Strictly speaking, the word "perennial" includes all plants that stay alive for three years or more, which can be anything from a dandelion up to a tree. But when applied to plants for the garden the tag refers to hardy herbaceous plants - those with stems that are not woody. And for garden retailers this represents the largest range of plants they could sell.
In the Garden Retail Buyer's Guide 2012, issued last July, perennials topped the list in the breakdown of garden centre sales. In April last year, one-litre standard perennials were up 30 per cent on the equivalent month in 2010. This is exciting news and retailers should be capitalising on this demand. And with the range of cultivated perennials never greater than now, there is something for every type of customer.
At one time perennials were grown exclusively for herbaceous borders - witness the magnificent shows at stately homes across the UK, from Arley Hall in Cheshire and Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire to Penshurst Place in Kent, the RHS Garden at Wisley in Surrey and even the garden at Buckingham Palace. National Trust and English Heritage gardens are equally famous for them.
Christine Howard of Norfolk-based Howard's Nurseries, reckons that retailers should be showing how customers can emulate these spectacles. But while such borders contained nothing but perennial plants, which generally grow up in the spring, flower in the summer, die down in the autumn and are dormant and invisible during the winter, in today's smaller gardens, perennials are more commonly planted with shrubs that provide a permanent framework, bulbs that provide colour during the quieter seasons, or bedding plants that provide pockets of extra colour.
Increasingly, perennials are grown in containers, too. And the appeal of cottage gardening has never been stronger.
So the prognosis for sales of perennials is good, but how can retailers be sure of maximising the opportunity? Here are 10 ways to help.
1. Perennials are easy
Perennials are convenient plants - they are easy money for the retailer and easy for the consumer to look after. Howard says: "Some perennials are tricky - although still very rewarding to grow - but many more are easy and will go from strength to strength over time, reappearing every year right on cue. And they are among the easiest plants to care for."
This ease of use should be made clear in the bed cards and point of sale (POS). Howard adds: "Easy-to-read cards and good pictures and graphics can show customers how easy these plants can be."
But, she says, there is a caveat: "From the start it relies on good quality plants being stocked. Plants that look good, are healthy and weed-free will stand out and they'll sell themselves."
2. Perennials are value for money
Plant Publicity Holland UK representative Mark Long says: "Perennials offer great value for customers. They represent a low point of entry, but have longer life than bedding. Perennials are the thrifty choice."
Howard agrees: "If the customer has done a bit of homework and feeds, waters and cuts plants back when they have to, their investment will be repaid many times over."
At West Sussex-based Prenplants, proprietor Will George says: "The vast majority of garden centre customers want something colourful - and instantly. They don't want to wait six months for a few flowers to form. They want colour. They want a spectacle. So garden centre owners should be keeping customers who want instant gratification at the forefront of all they do. Go for big, blousy, in-your-face colour."
3. Perennials are "versatile"
Sussex-based Farplants marketing manager Neil Robertson says: "As a product group, perennials are really versatile. Many hardy perennials are very tolerant and their flowers are wonderfully varied and colourful - they are fantastically rewarding plants to grow. Retailers should use perennials to inspire experienced gardeners and encourage new ones."
He adds: "The plants' flexibility in use makes them great for more experienced gardeners who might be trying out different planting schemes around the garden. For new gardeners, classic cottage garden perennials are relatively low investment and bring satisfaction year after year."
4. Build a permanent display
Having a "quality" plant display won't just look good - it will drive sales and could even net you an award.
Kent-based Millbrook Garden Company was named winner of the Best Business Development category at last year's Garden Retail Awards after moving its planteria from one side of its site to the other and incorporating a new way of displaying its plants - including a huge range of perennials.
Instead of the gridiron layout, Millbrook has built a curved planteria with planting "cameos" Managing director Tammy Woodhouse says: "We wanted the planteria to look more like a garden. We are really pleased with customer feedback and are well up on targets."
Meanwhile, Leicester-based Palmers Garden Centre says its centre is defined by its landscaped areas, which separates it from other garden centres. Its planteria accounts for almost one-third of total turnover of £3m. Three years ago the firm introduced a planning and planting service and in the first six months it generated an extra turnover of £120,000.
