Ways tree and shrub suppliers can beat the budget

The downturn has hit construction hard but tree and shrub suppliers are finding other opportunities, says Gavin McEwan.

Growers report a rise in demand for native species in spite of economic downturn - image: HW
Growers report a rise in demand for native species in spite of economic downturn - image: HW

If you believe old wives' tales, then this autumn's abundant holly berries mean the coming winter will be another harsh one. But what impact will the squeeze on budgets have on tree and shrub choices this season?

According to Wyevale Nurseries managing director Steve Ashworth: "Everyone is braced for the cuts to feed through the system. There has been a slight recovery among house builders and some awakening of dormant developers. That is what the Government is really hoping for, what with local authorities battening down the hatches."

However, he describes business at the Herefordshire nursery as tree-lifting season starts as brisk. "Bare-root trees are at the budget end - you could say they are recession-busters - and they are going from strength to strength," he says.

"We are also busy on transplants - forestry hasn't been hit yet by the cuts, but that may just be bureaucratic inertia.

Improvements to the environments seem to be resilient and there are signs of a groundswell in demand for native species in areas like hedging, even though they're less glamorous. Some years ago we were getting more fancy varieties at Wyevale, with things like Catalpa and Robinia, but now there's far less demand for, say, Red Oak than for the native equivalent."

Robin Tacchi Plants has also noticed a native species trend. The Norfolk nursery is about to open a specialist native tree unit, says marketing director Gill Tacchi. "The Olympics will have an effect, particularly on people who don't know so much about landscaping. Given the planting there, that will bring a boost to native species."

Johnsons of Whixley is also entering the winter season with plenty of demand, says joint managing director Andrew Richardson. "We are just starting on the bare-root stock and have the biggest order book we have ever had, including three big road schemes. Amenity and cash and carry sales are flat out and we are quietly confident for the year ahead. There's a regional difference though - things are picking up in southern England but slowing down in Scotland." Fresh forestry planting on the back of the current grant regime has also increased interest in Johnsons' 100ha of bare-root transplants, he adds.

The commercial landscape is coming slowly back to life, Richardson believes. And while there is still no surge in home-building, the flat housing market has its advantages. "There's huge demand from more homeowners thinking 'don't move - improve'," he says. "They're putting in big mature hedging 2-3m high - we've never sold so much."

Meanwhile, it seems landscapers have not been turned away from less hardy varieties after last year's tough winter. "They've got away with more gardenesque planting for a few years. After last year, you'd think they'd stick to bulletproof stock, but that's not actually what we're seeing," he says.

Johnsons has been busy pursuing sales through site visits to clients, and the same goes for Aaron Nurseries, says business partner Richard Thorpe. "We have been very active in getting out this summer and that's paying off. It's been an excellent start to the bare-root season, despite the downturn, though prices are keener. There is also a lot of development going on, though we will never get back to the boom times again and some of what is being built now has very little landscaping with it."

The Warwickshire nursery makes a point of emphasising the UK origin of 90 per cent of its stock and pledges to plant one British native forestry tree for every £25 spent on plants, which it claims makes each order "very near carbon neutral".

Farmington Trees is an agent for field grower Bellwood Trees and JA Jones. Co-owner Frances Garside says of bare-rooted stock: "If people can plant within the season, that keeps costs down. But that depends on the site - they may want an instant garden as soon as building work is finished, whenever that may be."

Dutch grower Boot & Co's UK agent Iain Wilson agrees, saying: "Bare-root trees and shrubs offer a saving. Root-balling increases the cost quite a bit. And with no plastic or compost, you could say they're a more environmentally friendly option too. They're just dug up and sent to the customer."

Specialist Lincolnshire grower Golden Grove has enjoyed a buoyant year so far, says senior partner Roger Ward. "The year up to October had been very good for us. Month-on-month we were up on our figures from last year, and we did well then too." He puts the ongoing high demand down to a mixture of the weather, the continuing weakness of the pound and what he calls "the stay-at-home factor".

