What's in store for horticulture in 2013?

After an exceptionally tough year in 2012 thanks to a rain-soaked season, all sectors are hoping for an upturn in fortunes over the next 12 months. But what are the prospects for improvement given the economic challenges? Jez Abbott, Matthew Appleby, Sally Drury, Gavin McEwan and Jonathan Tilley put the question.

Garden centres: trade wondering how much of sales decline is down to weather, the economy or fashion - image: Squires
Garden centres: trade wondering how much of sales decline is down to weather, the economy or fashion - image: Squires

Garden retail - Strategies to reflect greater role of economy in market

The garden retail industry was down by up to 10 per cent in 2012, but was that decline solely because of the record rainfall in spring or because the economy has hit discretionary spending?

Answering that question will form a part of retailers' strategy for 2013. Martin Breddy, general manager of leading supplier Scotts, said at the annual All-Party Parliamentary Gardening & Horticulture Group reception last November: "I stood here last year and offered optimistic thoughts about the resilience of gardening. But I have had a few doubts since then. We are facing really tough times and the harsh economy is here to stay."

Garden Industry Manufacturers Association director Neil Gow agrees that the economy is playing a bigger role: "If you asked me 12-18 months ago I'd say gardening trade is 95 per cent weather and five per cent economy. Now I'd say it's 85 per cent weather and 15 per cent economy." Gow added that he is concerned about fuel tax but still believes gardening remains a value-for-money hobby. "At this stage there is no reason for anything other than a positive attitude to next spring," he said.

While Breddy called for "weatherproofing" of garden centres, with more non-gardening ranges, concessions and visitor attractions, Gow said garden centres must be cautious with diversification because they could lose sight of their core business and be in danger of becoming "just another retailer".

He added that garden centres are ordering later because they are sitting on residual stock that they did not sell in 2012.

Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker said: "As always, predictions for 2013 will rely almost, not quite, totally on the weather. We need to get customers interested early, otherwise the leisure pound will be spent indoors at Ikea and B&Q. In bad weather they go for DIY indoors rather than gardening."

Squire's Garden Centres managing director Dennis Espley said: "The whole trade is wondering how much of the sales decline in 2012 is weather, economy or fashion. I would say a three-to-five per cent decline in an average year is down to the economy, from less disposable income, fuel costs, changes in tax and child benefit and reductions in investment income.

"Of course good weather could more than reverse all that, but it would be foolish to rely on fine weather. We will be very careful on buying and controlling costs. Along with this, (we will) address weak departments and find more interesting and competitive products. It's unlikely that the economy will grow significantly before 2015."

Ornamentals - Conservative budgets feature as growers act cautiously

Following a very difficult year, ornamentals growers are entering 2013 with a note of caution.

British Protected Ornamentals Association chairman Ian Riggs said key factors for bedding growers will be the weather, the economic situation and the level of profitability for growers.

"On levels of planting programmes, some are still way up in the air," he said. "Much depends on larger retailers' attitudes to their responsibility to the programmes and reserves that they place. Are they going to be the same as 2012 or are they going to work with the grower?"

WD Smith & Son director Mike Smith agreed that the weather will be a major factor, with everyone in the industry being more cautious. "I suspect that there might be shortages if the weather is good," he said. "It's all down to the weather, so it's heads down and play it safe, but there is no great change in strategy."

He added that the absence of impatiens will also be an issue next year.

"There is nothing obvious to fill the space left by impatiens and we are trying different lines - some high-value lines - to fill that space," he said. "We haven't reduced anything but there is more space on the floor because of the reduction of impatiens."

Cuts to bedding by local authorities could also hit growers. Richard Smith of RC Smith Plants gave the example of Coventry, which had big diamond jubilee and Olympic displays in 2012 that it will not have in 2013. "They will cut a bit on some beds but we're helping by supplying for specific beds, with everything labelled so that nothing deteriorates while waiting to be planted," he said.

Nursery stock growers are also desperate for an improvement in the weather. Bransford Webbs managing director Geoff Caesar said the effects of last year will be felt in the first three months of 2013 particularly. "Once they get to the end of March, growers can decide whether it's going to be another difficult year," he said. "The caution we've seen with retailers placing reserves is likely to continue when they take in stock. They will want stock that they can sell through rather than just filling up space so I'd be surprised if we have quite a strong start.

"I'm budgeting the same for this year as last. We were budgeting eight per cent more. We're used to having a section of a batch reserved so if we're not getting that we have to change production. Some lines we have increased and some decreased so the overall budget is the same. We could get some growth but not much."

Johnsons of Whixley joint managing director Andrew Richardson agreed that the weather will be the biggest factor and said the market for amenity sales is changing. "There is work available but you have to work very hard to get it," he added.

