Trend towards divestment continues as centres focus on core retail business

Advocates of growing and selling your own plants remain passionate about business model but focus shifting onto retail.

Garden centres: Coolings (main) and Perrywood (inset) both say growing their own plants is essential
Garden centres: Coolings (main) and Perrywood (inset) both say growing their own plants is essential

Many of the leading garden centre players from the Garden Retail Top 100 continue to grow their own plants - including Bents, Woodcote Green, Garsons, Aylett, Woodlands, Baytree, Bridgemere, Perrywood, Coolings and Highfield. But the trend for centres to hive off their growing arms to focus on core retailing looks set to continue.

Most garden centres began as nurseries. But as the sector developed, the separate skills required to be a retailer and a grower became more pronounced. Last month, Barton Grange Group announced that it is selling its Garden Centre Plants and Northern Liners nursery divisions, with Quinton Edwards acting as agency.

Increasing trend

Others planning to sell off, relinquish management of or stop growing at their nurseries this year include Golden Acres Nurseries, Morley Nurseries (Wakering) and Blue Diamond, which is bringing the management of Fryers Roses' production under a specialist grower.

Plenty more have gradually given up growing over the years. But the advocates of growing and selling your own plants are passionate about their business model, which includes fewer plant miles and the customer appeal of home-grown stock.

This is despite growing your own losing some of its attractiveness because of its increasing seasonality as garden centres seeks to protect sales from seasonal peaks and troughs through weatherproof their businesses.

Hillier grows and has 12 garden centres but has recently taken a "new direction" following the appointment of Chris Francis as garden centre director.

Andy McIndoe had that role before becoming managing director too. The situation was not ideal, he says. "I spent the majority of my time on the garden centre and did not have much time at all to put into the other areas of the business."

Being a retailer as well as a supplier "has advantages and disadvantages" he says. "You stay in tune with the market, and hopefully we are in a position to be able to meet the needs of the market as it changes.

But he adds: "There is a conflict of interest on the growing side where you can compromise in terms of controlling costs and unless you can grow your sales accordingly it becomes less profitable. With manufactured and imported goods there are more ways to control overheads than there are in the nursery world and it is so weather-dependent.

"This year was much kinder but as the autumn trade has declined and the emphasis has gone onto Christmas, gifts and catering to get through the autumn, you are dependent on March, April and May. If you get one bad month, it hits you really hard in a production nursery. But on the retail side you have another 11 months."

McIndoe says he has separate costs centres "but we have to work together" and with Hillier having retail, amenity and production arms, diversity has been an advantage.

For Coolings managing director Gary Carvosso, growing is essential to the business: "For us it's absolutely non-negotiable. Many in the industry would look at us and think how do they get that to pay, but the success is in our programming and planning. We can see that it's profitable as well as an immensely powerful marketing tool."

Highfield Garden World director Tim Greenway says: "When we first opened we were growing 70-80 per cent of what we needed. But as sales took off we moved out of home-grown rose production because you could buy bare-rooted far cheaper than you could produce yourself."

Contracting out

One compromise comes from Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper, who bought Fryers Roses and garden centre in 2011. He says mixing retailing and growing is "not easy".

"We were doing all our own field growing but next season we will be contracting that out and all we will be doing is handling it and potting it up so we don't have to plant the rootstock and all the cutting and lifting is contracted out.

"It takes the management of production away from us. We don't have to grow a field of 100,000 roses. Gradable quality is 7/10 and you have to know what you're doing to get the grade and quality. We still own the brand and do mail order and exports."

Geoff Caesar was part of the move in 2005 that took over the nursery part of Webbs Garden Centre. Bransfords did not buy Webbs' growing arm. Instead, it merged it with no capital outlay.

"On the face of it, growing and retailing looks like a good idea because it's a vertically integrated business, but it doesn't seem to always work," says Caesar. "Webbs had some great products but there was greater focus on the garden centre side of the business, rightly so, because that side of the business was expanding and the margin on the growing was tighter."

Caesar adds that Bransford saw potential to get plants into national retailers, which "proved to work for us".

International Association of Horticultural Producers secretary-general Tim Briercliffe says the debate over whether retailers should continue to grow or not, has gone through cycles. Wyevale Garden Centres for instance was looking to grow more a few years ago "but increasingly it's going back the other way".

He warns: There is a danger that a garden centre's nursery could become a "hobby extra. Running a nursery has to be commercially viable in its own right."

Growing divestment

- Blue Diamond is set to get another grower to manage Fryers Roses.

- Greetham Nursery in Hartlepool is to be leased from Klondyke Garden Centres.

- Golden Acres Nursery leased its nursery to Dorset Plants this year to concentrate on retailing and catering at its five garden centres.

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