Trees and shrubs, when do we want them? Now — and, by the way, we want them bigger and looking more mature. That is the message garden designers and landscape architects are sending to nurserymen up and down the country. It is a message that now sees many nurseries feeling optimistic about the future, such as James Coles & Sons of Leicester.
"We are very positive, very optimistic, due in part to continued strong sales through the summer months," says Coles Nurseries key account manager Vince Edwards. "Historically, we normally see a downturn in planting over summer as companies concentrate on maintenance rather than new planting. But I think with the pressure to finish housing and get it on the market, and with large developments, that landscaping has continued and we continue to dispatch orders.
"We’re doing a lot of quotations [during July and August], although we expect a lot to come in later in the season, but those quotes are being turned around very quickly and they are turning into orders in a very short space of time."
With more than 500 acres of growing space, Coles is the UK’s largest amenity grower. Across five sites it has the capacity to grow more than 1.2 million trees and 2.4 million shrubs. Clients include landscapers, garden designers, wholesale nurseries and local authorities. Plants go to new housing developments, business parks, show gardens and private individuals.
At Majestic Trees near St Albans in Hertfordshire, managing director Steve McCurdy sounds almost bewildered by recent events. "It’s amazingly good, to be honest.
"I thought there would be a slowdown after the mess of the election, but we actually did just short of double what we expected to do in July and we were over target in June. I think the economy is generally good and wealthy people are still spending money. It’s not like we have had a £200,000 job to distort or inflate the figures."
Coles Nurseries: lots of quotes being turned around quickly and turning into orders - image: James Coles & Sons
Fluke or trend?
Was that a fluke or does he expect the trend to continue through September? "The order book is good, surprisingly good to be honest," he replies.
McCurdy says the upturn in sales at Majestic Trees cannot be explained by the election result or Brexit. The nursery has recently opened a new building to increase customer experience. "Before we had a very crowded office space, but now we have this spacious reception area with places for people to sit on couches or at a table with a computer, to sit and have a coffee. It’s very customer service-focused and people are spending time there and relaxing," he says. McCurdy pays tribute to the hard-working staff and the quality of the stock on the nursery. Some 70% of stock will end up in gardens, through landscape architects, garden designers or estate managers.
Supplying tree-planting accessories to the landscape and amenity markets, Green-tech has also seen strong business in recent months, as marketing manager Kate Humes explains: "Highways is still a strong market for us and last season we saw a marked increase in requests for the Tubex biodegradable 12D tree shelters, but there is also a boom in housebuilding with some huge new housing schemes with landscaping plans. There are several schemes of 3,000 to 5,000 houses and hundreds of smaller schemes currently going on."
The forestry market differs considerably from landscape and amenity planting, coming in waves as landowners and investors take up available grants for tree planting. Farmers and landowner want to make money from trees and the right sort of grant structure has to be in place.
Excavators and teleloaders now help with the speedy planting of hedging - image: Tree & Hedge Co
For forestry, whether rural or urban woodlands, native species remain dominant. Similarly in landscaping, planting natives including birch remain popular choices, but architects and designers will have a much wider A-Z of trees and shrubs in mind, although they often keep to the same species.
At Coles Nurseries, Edwards reckons he can almost name the architect from the order. "The large architect practices have their own palettes these days," he says. "A particular practice will have a slant towards certain species and sizes, whereas another has a preference for a different genus. It still remains that a tried and tested group of trees and shrubs are wanted. They will look to provide the effect and the longevity and not compromise any established maintenance schedules for the client."
At Wolverhampton-based Boningale Nurseries, a leading supplier of trees, shrubs and perennials to the British landscape market, sales manager Frank Sandford has noticed a slight decline in shrubs over the past three or four years, with architects and designers choosing more perennials instead.
"I was looking at it the other day on the system and if you go back 10 years you could randomly pull out 10 crates and you would see very few perennials or grasses, but pick 10 out now and there will definitely be grasses and perennials in there," he points out. "It’s interesting, and our production is changing to reflect it. We’ve been going into more perennial production year on year for about four years now."
Of the shrubs despatched by Boningale, Sandford reports a trend away from deciduous species. "We have been a bit short of the evergreen shrubs," he notes. "The deciduous are in decline, with sales of evergreens getting stronger."
Local authority spending
Everyone agrees — and it is easy to see why — that local authority spending is changing. Edwards says:
"We have noticed with local authorities that, in their spending powers and what they have available, they have tended to shy away from their annual bedding schemes."
He adds: "Instead, they are going for more established schemes dominated by hardy shrubs and a few interest trees — although again they seem to be sticking to the end of the season for their planting where they are getting better value from bare-root material and less maintenance and post-planting costs."
When it comes to architects, designers and private clients, it seems money is much less of an obstacle than it was a few years ago. Not only are trees and shrubs in demand right now, but it is the bigger plants that are moving fast. "Pot sizes tend to be getting bigger," Sandford confirms. "We are doing less of the two- and three-litre material but there is more demand for five- and 10-litre material.
Edwards adds: "We have noticed that the level and size of stock going into show homes is certainly bigger — they are making the landscaping in the entrance to the show home far more impressive than it was 10 or 15 years ago."
A trend towards buying bigger stock is also echoed by McCurdy. "This year we have sold bigger stock than last year," he says. "There was definitely a dip in how much big stock was sold a few years ago, when things were a bit tighter. But the wealthy people always have money and if they want to solve a problem they just do it."
There is little doubt that hedging is getting bigger. At new company The Tree & Hedge Co, based in London and the Cotswolds, managing director Alan Jones says screening is a big hit at the moment. The firm supplies and plants semi-mature trees, hedges and fine topiary as well as providing a relocation service for large stock. With a nursery in Denham in Buckinghamshire, it can supply instant hedging, and plants it using excavators and teleloaders.
"We are contract handling trees and can handle really large trees but a big part of my business is now hedging above 3m. We have even had enquiries for 12m hedges, although there is not a lot of that available. Common sizes I have planted this year have been between five and seven metres and the reason is screening — buildings are built too close to each other and screening of neighbours is now a massive part of our work."
Stronger sales and bigger plants are sold — it is all good news and the resulting landscapes have a dramatic impact. But there is a large black cloud hanging over the industry. Diseases, particularly Xylella fastidiosa, are making everyone concerned. Are clients asking about pests and diseases?
"Not enough," says McCurdy. "I think it is a real problem, especially Xylella, and we are really hot on it. But Joe Public doesn’t seem to know about it and neither do a lot of garden and landscape designers.
"There is a lack of understanding how critical it can be. The big problem right now is that if I have Xylella fastidiosa on my nursery it will be shut down. But Mrs Jones can bring in a tree from Holland with Xylella on it and plant it 10km down the road and I’ll be in the zone for restricted movement, and that could basically shut me down. There is nothing I can do about it. Everybody has to be made aware how serious a problem it is."