"Our sales budgets are the same as last year and we have taken on two extra sales people. With fewer big jobs, we have to get the turnover doing smaller jobs than we traditionally would have. It's a changing market and we've had to adapt our business."

James Cole and Sons managing director James Coles said: "We would like the construction market to get bigger and the weather to be on our side. Local authority work will stay where it is or decrease further. There is a market out there, but there are a lot of people competing for work."

Professional gardening - Venues set out to maximise offer to visitors

The continued need to reduce spending is hanging over heritage and botanic gardens going into 2013. The weather of last summer, coupled with the ongoing recession, have put gardens in a difficult position.

"This hasn't been an easy year," said Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett. "Some gardens may have cut costs and reduced staff, and that will bite. We have just battened down the hatches and carried on."

Garrett added: "We want to keep morale up and take a positive approach. It would be wrong of us not to be aware that we're in a recession and be careful."

Garrett added that gardens will have to be aware of the marketplace. "It's about maximising what a place offers without stretching too far. It would be wrong to let quality down because that's your brand.

"We haven't taken drastic action but we have regular meetings and monitor it. If going into the new year we face problems of reduced income, then we will act in a considered way."

Hever Castle head gardener Neil Miller said good weather is essential. "With another bad summer it could get dicey," he added. "We do not want a repeat of 2012."

While luckier than some as a privately owned garden, he said Hever is not immune from economic pressures. "No job is for life. It may not be redundancies but recruitment could freeze. I don't envisage that here but these things do happen."

Consultant Alan Sargent meanwhile predicted that major employers could shed jobs and turn to outsourcing in 2013.

"There will be a lot of reduced staff and subcontracted labour. It's going to mean a shake-up of the industry and the loss of a lot of talented people replaced by a man with a strimmer.

"It does worry me because it's not saving money at all. You can't shed the labour by half. I know of owners who got rid of head gardeners and then had problems because there's no one to manage the labour. People are going to have to change tack. You can't reduce quality of care without having a negative effect for the future."

Edibles - Sector cautiously optimistic despite 2012's tough growing conditions

The start of the new year has found fresh-produce industry representatives in reasonably buoyant mood.

"In vegetables and salads, people are going into 2013 with a degree of optimism," said British Growers Association chief executive James Hallett. "The increase in the Annual Investment Allowance from the start of this year will enable growers to consider investing in plant and machinery."

This despite 2012's difficult growing conditions, he added. "Lessons have been learned from dealing with last year's weather, which is still causing complications as the soil is still very wet, making harvesting winter crops difficult. Spring planting could also be tricky, although the February-to-April period has been dry and warm for the past couple of years."

According to National Fruit Show chairman Sarah Calcutt: "Top fruit has an exciting year ahead of it with several new developments around the corner. A number of new varieties are coming through, which in some cases will be exclusive to one or other retailer, which will name the variety."

New orchards are still being planted, she added. "AC Goatham has taken on new land and there are a lot of trees on order. With stone fruit too there is a lot coming forward, with new cherry and even apricot orchards coming into production. We also have new funding from Sainsbury's to look into how top-fruit quality can be maintained during storage."

Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) chairman Graham Ward cites the latter as an example of how horticultural research will increasingly have to be funded. "This is very welcome, but there will be a greater need for the private sector to fill the gap left by Government funding," he pointed out.

"And the results are not necessarily made public - it's a change in the way research is made available to industry." For publicly funded research the outlook remains "dismal", he admitted.

Foremost among STC's own work in the year ahead will be research into growing under LED lighting and the adopting of precision farming techniques in open-field horticulture, added Ward.

"LEDs will give a new dimension to protected cropping, while satellite and computer technology can give you more accurate fertiliser and pesticide application," he said. "All we can do in the face of climate change is try to manage crops better."

On the NFU's ambitions for 2013, chief horticulture adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons said: "We want to sign up the major grocery retailers to our Fruit & Veg Pledge, get Government agreement for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme from 2013 and a positive response from Government to the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force, which ensures that any policy makes economic as well as environmental sense. Another aspiration would be an actual summer."

Arboriculture - Pests and diseases pose key threats

Chalara fraxinea was the big issue to hit arboriculture last year and the impact of ash dieback disease will continue to be felt well into 2013, according to Arboricultural Association technical officer Simon Richmond.

Hundreds of findings of the disease came to light in 2012 after the importation of infected trees from Europe led to ash dieback spread and a nationwide panic.

Richmond said tree surgeons have yet to receive detailed guidance because the scientific evidence is not available yet. He added that more tree surgery work has yet to appear but longer term there could be felling work.

Asian longhorn beetle, oak processionary moth and Phytopthora ramorum also remain issues, caused by greater international plant trade and climate change.

