Plant nurseries have seen strong sales of trees and shrubs over the past two years, reflecting improvements in the economy and construction in particular. Increasing development, particularly in the housebuilding sector, has meant high demand and the rosy picture is expected to continue.
Gill Tacchi, head of marketing and administration at Robin Tacchi Plants, explains: "There is more money about. The construction industry is buoyant and we’re seeing a lot of investment."
Nurseries are generally reporting sales up by around 10 per cent on last year. This is largely due to housing. The major housebuilders are producing large numbers of new homes and getting high prices for them. They are happy to spend money on landscaping and plants to boost sales.
"Hedging is in high demand," says Tacchi. "It is low-maintenance, it takes up little space and has a big impact. It’s important especially when the homes are on small plots." Robin Tacchi Plants is reporting high sales of Eco-Hedge, which comes in 90cm lengths and provides an instant hedge.
Among the better sellers are laurel and yew (Taxus). Some developers, particularly that have contracts with local government, are insisting on traditional native species such as hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple and holly.
Rochfords sales manager Andy Moreham is also upbeat. "Everything is up over the last couple of years," he says. "Last year housebuilders were ordering expensive stuff for plots and show homes. This year the sales are very good so they don’t need to dress things up. But they do need screening, hedges and colour."
Moreham points out that many landscapers are now starting to use herbaceous plants rather than shrubs because they are more colourful. "Fashions change every year," he explains. "I think that in times of recession people want a bit of colour."
He is also seeing strong sales in shrub roses. "They are used for ground cover and as climbers." Traditional varieties such as Iceberg, a white climbing rose, are still popular, he notes.
Old favourites in demand
Hillier Nurseries director Hossein Arshadi says old favourites such a lavender Hidcote are still in huge demand — both in commercial settings, such as business and retail parks, and in the show homes in housing developments.
Growers are having to make adjustments because of the threat of imported diseases. Most growers are reporting that Buxus (box) is still a favourite. "We’re selling it as 30cm hedging and in topiary forms. But people are a bit wary because there is the possibility of blight," says Moreham. "We’re now recommending Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’ or Ilex crenata as possible alternatives."
Environmental factors are also important. Tacchi points out that developers are looking at ornamental grasses as an alternative to shrubs because they are useful in dry and hot areas. There is also a demand for trees such as cornus (dogwood) that can grow on floodplains and cope with a certain amount of waterlogging.
Infrastructure projects — hospitals, schools, street scenes, parks, etc — are still providing a good market. "We’re doing a lot of work around north-west Cambridgeshire in regeneration and we do have contracts for public buildings," adds Tacchi. Arshadi agrees that there are still plenty of public contracts. "We’re doing city regeneration, hospitals and roads. We’re seeing growth right across the market. Our sales are up 10 per cent on last year."
Higher-quality plants and trees
There is also steady demand for higher-quality plants and trees, which are generally used on larger homes or bespoke landscaping projects. Majestic Trees managing director Steve McCurdy says: "Sales are good — up nine per cent on last year. We’re selling a lot to homes in the £500,000-£1m bracket. We’re also doing motorway projects and work for Harrow School and Hatfield train station."
The firm works with a string of top landscape designers, mainly on private domestic gardens. McCurdy says traditional plants are in demand. "We still sell a lot of silver birch, which offers dappled shade and attractive coloured bark." Some landscapers are looking for novelty. "One buyer bought a lot of Stewartia pseudocamellia, a tree with large white flowers. He just liked the look of them and bought on impulse."
Many buyers order larger plants for instant impact. Coles Nurseries key account manager Vince Edwards says: "Five- and 10-litre pots are in big demand. People want a finished appearance. A couple of years ago, most sales were for the smaller two- and three-litre pots. We were only selling 10,000 five-litre pots. Now it’s 100,000 a year."
He cites a big contract with Davidsons Homes. "We sold them 1.5m hedging of Prunus lusitanica and also 10-litre pots of Photinia for hedges," he says. "People want upright trees that don’t take up a lot of room and don’t cast giant shadows but give screening. So we’re getting a lot of demand for ‘dawyck’ Fagus [fastigate beech], which has purple or gold foliage."
Encouragingly, housebuilders are using the quality of garden as a selling point. Coles Nurseries is working with one of the large builders to offer different garden planting schemes. It offers three qualities of planting, designated as bronze, silver or gold. The difference is primarily in the size of the plants. "Older people are often prepared to pay extra to get a more established garden," says Edwards.
Geographical sales divide
When it comes to plant sales, there is a geographical divide between north and south of the country. Much of the work is going to the south, but trade in the north is still lively. "We do more work in London and the south but we’ve just had a contract for the Glasgow Fort retail centre, so we’re not exclusively southern,’ says Tacchi. Coles Nurseries also reports that while the south and south-east of England are strong sectors, the firm is getting work in the Midlands and the north as well.
As for the future, the companies are hoping that the brisk trade will continue, and they offer some suggestions for planting schemes. "I would recommend Magnolia Fairy White," says Moreham. "It’s something that comes in and out of fashion but it’s really pretty."
Tacchi declines to recommend a particular plant but points out that landscapers should think carefully before they order. "Sometimes landscapers are tempted to buy something very unusual. But is there a reason why it’s unusual? Is it easy to grow? Does it last well? They should consider these factors," she insists.
"Also, they should be very precise with their demands and discuss what they want with the nurseries." she adds. To encourage better understanding — and to boost sales — Tacchi has organised workshops advising landscapers on the best ways to specify and order plants.
McCurdy recommends Quercus cerris — the Austrian oak or turkey oak. "It grows fast, establishes quickly and is fairly resistant to mildew," he adds. "It is under-rated." Meanwhile, Arshadi strongly recommends the elm Ulmus New Horizon, which is disease-resistant and suitable for hot and inhospitable climates as well as exposed sites.
However, the nurseries also point out that most landscapers will still rely on the old favourites. They generally want the tried and tested plants that give good coverage, grow well and do not create problems for the sites.
Tree and shrub suppliers reveal latest trends in demand from plant buyers
Steve McCurdy, Majestic Trees
"We sell a lot of native trees such as hornbeam because people want biosecurity. We’ve sold several hundred this year — about half our stock. We’re selling a large number of trees such as Stryax japonicus and Pyrus ‘Chanticleer’ as well as magnolias and willows."
Andy Moreham, Rochfords
"We’re selling a lot of hedging. Prunus lusitanica angustifolia is very popular because it makes a nice evergreen hedge. There is relatively little new stuff on the market. We’re doing a lot of lavender and we’re mainly selling evergreens, but some deciduous shrubs such as magnolia, potentilla and philadelphus are moving up."
Gill Tacchi, Robin Tacchi Plants
"Buyers want evergreen ground cover plants such as viburnum or Lonicera Maygreen. We get a lot of sales of cotoneaster, which is very hardy, very dense and provides a good habitat for birds. We still get a good demand for variegated foliage."
Vince Edwards, Coles Nurseries
"All the old varieties are selling well, although we’re now selling larger pot sizes. Commercial sites and car parks don’t want tall plants, where people can lurk unseen, so they want things like cotoneaster and Lonicera Maygreen. They also want plants such as Viburnum tinus, photinia and phormium."
Hossein Arshadi, Hillier Nurseries
"We’re currently selling a lot of traditional plants such as photinia. We’re also selling shrubs that are good for hedging, such as the laurel Prunus Laurocerasus ‘Rotundifolia’. We also sell Betula pendula (silver birch), Pyrus ‘Chanticleer’ (ornamental pear) and Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime).’