Why UK shrub production needs to rise to meet demand

With Xylella on the horizon and planting trends moving towards hardier stock, how can UK growers meet the needs of garden retailers?

Image: Johnsons of Whixley
Image: Johnsons of Whixley

New Klondyke purchasing head Andy Smith says the biggest challenge going forward is getting enough UK supply of plants. Before joining Klondyke, Smith was national accounts manager at Allensmore Nurseries and was garden plant buyer at Waitrose in 2013 after joining from Dobbies. "UK production needs to step up," he insists.

Smith says UK growers are not producing enough common plants such as Hypericum 'Hidcote', buddleia, lavatera and cotoneaster. "It's amazing really that production has dropped so much," he adds. "Retail has increased slightly or stood still but production has dropped away. Everyone is growing herbaceous perennials everywhere at the moment. We're looking to work with UK growers to build key lines back up.

"The shrub market is on its way back. People are looking more at what they know — British shrubs that they know will survive and are tested and proven. People want something that will last and survive, and they are looking at their neighbours' gardens, seeing a ceanothus and want one."

The threat of Xylella is the big impetus for more UK production, alongside Brexit, which has often been promoted as giving UK growers an opportunity to expand and to make the UK market more self-sufficient from the current 50/50 home grown/import ornamentals ratio.

Dobbies says British growers such as Wyevale Nurseries, Hillier and others do a good job. The only criticism is that ranges are lessening as people tend to stick to the same plants.

Hillier managing director Chris Francis says the Hampshire grower has not found any shortage and been able to stock "all we've wanted" in our centres or customers this year, but will grow a wider range for next season.
He added: "Our nurseries have not had any problem supplying the products our customers have asked us for from our usual shrub range which includes many of the traditional favourites.
 We have always asked our customers to let us know of their specific requirements and are growing a wider range to satisfy specific requests for 2018/19 and beyond. As many costs increase nurseries are no longer able to grow volumes of free stock speculatively if they are to have a viable long term future.
He adds that while biosecurity is an increasing issue, Hillier will not be growing more without having a definite order: "I strongly believe that plant security is going to become an increasing issue, however we are not growing more stock speculatively. 
"A number of our customers are seeing that building a stronger partnership with British nurseries where both sides show each other commitment is becoming more important to ensure they are able to secure a consistent supply of quality, risk-free plant product. 
"We have good long-standing relationships with many of our customers and are working with many of them to ensure they can maintain the best availability of quality British-grown product for their customers."

Banning imports

Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson says banning imports of Xylella host plants such as lavender should happen to stop the disease getting into the UK. He has stopped all Italian imports to safeguard against the disease, for instance. "I look at that as a massive opportunity for our industry."

He says any ban gives growers clear evidence there will be shortfalls and that means they can confidently increase production. Richardson adds that Xylella is "the biggest opportunity for UK horticulture, but in the end you have to do what's right. We don't want to bring the disease into the UK."

Meanwhile, Majestic Trees' Steve McCurdy growers would increase production if they knew "for sure" that restrictionss will stay in place for enough time for UK nurseries to produce a crop. For forestry that might be two years and for tree nurseries it is four or five or more. But for lavender it could be one year. Either way, McCurdy says nurseries should be involved in discussions with, he suggests, two years notice before any restrictions end.

Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie is more cautious on upping production. He says garden centres are keener to buy British at the moment but as no two years are alike weather-wise, retailers will be cautious in committing to stock and growers may be reluctant to pot many more three-litre plants without having committed orders.

He points out that a balance is required to end up with a season that is not "frustrating" for garden centres because of undersupply but for growers not to have wastage. As ever, a partnership approach works best.

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