Ash dieback overshadowed another big issue in arb, that of tree risk management. A death at Kew and injuries at television presenter Anna Ryder Richardson's zoo in Wales caused by falling branches hit the headlines.

Richmond said the National Tree Safety Group's guidance issued in early 2012 will be important when judges make rulings on cases such as these. The Kew inquest will be heard later this year after health and safety reports are completed.

Meanwhile, massaria on London plane could be the next serious tree health threat to hit the UK, said Richmond.

A survey by Arboricultural Association vice-chairman Jago Keen in the City of London's Square Mile found 40 per cent of London plane had massaria symptoms. He advised a range of surveying methods as well as Government intervention for 2013.

Grounds care - Bigger contracts and wider range of services expected

Grounds upkeep contracts will get bigger and firms will take on more services such as full-scale consultancy work as 2013 unfolds, industry players predict.

Landscape Group director Sarah Hughes-Clarke said cross-boundary contracts could increase but need time pre-tender to ensure all parties are happy with terms and specification, so many councils may avoid this route.

"Other authorities that outsource will fragment their contracts into very small packages to allow small firms and social enterprises to tender. This meets the localism agenda but it could end up costing more," she added.

"We expect procurement to become more complex and resource-intensive as clients try out a range of different means of procuring their parks services. This means contractors will be selective about what they bid for."

Glendale managing director Andy Corcoran said: "Contracts may become longer to offer savings in procurement, administration and monitoring costs. For this reason, we will also see more contracts that cross local authority boundaries."

He added: "Last year saw large acquisition in the sector and further activity in 2013 should not be discounted. Glendale, for example, will continue to look for suitable opportunities to grow in the green services sector.

"But one of the biggest challenges that will continue to affect the sector is the effect of the continuing austerity measures, so grounds management teams will have to stress the importance and health benefits of this country's parks and open spaces."

Parks consultant Sid Sullivan agreed: "I think we will see some of the longest contracts we have ever seen in the UK awarded next year. I also think contractors will add full consultancy to their grounds and arb services."

National group training manager at Ground Control Neil Huck said that there will be more joint contracts between county and district authorities but some will also throw in streets and other services.

EU directives will weigh heavily, he added. These include requirements for towing trailers that came into force two years ago but will now be enforced rigorously in 2013.

Amenity Forum chair John Moverley also looked to the welter of directives. But the Sustainable Use and Water Framework Directives have huge grey areas, throwing up confusion on best practice, storing, specifying and using pesticides, he added.

"My wish for 2013 is to see a commitment by the whole sector to an assured standard similar to the Red Tractor in agriculture. We need those awarding contracts to seek out high standards."

Landscape - Shift to maintenance to grow as project grants alert sector

While commercial landscape projects driven by the private sector will continue to tick over in 2013, public sector schemes will flatline, say industry players - and outside the south east, domestic schemes are not expected to fare much better.

All of which means that this year we are likely to see even more landscape contractors seeking to push further into the maintenance sector until capital projects start to experience some growth in 2014.

Frosts Landscape Construction managing director Aidan Lane reckons commercial landscapes will trump public and domestic work in terms of buoyancy. Projects such as the ongoing work at King's Cross will throw up landscape and inquiry work.

While design and build for private estates in the Home Counties could still prove lucrative in 2013, Government initiatives to pump billions into housebuilding and infrastructure won't filter through to the sector until 2014 at the earliest.

"Landscapers could see more activity on green roofs and walls, as well as sustainable drainage on new-build projects," added Lane. "But the real impetus will happen only when such measures are made compulsory for retrofitting."

He forecast that landscape companies will move away from capital work for design and construction to maintenance, especially with larger firms being drawn by the lure of steadier cash flow against the peaks and troughs of payment for capital projects.

Award-winning garden designer Janine Pattison said the private residential sector will see an even bigger push for sustainable planting, with peat-free, low-maintenance plants specified. This could be controversial if it hits performance in terms of flower impact and length of season.

"Clients for smaller projects will keep a tighter reign on upkeep costs, possibly using fewer water features and annuals, but bulbs will remain popular. Wild flower meadow planting is likely to remain trendy due to the influence of the Olympics.

"One of the biggest problems the sector will face is plant availability. Nurseries have had a hard time, reduced their stocks and are probably not growing on as much new material. We had to import Griselinia littoralis, but if the sector imports more material, prices might rise and it could have pest-and-disease implications."

BALI technical director Neil Huck said a reduction in the retail construction sector is likely to roll into 2013 but dire housing shortages will drive a modest increase in building, while contracts for domestic landscape are likely to remain sluggish.