5. Create seasonal in-store displays
Long says: "Perennials are so appropriate for good, seasonal in-store displays. They are also valid at quiet times of the year, such as hellebores in late winter, primulas in early spring, and so on. There is something for every season."
In-store trials of geranium have shown how this works. One centre reported sales of 700 geraniums as opposed to 120 of the comparison plant included just as part of the A-Z benching after putting them in a hot spot at the entrance to the seasonal display area. It used a large number of plants and took advantage of the different colours and heights of individual species to create a dynamic display.
George supports this display mantra: "Put together a display with lots of product, foliage and colour - it will have plants running out of the door."
These bulk stock displays are enhanced by informative and colourful POS material, but they do not completely rely on them as in the case of the A-Z benches.
Long adds: "Temporary displays keep customers guessing. They are given something new to see each time they visit and that encourages regular visits. Temporary displays inform, entertain and arouse interest."
6. Sell perennial "stories"
Stories are the big new thing in plant marketing and Plant Publicity Holland, through its Colour Your Life campaign, has been developing a range of options to help retailers bring out the added value that most plants can deliver. These take the form of 'Did you know?' fascinating facts relating to each of the plants featured.
Long says: "Stories sell. They are at the heart of marketing today. Whatever the product, there are stories to engage consumers and make them want to buy. In the planteria we are be able to choose from fantastic added value stories about plants as 'problem-solvers' through to the history and legends of the origins of plants or the folklore and science surrounding their medicinal qualities."
Colour Your Life has produced a range of Plant Stories movies offered to the retail trade as a "new and exciting way to tell consumers some of these fascinating facts from the world of plants". They pick up on the historical quirks, biodiversity benefits or well-being dividends that many plants have. The movies are about 60 seconds long, produced in high quality, and use professional voice-overs and soundtracks.
Campaign manager Sam Hickton explains: "The films are short, punchy and immediately engaging. They bring out aspects of individual plant's stories that most people just wouldn't know and offer a nugget of real knowledge that can help to grab a customer's attention.'
The movies can be viewed at www.colour-your-life.co.uk/plantstories, with a new one added every month, plus some extras. They are also included in the monthly digital newsletter along with the all important QR code (see panel).
Long adds: "The Plant Stories movies offer a valuable adjunct to traditional POS, which itself continues to be critical in highlighting plant benefits."
7. Go for something new
Jump on the commercial big flower show bandwagon. Every year there is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May, Gardener's World Live in June and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show and the RHS Show Tatton Park in July, and if there is one thing that is guaranteed to come out of these events, it is 50 to 100 brand new plant varieties.
In the days leading up to and following such shows, promote some special plant 'days' or 'weekends'.
Recently introduced perennials that have caught the eye of both the public and the experts include Dahlia 'Mystic Haze' from Fairweathers, which was voted by visitors to last year's HTA National Plant Show as Best New Plant out of 93 possible contenders. The Best Herbaceous Perennial was awarded to Antirrhinum 'Eternal Magenta' from Darby Nursery Stock. Dianthus 'Memories' from Bransford Webb Plant Company was crowned Best in Show.
Chair of judges David Gilchrist said: "There were many strong contenders for Best in Show but the Dianthus stood out - a photogenic classic cottage garden plant with superb scent that is easy to grow, propagate and manage. Those were just some of the qualities that helped it steal the show."
Industry commentator Peter Seabrook says: "For three years now I have been watching Campanula 'Blue Rivulet', a chance seedling found by Adrian Bloom. It went on sale last spring from Meredith at £6.99 for a two-litre pot at Garden Centre Group outlets and sold out before it hit the ground. This hardy perennial makes a fine summer bedding and hanging basket plant, flowering non-stop from May to October.
He adds: "Among the Ball Colegrave biennial and perennial flower trials, Foxglove 'Dalmatian' (a good white with a speckled throat), and Dianthus 'Kahori', should sell themselves."
8. Educate staff
Howard says: "Customer service is so important. Educating staff with even basic plant knowledge can pay dividends. Motivate and encourage your staff to help sell your product. If you are good to your customers they can't stay away. Good advice and assistance can double the spend of an individual customer."
