/10 season have accounted for 65 per cent of the total.

"Like-for-like retail vegetable sales (excluding new business) are showing a year-on-year increase of five per cent. This compares with a higher rate of growth the previous season."

Vegetable seed sales 2010:
Thompson & Morgan "Veg sales are holding almost level or just below."
Suttons Seeds Six to seven per cent rise expected this year.
Unwins "An increase but market in decline."
Mr Fothergills "Five per cent up in 2010."

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