A year of contrary weather has made life difficult for growers for the retail market, as reported in part one of this report (HW, 20 September). But the effect on suppliers to the landscape and amenity sectors has been more complex.
Dove Associates managing director John Adlam says: "Amenity and landscape sales haven't been hit by the same peaks and troughs as the garden centre sector. When the weather has been poor, domestic gardeners have stayed out of the garden, but the professionals have been able to keep planting in all but the wettest weather - unlike last year, with the drought and hosepipe bans. So it's not been disastrous, by any means. Many growers will have maintained budgets and met targets.
"Big projects like Heathrow Terminal Five have meant extra orders for many growers, and between now and 2012 we will see a lot more (orders) coming in for the Olympics. Overall, demand is increasing."
BALI technical director and Ground Control senior contracts manager Neil Huck points to one particular area of growth. "At the commercial end there's been little change, but at the high end there are a lot more large specimens going in, with people wanting an instant effect," he says. "Some nurseries are able to cope with that, some aren't."
The weather has had its downside though. "Some amenity suppliers had unexpected losses," says Adlam. "New planting didn't survive flooding after plants failed to establish roots.
"The wet weather has also meant lower nutrient levels going into autumn. This may make plants less vigorous at the start of next year, and I expect growers will have to apply more frequent top-dressing."
Johnsons of Whixley director and HTA president Andrew Richardson says: "Our lifting period is probably three weeks (shorter) than a few years ago. On the other hand, the amenity market has been unbelievably buoyant throughout the season - some nurseries are 20 per cent or even 50 per cent up on budget."
Some pests and diseases have thrived on the unexpected periods of warmth and wet, Adlam says. "Diseases spread by water splash, such as leaf spot and downy mildew, have become more prolific, and keeping these at bay has kept growers on their toes."
Huck agrees: "There are a lot more pests and diseases this year. Vine weevil has been a problem again, as have greenfly and aphids. The wet summer made it harder to spray plants."
BALI was among the organisations lobbying hard for easing of the EU's proposed restrictions on pesticide use, which would have been "horrendous" had they been passed in their original form, Huck says.
Adlam believes that increasing restrictions on pesticide use are still a challenge for growers. "The customer requires a blemish-free plant but that's increasingly difficult to achieve," he says. "There are no effective products to treat some pests like nematodes."
And suppliers to the landscape and amenity sectors have so far had less to gain from promoting a "green" image than their counterparts in retail. The Greening the Games campaign emphasised the cost in "tree miles" of sourcing plants for the Olympics from the Continent rather than locally. Richardson says: "This hasn't been much of a concern until now, but it will be in future."
He says of the move towards "UK-grown" status: "This will appeal to some sections of the plant-purchasing industry, from the ecological and ethical dimension, though the plants don't have to be more expensive. The ultimate aim is to label a plant with the county of origin - but it's still in its infancy."
Johnsons of Whixley itself illustrates a dilemma this throws up. Already this year, the North Yorkshire grower has successfully supplied a development in Paris, with more Continental commissions in the pipeline. "Once you've got plants on a lorry, how far you take them isn't a big factor," says Richardson. "We take quite a number of plants to Ireland, for example."
Robin Tacchi Plants director Gill Tacchi believes that better awareness of the role of plants in society is helping the sector. "Soft landscaping did decline a few years ago but has now come full circle," she says. "There is more awareness of how good landscaping can enhance a development, socially and environmentally."
There remains the problem that if a project goes over budget, the soft landscaping is almost guaranteed to be cut, she says. "This should be policed. Planning officers are aware of the problem, but they need the manpower, financing, skills and experience to see that work has been done properly. Planting is more difficult to monitor than bricks."
Construction, like horticulture, currently suffers a skills shortage, and this can often lead to jobs running over, she adds. "That has an impact on the landscaping - there's often a rush towards the deadline to get it in."
Such shortages keep wages bills high, says Adlam. "Pay is generally the biggest cost on the nursery. The industry tends to use manual labour for plant handling - not through the lack of will to mechanise, but because many (nurseries) are so diversified compared with Continental growers, which often only grow only one or two plants."
Richardson believes that growers will need to become more sophisticated to survive in future. "When margins are small, you have to be very focused on your data," he says. "The nursery mindset is often: 'This is how we've always done it.' But there's a lot we can learn from other business sectors."
A commercial warehousing system, for example, allows the grower to schedule production and distribution in advance, and calculate individual costs, he says. "The cost of these systems has come down in the past few years - they're now very cost-effective."
VIEWS FROM THE SECTOR
GILL TACCHI, director, Robin Tacchi Plants, Norfolk
"We were actually extremely busy in summer, as people carried on planting for longer. On the nursery, some species have struggled a little. Prunus, for example, needs a decent spell of warmth in August."
"Customers are becoming more interested in the production and provenance of plants. Landscape architects have to be aware of their impact on the environment. It's something we should be leading the industry on. We're working towards BS8555 (Environmental Management Systems) and are reducing peat, though you may have to use more feeding and pesticides to compensate."
"Ornamental grasses have come back into fashion. Perennials are also playing more of a part, and there's more colour around, particularly white."
"We're cautiously optimistic for next year. But we tend to follow the construction industry, and there are signs that investment in business parks is moving more to Asia."
LYNN HUNTER, marketing manager, James Coles & Sons, Leicester
"Trade has been higher in the summer months as landscaping has rallied and the start of the lifting season is marginally later as the mild weather continues."
"We've employed rotational cropping for the past few seasons, using Phacelia tanacetifolia to grow on rested land, replenishing nutrients and creating biodiversity without utilising chemicals and applications. We also apply compost tea as soil conditioner and use recycled green waste from local authority garden collections as a compost. Our 10 million gallon (45 million litre) reservoir at our largest container and tree production area allows us to be self-sufficient in water and serves as a nature reserve as a bonus."
"With a range of container- and field-grown material, we are able to adapt to any minor climatic changes and have increased our container trees in 45-litre containers to satisfy the increasing demand that we identified from previous seasons."
NICK COSLETT, sales manager, Palmstead Nurseries, Kent
"The weather is less predictable now, and landscapers are forced to react to conditions in a narrow window of time. That said, we've had record sales over the period, even during July and August, usually a quiet time, but this year ideal planting conditions. Autumn is a double-edged sword - it's still warm, but you want to lift trees from the field, and we could do with more soil moisture."
"There have been some isolated incidents of people wanting UK-grown plants, but it's not part of the usual decision-making process. They are very much time-driven - it's more a matter of 'when' than of 'where'."
"We have a number of new introductions to our catalogue this year, especially perennials. But speci-fiers are conservative in their choices and slow to pick up on new plants on the market - unlike on the retail side, where breeders are more able to repay their research and development."
JAMIE DEWHURST, director, J&A Growers, Warwickshire
"The weather has been atrocious here. The lack of summer sunshine meant poor growth and we've lost a substantial volume of stock due to lack of root drainage. That was preceded by a seven-week drought from early March to early May - the key sowing time for bare-root. In 16 years in the trade I've never seen anything like it and never want to."
We increased sales of bare-rooted seedlings last year, yet we had an increase. The European market is very buoyant at the moment, with demand up 50 per cent in Germany. The volume of production has dropped recently, and now demand is up, the supply can't match it."
"We've been extremely pleased with how our tractor-mounted guidance system has worked. Given how few operating days we had this summer, we couldn't have got the work done otherwise. We have to embrace new technology - horticulture has not been good at doing that."