Shrubs have a vital role to play in any garden. They're a continuous presence throughout the year, forming what some pundits express as the "backbone of the garden".
In the winter, when bulbs, roses, most bedding plants and most border perennials have disappeared, shrubs can be the mainstay of the garden. And if they are planted in the right place, they can be low-maintenance as well.
And as a row of upright, pruneable shrubs makes a hedge - so the selling points of the one go hand-in-hand with those of the other.
Whether your customer is a "gardener", "young consumer" or "impulse buyer", effective promotions of shrubs and hedging plants will make the versatility of these plants accessible to all.
In fact, if you take into account the potential for formal vs informal, deciduous vs evergreen, as well as plants with flowers, foliage or fruits as features, and then throw plants for containers into the mix as well, there are many more uses for shrubs than most consumers could imagine. So a garden centre that takes the opportunity to demonstrate this is on to a good thing.
However, it's not all good news as - according to the HTA Garden Industry Monitor - in the year to March 2008, sales of shrubs came in at £93.7m for plants up to four litres, and £37.9m for plants over four litres. (Figures do not include sales of roses - down 13 per cent year-on-year to March 2008; conifers - down 33 per cent; rhododendrons/azaleas - up nine per cent; climbers - up 29 per cent; or fruit trees and plants - up 54 per cent.) Although these are sizeable markets, these figures represent a worrying 12 per cent decline year-on-year.
So here are 10 key ways in which you can market your shrubs more effectively, and increase sales as a result.
1. Sell shrubs for containers
Combine your shrubs with a pre- selected container option - and promote the fact that all shrubs can be grown in containers. The gardener can then move plants around seasonally, putting them on full display when they are in season, and tuck them away in a less prominent position when they are not so attractive anymore.
Container-planting is ever-more useful in small gardens with lots of hard landscaping, and finds prominence in defining spaces, such as a pair of pots used to mark the top and bottom of steps, or the entrance to a doorway.
Tubs, urns, pots - in fact, any container, and more or less of any size - will benefit from being planted up with evergreen or deciduous shrubs.
But good retailers will be more sophisticated in their marketing of shrubs for containers. Makers of pots have noticed that if you place a decorative plant in a container of the same colour as the flowers, sales go up.
German pot maker Sheurich helps garden centres link sales of pots and plants (mainly for the indoor-plant market) by advising on effective displays, and splitting pots into categories, such as warm colours, pastels, foliage and specimen plants. National account manager Peter Taylor says: "It's the job of garden centres to link colours of plants to pots.
"We explain this look with pictures and information to support retailers. We are trying to get the message across that linking plants with pots is the way forward. Our biggest issue is educating garden centre staff to manage 'live giftware'. They need to think about style, colour and fashion - that's the way to dramatically grow sales."
2. Offer pre-planted containers
A good way to shift large volumes of live plant material is via ready-planted containers. Fortunately, customers are buying large planted-up pots of shrubs to provide instant colour in the garden - it is a growing market, which can command premium prices.
But don't consider just the obvious. Hedges, too, can be containerised. Earlier this year, Billy Kelly, managing director of Kelly's Nurseries of Streamstown, Co Westmeath, Ireland, set up a sister company, Ready Hedge, in order to promote a new concept in instant hedging. The idea is for hedging to be planted in 1m-long troughs, either with 20-litre or 40-litre capacity.
The smaller troughs are bendable so they can create different shapes, and the smaller hedges are ideal for planting directly into the ground. The large units are perfect for patios - as well as commercial premises looking to create divisions, or to screen areas off.
3. Think big
Large shrubs, which offer instant impact, have been a major growth area in garden retailing, and the evidence shows that people are willing to pay for them. Plant Publicity Holland (PPH) UK and Ireland representative Mark Long says: "Specimen shrubs are your opportunity to make big-ticket sales. Cash in on the trend.
"In spring, make sure that top-quality specimen magnolias and camellias are always available at your centre. Rhododendrons and azaleas are good choices too. Information is key - customers need support when making big purchases. Brief staff to offer assistance, and for really big specimens offer delivery (free locally, if possible). Make it easy."
This autumn PPH is backing sales of shrubs in its Courtyard Classics campaign, promoting such plants as lime (Tilia), hornbeam (Carpinus) and Acer. In October the firm will be launching its Effective Boundaries initiative, promoting conifers for hedges.