One way that Howard feels retailers can improve staff knowledge is to invite the growers to conduct demonstrations. "The relationship between the grower and the retailer is just as important as that between the retailer and the consumer," she says. "I do a couple of demonstrations a year for staff. The most recent was showing how to take root cuttings of Phlox in winter. If they do this they can produce saleable plants by October. Yes, it might take a little business away from suppliers like us, but the knowledge gained by the staff can be passed on to customers, and this in invaluable."
9. Colourful labelling
Robertson says: "You occasionally still find garden centres stocked with plants that have rows of green labels giving just the name. That is such a wasted opportunity. Colourful labelling can sell the plant so much better. At Farplants we have worked hard to address this and all of our plants now come with bright, cheerful labels that show the plant or flower at its best."
10. Perennials are sustainable
Long says: "Perennials offer the chance to garden in a more sustainable way. We all need to be 'gardening smarter' to get maximum benefit from scarce water. Perennials allow us to lower our environmental impact because once established they need less watering. It is also less wasteful to establish perennials rather than to pull up bedding and throw it away (with compost) every season.
'Water wise' gardening is also helped with perennials given the prairie backgrounds of many species, including Rudbeckia. Working with highly visual species can stretch the attractive period of wild flower meadows, as well as being low maintenance and water wise. There is a wildlife element that few gardeners realise, Long says. "There is excitement and added value from attracting beneficial insects with perennials such as Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna' or Echinacea."
Hampshire-based Kirton Farm Nurseries, which supplies 150 garden centres nationwide with perennials and herbs, has committed its garden centre production wholly to eco-friendly processes and products with a view to satisfying the growing demands of an eco-sensitive public.
Managing director Derek Taylor says: "A few years ago we launched the 'hairy pot', made from coir fibre. It won awards at trade shows. We now produce our perennials and herbs only in them. They use recycled natural product rather than raw plastics, they are biodegradable and provide local jobs in parts of the world that desperately need them. The overall message is that they are a better proposition."
EMBRACE QR CODES
QR codes are barcodes that can be read with a smart phone of tablet computer loaded with a free QR app from an online appstore. For example, with the Plant Stories movies (see item 6), you can print out the QR codes on an ordinary printer and customers can scan and view the movies as they shop.
At Hornsey-based The Garden Shop, planteria manager Sarah Turnbull says: "At our urban garden centre the majority of our customers have smart phones and tablets. Consequently, the potential for QR codes to give them the facility to view plant stories movies in-store offers a new dimension to the shopping experience, as well as bringing product alive in an interactive way."
This kind of facility fits well with the shop's mission to offer a degree of uniqueness to the shopping experience, Turnbull adds. There is novelty value but also substance, which should see these movies enjoying a long life on the shop floor and online.
10 PERENNIAL SUPPLIERS
The Bransford Webbs Plant Company Bransford, Worcester WR6 5JB. Tel: 01886 833733.
Darby Nursery Stock Old Feltwell Road, Methwold, Thetford, Norfolk IP26 4PW. Tel: 01366 728380.
Fairweather's Hilltop Nursery, Beaulieu, Hampshire SO42 7YR. Tel: 01590 612113.
Farplants Yapton Lane, Walberton, Arundel, West Sussex BN18 0AS. Tel: 01243 533311.
Garden Centre Plants Barton Lane, Preston, Lancs PR3 5AU. Tel: 01772 863531.
Golden Acres Nursery 397 Christchurch Road, West Parley, Ferndown, Dorset BH22 8SJ. Tel: 01202 581368.
Howard Nurseries Wortham, Diss, Norfolk IP22 1PX. Tel: 01379 898529.
Kirton Farm Nurseries Crawley, Winchester, Hampshire SO21 2PJ. Tel: 01962 776493
Prenplants Birch Copse, Haven Road, The Haven, Billingshurst, West Sussex RH14 9BJ. Tel: 01403 822437
Seiont Nurseries Cae'r Glyddyn, Pontrug, Gwynedd LL55 2BB. Tel: 01286 672113.