"My big concern is the effects of ash dieback have yet to be felt," he added. "Young trees along stretches of road such as the M1 and M2 are showing signs of infection but the Highways Agency has no money. Who will pay for the removal of seedlings and trees?"

Landscape consultant Peter Neal agreed with Pattison on the impact of the Olympic Park, with 2013 set to be a "roller coaster" year.

"In summer, the Olympic Park will throw open its gates to the public, who will not be disappointed. The legacy will prove to be awe-inspiring," said Neal.

On construction, he said he hoped to see housing leaders such as the Home Builders Federation get their heads around the housing crisis and announce the strategic planning of a new generation of compact, resource-efficient garden cities and suburbs.

Also on Neal's wish list to tackle climate change would be a commitment from the treasury to use an initial £1bn from a national infrastructure fund to kick-start a radical urban greening programme for towns and cities.

Turf - Flexibility essential to cope with extreme weather

This will be a challenging year for turf professionals.

Weather conditions, legislation, sustainability, overuse, skilled-labour shortages, lack of time and ever-tightening budgets are all concerns.

Turf managers need to be more flexible in coping with sudden weather events. Be it high temperatures and drought followed by downpours and floods or poor sunlight levels and Arctic conditions, turf professionals must be more reactive.

Unpredictable weather will be accompanied by more pest and disease problems as well as irregular growth patterns of both turf and weeds.

Spraying will no longer be a straightforward option - in some parts of Europe pesticides are banned in amenity and sports turf. Expected losses this year include chlorpyrifos and fungicide treatments for casting worms.

Britrisk Safety technical director Jon Allbutt warns: "With the current situation over pesticide regulations, an integrated approach to turf management is something turf professionals are going to have to pay serious attention to so that by the end of 2013 there is a clear policy and practical arrangements."

Some turf managers have been following relevant practices for a long time and will only need to formalise their thoughts and actions. For others, it will be more of a challenge - but it must be taken seriously now.

A more technical approach will also be required in broader sustainability issues, such as waste management and composting. The use of compost as top dressing can boost organic matter content and sward health while saving money, but only if it is done correctly.

Statistics suggest we are not making progress on managing safety. For 2013, safety issues will be further compounded by a shortage of skilled workers, greater pressure to get the job done and with stress, tiredness and haste increasing the risk of accidents. Time and money must be spent on induction training for new employees.

Machinery purchases will, perhaps, continue to be delayed due to budget pressures. However, canny managers will look to innovations to help boost performance and productivity.

Parks - Funding cuts will deepen for many but hope for new initiatives remains

Last year drew to a close as further plans for deep cuts to parks services were beginning to emerge at some local authorities, prompting grim warnings that services in some areas of the UK are teetering on the brink of being abandoned in 2014.

In response, parks consultant Sid Sullivan warned: "This latest round will mean there won't be enough left to take any more out. This is the last year of cuts before services are disbanded."

Sullivan said he expected parks departments to get smarter, trying initiatives such as trademarking and registering parks to sell the rights to support upkeep. "They will ensure they get a market rate and sell licences for one-off use," he said.

He added: "2013 is a crux year for volunteers. The idea will die a death without more sophisticated ways of attracting people, proper training, clothing and recruitment. Parks in the USA and Europe are run by teams, 40 per cent of which are volunteers."

Sullivan said social media will start to "wield enormous power", with pressure groups using it to "bully" parks and contractor teams into changing upkeep regimes by launching campaigns to make parks tidier.

"Parks and maintenance teams are not as deft as they think they are and will have to be a lot clearer on levels of service such as workloads, condition of facilities and standards of pitches. They will have to be more active on tracking and performance."

Landscape consultant Peter Neal said lottery funding will continue to throw a "much-needed lifeline" to parks and smaller community spaces, but hoped big impetus will come from HW's Make Parks a Priority campaign launched to highlight the crisis facing parks.

"Following the success of the early day motion triggered by the campaign, I hope Parliament will at last convene a select committee inquiry into sustainable funding and management."

London Borough of Richmond head of parks and open spaces David Allister agreed parks departments, which have been almost in a state of "shock" for the past few years, will emerge to meet challenges with more imaginative ideas for contracting.

"Green Flag needs re-energising after a year of licensing turmoil. It's been a tremendous success but needs something new to stop it fading, so I think those running it will do a lot of thinking on new ways forward this year."

He added: "I can see a borough Green Flag being introduced. Currently, you have to apply for each park and receive x number of inspections, which is a wasted resource. For Britain in Bloom you apply as a borough and get one inspection, so there are savings."

Landscape Group director Sarah Hughes-Clarke said: "Parks budgets are going only one way and some councils that deliver in house have considered outsourcing. We've attended market-testing workshops but few have taken the plunge to date."


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