4. Focus on 'low maintenance'
If your customers are wanting an "easy" garden, because they have other time pressures, or their age or any disabilities prevent them from too much bending, stretching and lifting, tell them that shrubs are the answer. Go for slow-growing and/or evergreen shrubs in particular, as these generally need even less attention than the rest.
In his book The Easy-Care Gardening Expert, the world's best-selling gardening author, Dr David Hessayon, says: "Shrubs are much less trouble than annuals, vegetables, lawns, fruit and the herbaceous border. Once established there is little work to be done - no constant feeding or spraying, no regular dead-heading and staking, no annual replanting or sowing ritual, and no rushing out with the watering can or hosepipe every time the weather turns dry."
Pass this message on to your customers with effective point-of-sale graphics, and direct them to your shrub beds, highlighting "easy-care" shrubs such as: Aucuba (spotted laurel), Choisya (Mexican orange), Daphne, Escallonia, Garrya (silk tassel bush), Hebe, Hypericum (St John's wort), Ilex (holly), Mahonia, Pyracantha (firethorn), Skimmia, Viburnum, and others.
5. Highlight value for money
Both evergreen and deciduous shrubs can offer excellent value to the customer.
If you take the line that they are "low maintenance" (see point 4), then the consumer will not just save effort, they will save money as well. For a start, the gardener won't have to buy weedkillers and end-of-season replacements.
But even without this "easy-care" hook, shrubs offer much more value for money than, say, cut flowers.
Hillier managing director Andrew McIndoe says: "Most shrubs are good-value plants that will give many years of pleasure for a relatively small outlay.
"Because they may well be with us for a very long time, and are not plants that we choose every year, it is crucial that we select our shrubs wisely and grow them well."
Although shrubs are not traditional lines for multi-deals, in these tougher times you could certainly consider introducing a three-for-the-price-of-two rate.
6. Promote hedges over fencing
Similar multi-deals could work extremely well for hedging plants - you just need to alter the numbers. Hedges are a great alternative to fences; they are better at filtering wind and noise, providing habitat for wildlife, preserving plant diversity and providing a living natural feature.
PPH's Long says: "In modern housing developments there is often scope for growing hedging, so target promotion at this sector of the market [first-time buyers/new homeowners]."
One offer that could appeal in this case is a "10-for-two" promotion involving 10 hedging plants supplying a 2m section of hedge. Beech (Fagus) is a great option in this case.
7. Topiaries are topical
Potted shrubby plants trained and trimmed into three-dimensional sculptures can command premium prices. Most often these sculptures are seen as birds, animals, pieces of furniture or simple geometric shapes such as cubes, globes, spirals and cones.
Some garden centres have gone one step further: Priory Farm Plant Centre in Surrey has a steam train made out of box (Buxus sempervirens). Planteria manager Dave Spinks comments: "I have to say that it's a great bit of fun, and a real talking point."
At trade shows such as Glee and Four Oaks we have seen in recent years topiaries featuring bicycles (with riders), full-sized patio tables and chairs (not for sitting on), and even a grand piano (with piped music coming from somewhere within its branches).
Customers are enthralled by good specimens, and this inspires them to try to "sculpt" plants themselves - either as bought specimens sold at a premium, or as young plants that they can train and with which they can experiment.
Priory Farm Plant Centre manager Peta Marshall says: "Customers don't just need to go for box, but this is my personal favourite. They can also use the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), holly (Ilex aquifolium Award of Garden Merit) and privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)."
Topiary is best targeted at men, however. Marshall comments somewhat tongue-in-cheek: "I think we can establish that, in general, men like to be destructive and that's why they are the first to come forward when something needs to be pruned!"
PPH's Long says: "Topiary is enjoying a huge burgeoning of interest, and anything from the refined simplicity of neatly clipped balls to novelty shapes is going to find a buyer. Shrubs that offer year-round form and interest, and are easy to care for, are all worth targeting. Style and modernity are hot buttons with this group of plants, so make sure that displays reflect this. Uncluttered simple presentation will score in this case."
8. Maximise linked sales
Your customers will probably need guidance on what products are required to get the best from their shrub displays or hedges. Tell them that for best results, shrubs need to be fed twice a year with a balanced general-purpose fertiliser (as these plants are permanent, they quickly use up available nutrients in the soil).
