The £60m-a-year vegetable seed market is a bellwether of the health of the grow your own market but there were fears new gardeners had been put off by inclement conditions this season.
But Suttons sales and marketing director David Arnold says: "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 adds that increases in volume sales have been lower than 2009 but he will not know precise figures until returns are completed in a couple of months.
He expects a six to seven per cent rise in vegetable seed sales in 2010, after a 14 per cent rise in 2009 and a five per cent rise in 2008. For 2011, Arnold predicts "continuing consumer interest".
Suttons launched "For Your Space", a campaign to grow vegetables in small spaces, at Glee this September. Arnold says the business has "bullish" targets of five per cent sales growth in vegetable sales in 2011. Before the start of the 2010 season, he predicted a 15 to 20 per cent increase in sales for 2010, "which may even be conservative".
He adds 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.
Mr Fothergill’s joint managing director John Fothergill says: "Vegetable seeds continue to dominate sales, particularly from a retail perspective. If the market is therefore beginning to plateau — and I’d suggest it’s perhaps too early to conclude that —sales of vegetable seeds remain at historically high levels.
"This would indicate that a good many of those new vegetable gardeners have seen grow your own as more than just a passing interest and have become converts. Anecdotally, growth in our mail order business over the past season has come almost exclusively from vegetable plants, potatoes, onion sets, shallots and soft and top fruit."
He reports that like-for-like retail vegetable sales (excluding new business) are showing a year-on-year increase of five per cent. Fothergill believes "there is at least one season of growth left". He points out that Mr Fothergill’s has added Homebase to its distribution and has therefore increased sales.
So, while the grow your own boom peaked last year, it is too early to say the bubble has burst. Seed companies predicted another 20 per cent increase this year in the £60m-a-year vegetable seeds market, on top of a 14 per cent rise in 2009, but their hopes were foiled by the weather.
Thompson & Morgan head of retail Neil Sharpe says: "The weather had a big impact early on. Some early sowing varieties missed sales. A lot people missed out on seeds and went straight to plants.
"Vegetable sales have held up very well considering. Compared to the past two years, this year had a much slower start, though latter 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. Veg sales are holding almost level or just below."
T&M sales across the board are up seven per cent through distribution gains (particularly Dobbies garden centres) and new ranges, "rather than real growth in the market," adds Sharpe.
An Unwins representative says: "Overall we have seen an increase in sales of our veg and flower seeds. The market as a whole has seen a decline but this could be due to the bad weather at the beginning of the year." Unwins is launching its
Nature’s Haven wildlife-friendly seed range for 2011 and the Mediterranean Kitchen Garden for window sill growing.
Garden Centre Association figures show seeds and bulbs sales up three per cent by the end of August. At Focus, fruit and vegetable grow your own sales grew from £900,000 to £1.2m in the past year. Sales were just £300,000 in 2005, says horticulture head Gerrard Smith. Italian aromatic herbs, 7.5-litre fruit trees and strawberries did best. Pack vegetables were slightly down. Onions made the top 10 best-selling bulbs.
Growth plans include better targeting of bank holidays, replacing poor performers and trying more grow your own products such as mini vineyards, trained apples, nuts and olives. The Edible Garden Show (Stoneleigh, 18-20 March 2011) is one event that will give grow your own a boost next year.
Meanwhile, the HTA has found that penetration of grow your own has increased since 2007, with tomatoes, herbs, potatoes, strawberries and raspberries all being grown in more gardens.
Ipsos MORI/HTA research in the "Living the Good Life in Tough Times" Garden Industry Monitor Consumer Insight report shows rises of around five per cent for each of the past three years. UK adults with access to gardens where they can grow their own has risen four per cent to 29 per cent since 2007.
The HTA says garden centres can cash in by positioning grow your own ranges around "feel-good occasions" such as dinner parties inspired by TV’s Come Dine With Me. The association suggests mail drop recipe cards using home-grown vegetables.
HTA market information manager Dave Denny says: "Grow your own will remain strong. There is little sign of it petering out." He adds that Future Foundation research suggests 64 per cent of consumers are looking for bargains.
Plant sales have remained flat for four years, according to HTA data collected by TGI. For each year since 2006, plant sales have remained at between £2.1bn and £2.2bn, with bedding holding steady at between £0.73bn and £0.78bn.
Denny predicts that "despite the gloomy news headlines and wavering consumer confidence, the interest in growing your own fruit and vegetables will continue to benefit the garden industry".
The HTA says spend on in-home leisure continues to rise as consumers seek out feel-good occasions in tough times. Driven by the success of Come Dine With Me and similar television shows, there is a trend to host dinner parties, which is "a great opportunity for retailers to position their GYO ranges with this in mind", according to Denny.
HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted adds: "With more people growing and eating their own fruit and vegetables, grow your own is becoming more embedded within household routines rather than being just a passing fad.
"By inspiring customers to create their own feel-good occasions using grow your own products and flowers from the garden to decorate their homes, growth in the sector is likely to be sustained."