"When your house is rising in value, you think: 'I might sell this in a few months,'" he says. "But when it's going the other way, you think: 'I'm here for a while, I might as well spend a bit of money on the place.' I think a lot of people who supply garden centres are in a similar situation."

This is more of a boon to a nursery like Golden Grove than a slew of new builds, he adds: "New housing doesn't lend itself to extensive planting anyway. A colleague of mine lives opposite a new housing estate - he reckons you could get all the plants for the gardens in a single wheelbarrow."

RECESSION-BUSTING BULBS

- John Marsden, sales manager, Coblands Nurseries, Kent

"You don't always need big pots - you can get fantastic results with small three-litre ones. We are selling a lot of laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), which costs £2.95 a pot. If you plant them two or three to a metre, you will have a metre-high hedge within three years. We're also selling a lot of lavender as informal hedging, particularly Lavandula augustifolia 'Hidcote'. We're also doing old favourites such as Cornus and Photinia.

"People absolutely love Mahonia because it flowers very late and has colour in autumn. We sell them to the trade for £5 per three-litre pot. For £4.50 we're also selling mock orange - Choisya ternata and Choisya sundance, which has a yellow leaf. We're doing new things such as Echinacea 'Fatal Attraction', which has small flowers but a very rich pink colour. It is very structural and has a strong appearance.

"Councils are demanding plants that require little maintenance. We're doing a lot of lavender and grasses, such as Stipa tenuissima. These will last at least three years and just need clipping in spring."

- Nick Coslett, marketing and sales manager, Palmstead Nurseries

"Contractors are cutting back on the specifications laid out by the original landscaper. Instead of using expensive plants such as Magnolia they will use plants like Cotoneasta, which can be used as individual plants or in hedges, and Lonicera pileata, which is dense and spreads well. We also sell a lot of Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald and Gold', which has good foliage.

"People are going for common plants because they are readily available and can be bought cheaply. The only problem with using these cheap plants is that most new sites now look the same."

- Alan Beaumont, managing director, Green Fingers Nursery, Warwickshire

"Most of our produce will end up in private homes or in hotels so it still has to have the 'wow' factor. If designers cut back on everything, the garden won't look very attractive. So the smart designers cut back on the size of the more expensive shrubs and buy larger cheap shrubs.

"For example, they'll buy a 2m Photinia 'Red Robin', which is a cheap plant, but only get a 1m Cornus florida rubra, which is expensive. This means they get a lot of impact for relatively less money."

- Doug Reade, sales director, Wyevale Nurseries

"If you want a really good deal, buy bare-rooted plants. These cost around a third of the price of potted plants. A Forsythia that costs £2.50 in a pot will be around 80p bare-rooted. They're great for plants such as Ribes and Berberis.

"The only problem is you need slightly more care in plant handling - they can't be left in the yard for a couple of weeks and can only be planted in autumn. The other problem is that bare-rooted plants are relatively small - usually under 1m."

JUST DON'T CALL THEM CONIFERS

Shallowmead Nurseries owner Dinah Gibbons has a radical suggestion to boost the popularity of conifers. "I think the trouble is the word 'conifer' - it just makes everyone think of Leylandii, something that will grow to 30 foot (9m) and be a complete nuisance," she says. "I'd prefer a term like 'ornamental evergreens'.

"They will stand up to the weather. Conifers never lost favour with older gardeners, but young families with small gardens would be well advised to consider them. Yet they're very undersold."

Roger Ward of conifer specialist Golden Grove says: "She has a point. But we are trying to educate people that there are thousands of species and varieties available. And several retailers have gotten rid of 'conifers' sections, and have them among other plants. That puts them in front of people who might overlook conifers."

The Wollemi pine is making a return at the nursery, he adds. "They used to sell for £40 in a three-litre pot at wholesale and in garden centres for £100. Now it's £40 at retail, which makes it affordable."

And the nursery's commitment to conifers remains, he says: "We benefit from being specialists. You keep your eye on the new varieties and gain a deeper knowledge of what you grow."


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