Demand from housebuilders is driving a market boom for trees and shrubs, with landscapers, developers and clients throwing more emphasis on bigger plants without compromising on quality. Many nurseries are reporting bumper - in some cases record - order books and growing confidence in the future of housing and infrastructure sectors. However, worries over pests and diseases such as box blight are raising cautious vibes on biosecurity.
Margins are being squeezed but business is buoyant at Robin Tacchi Plants in Diss, Norfolk. There is a "bit of a boom", reckons head of marketing Gill Tacchi, whose company supplies many high-end jobs in and around London.
"The country has come out of recession and though Brexit has caused a bit of a wobble and will doubtless have after-effects, there remains plenty of housebuilding activity," she explains. "Focus is on quality. Plant sizes have gone up and more landscape architecture companies are visiting us.
"It wasn't always like this. During the recession everything was cut to the bone. Designers created schemes and drew up plant lists, but their involvement often ended there. Now they are being retained through to the end of the project to ensure the final finish is good."
Whereas the low-maintenance mantra is still being coined by contractors, Tacchi is noticing a stronger trend for what she calls Chelsea-type garden designs being used to promote and sell property at the luxury end of the market.
"The Chelsea factor has always been big at the higher end of the market, but the trend is even bigger now. Focus seems to have moved from interiors to outside the box.
It's a complete package people now want, which is gratifying - it shows how important clients and developers are regarding landscape and gardens."
Hedging, especially native, is big. So too are ornamental grasses, while ferns have "popped up" this year. While structural evergreen shrubs remain a mainstay of landscape design, creative types are "shying" away from variegated and brasher coloured plants, says Tacchi.
"Why, I'm not sure," she adds. "Perhaps it's one of the trends that turns full circle. One year we can't sell enough aucuba, the next we can't supply enough, and there's nothing more disappointing for a designer really enthused about a plant who can't get one. This is because the grower was unaware of the demand, so we need that communication at an early stage."
Crowders Nurseries in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, is experiencing a "stop-start summer" but order books are at an all-time high, says owner Robert Crowder, who is expecting strong autumn sales. The main business drivers are demand from housing sites and big apartment blocks, especially in London, he adds, echoing Tacchi's experiences.
"There is increasing appreciation from clients and developers that landscape is really important and helps sell developments. We are seeing far higher and higher specification, better-quality plants and huge demand for instant impact, be it hedging or big specimen trees.
"Landscape architects are coming to us and saying 'we have the full backing of our client to procure plants that are absolutely spot on' from day one of a project. That is a new and very welcome trend for the whole industry, not just nurseries but landscape contractors. It adds value to the whole supply chain."
Crowder is expecting a 10 per cent uplift in sales on last year, "which is significant", and puts this down to the tail end of a housing boom that started two-to-three years ago, "long before Brexit was contemplated". However, as the pace of private-sector building slows, he suggests the slack will be taken up elsewhere.
"Construction starts show signs of slowing, but that doesn't necessarily mean our business will be doing likewise. Emphasis is likely to change from the private-sector developers who are currently driving the market to more public-sector spending, especially infrastructure. There is a lot of Government talk of big spending on large-scale projects."
Order books full
Deepdale Trees managing director Matthias Anton is also upbeat. "Order books are full for autumn," he says. "It's not quite a boom, but it is promising for the next six months. While many bigger contractors have put on hold larger projects after the Brexit vote, there is plenty on the ground progressing well.
"I expect it to be busy for a year-and-a-half. After then, who knows? Pests and diseases could shape the market, but finding alternatives is the problem. Replacements for Buxus, for example, are very limited, so despite problems caused by box blight, it remains among our top 20 best sellers."
Anton, based in the market town of Sandy in Bedfordshire, is also seeing demand for what he calls "naturalistic character" plants eclipsing that for the more formal ornamental plants. Trees and shrubs that designers and landscape architects "wouldn't have even looked at" five years ago are now catching their eye. "Anything with a twisted or bizarre-looking branch or shape is finding favour, the more twisted the better," he explains.
Coles Nurseries key account manager Vince Edwards says: "It's a very, very good market right now. The large amount of housing being built always stimulates our kind of market, which in turn boosts confidence. But it's not just private developers seizing the initiative.
"Councils have become very astute at realising they can make quite strong demands on developers to provide open spaces as part of a planning permission. This has led to much more work and creative planting across public open spaces.
"Whereas trees and shrubs were once the last thing put in place, they are now factored into the project, have a hard-and-fast start and finish date and are happening as specified and seen on the design drawings."
Size and quality are big sellers this year, be it for show homes, high-spec landscapes or public open spaces, says Edwards. "Quality of plants and instant impact become evermore important, so five-litre plants across herbaceous and evergreen plants are in high demand."
Far from dampening demand, Brexit could throw up opportunities for UK growers, he suggests. "I can't see France, Belgium and Germany not supplying plants if there's demand, but if tariffs, taxes and fuel costs change then UK plants will become a more viable proposition.
"This ties in with biosecurity, which will become an increasing factor and will benefit the British grower that can prove UK native provenance and a clean bill of plant health. Sadly, these days anyone can buy a plant over the internet that hasn't been through rigorous health checks. If it proves to be a rogue plant it could prove catastrophic for that plant type - and that could throw the market."
Majestic Trees near St Albans in Hertfordshire targets homes. A third of its business goes on houses worth around £400,000, another third on homes valued at £1m-plus and the final third is lavished on properties and estates worth many millions. Business is good but uneven.
Owner Steve McCurdy recently trebled the size of the customer service and office areas, adding a 50-seat seminar room, outdoor kitchen and courtyard for good measure. Currency fluctuations, changeable weather and Brexit-fuelled jitters have dented trade. Majestic Trees was £50,000 down on business against a year ago directly after the in-out vote.
But this is a temporary blip, he feels. "Sales have been picking up throughout August and confidence is returning. Those thrilled by the Brexit vote are buoyant and spending, while those who wanted to remain in the EU have accepted the vote and are also starting to spend again. Regardless of the politics, I generally find the wealthy will always be wealthy."
Top tree and shrub choices for 2016
Vince Edwards, key account manager, Coles Nurseries
"Hebe still remains a strong favourite with specifiers and architects because of its versatility and compactness, as do viburnum and Prunus lusitanica. Landscape professionals are moving away from the likes of cotoneaster and spiraea, which have maintenance and invasiveness issues."
Tom Owen, commercial sales manager, Crowders Nurseries
"Box blight fears have led to Buxus being replaced, especially in southern areas, with Ilex crenata, while demand for instant impact means grasses and perennials are more in vogue at the expense of old-fashioned ornamental shrubs. Also hot is native UK-sourced hedging in 10-15m strips for traceability peace of mind. Clients and contractors are more clued up than ever before and want biosecurity policies in place."
Matthias Anton, managing director, Deepdale Trees
"Surprises this year include Sorbus aria and limes - Tilia cordata and Tilia europaea. But Taxus has flown from the shelves, anything from 50cm to 2.5m high. Last season we sold more than 6,000 plants. Old favourites - oak, birch, field maple, pyracantha and amelanchier - are still going strong."
Gill Tacchi, head of marketing, Robin Tacchi Plants
"Species-rich native eco-hedging in 1m lengths is selling very well. A lot of housing projects are being decked out with this form of planting as it's a way to get greenery into designs that have little open space and does away with the need for a fence. The desire for native plants is driven in part by pests and diseases. Specifiers are much more aware and want to plant native alternatives. But Buxus is so versatile."