This means that you can direct them towards the fertiliser area or, even better, create a small display of appropriate packs nearby.
Hedges, in particular, can suffer from drought, especially during the periods of establishment and again when mature (when roots are intertwined and fighting for any available moisture). The opportunity, therefore, is to promote irrigation equipment and water-retaining crystals in conjunction with shrub sales.
Then there are things such as books on shrubs and hedging, plant containers (for specimen shrubs), pruning equipment and compost mixtures.
Buckingham Nurseries is keen to promote the latest thinking in planting as well. A representative says: "Whether customers are planting bare-root, ball-root or pot-grown plants, we would strongly recommend using Rootgrow (mycorrhizal fungi). This enhances the root system, so a newly planted -up plant can find more food, nutrients and water.
"They will establish faster and it reduces failure rates. The product can only be applied whilst planting as it has to be in contact with the roots, but it is really effective."
9. Promoting front gardens
Hedges are, traditionally, a mainstay of front gardens, where they form the boundary between the garden and the pavement or road. But a front garden, if it is big enough, can also provide a home for other shrubs.
This year the HTA's Plant For Life campaign, aiming to raise awareness about the benefits of plants, has been promoting front gardens with its First Impressions initiative (run in association with estate-agent chain Sequence Home).
Initial research carried out with estate agents revealed that a well-maintained front garden can add as much as £5,000 to the value of a property. Furthermore, it highlighted the fact that an attractive front garden is key to creating a strong first impression contributing towards the sale of a property.
The survey involving estate agents also revealed:
- 97 per cent agree that a well-maintained front garden can help to attract potential customers to a property;
- 78 per cent said that the front garden forms part of their sales pitch;
- However, as 47 per cent of estate agents believe that most people in the UK do not make the most of their front gardens, it seems that many consumers could be missing out on an opportunity to make the most of selling their homes.
Given the current economic market with property prices on a downward spiral, this message has struck a chord with many people.
The HTA's First Impressions guide, distributed through participating estate agents, provides consumers with ideas about how to improve a front garden complete with planting suggestions.
HTA PlantforLife promotions manager Jennifer Thwaites says: "First Impressions seems to have captured the imagination. This particular campaign has illustrated how plants, in the context of a front garden, not only provide aesthetic and social benefits but also make a financial contribution." For further information visit www.plantforlife.info.
10. Assessing quantities
Any customers wanting to buy a quantity of hedging shrubs will need to find out the precise number required. It is not simply a case of planting everything 60cm apart and hoping for the best, because different species require different spacing.
Plant manager Tara Handley of Buckingham Nurseries (which sells its hedging plants as field-grown bare-roots, dispatched between November and March) says: "There is a steady requirement for hedging, and if anyone needs to find out the quantity of a given plant species required for a run of hedge, they just need to consult the plant calculator on our website: www.hedging.co.uk."
12 SHRUBS FOR WILDLIFE
Plants recommended for attracting wildlife to the garden include varieties that will provide shelter, nesting sites and food for birds (A), and others that are excellent for attracting bees (B) and butterflies (C).
Berberis stenophylla (barberry, A, B)
Buddleja davidii (butterfly bush, A, B, C)
Corylus avellana (hazel, A)
Cotoneaster simonsii Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (B)
Elaeagnus ebbingei (B)
Escallonia 'Donard Seedling' (B)
Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender, B, C)
Potentilla fruticosa (cinquefoil, B)
Rhamnus cathartica (buckthorn, C)
Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry, A, B)
Syringa vulgaris (lilac, A, B, C)
Viburnum tinus (laurustinus, A, B)
12 PLANTS FOR SECURITY HEDGING
The following is a list of hedging plants recommended for protecting property. These plants have vicious thorns and make a good, dense, barrier. Thorny shrubs are good for creating a feeling of safety - appealing to consumers who want protection from cats, squirrels and human threats. They also allow birds to nest in peace. So effective are spiky plants at discouraging intruders, that some insurance companies encourage householders to grow them as secure boundaries. Security plus beauty is a powerful selling point.
- Berberis darwinii
- Berberis frikartii 'Telstar'
- Berberis stenophylla
- Crataegus monogyna
- Crataegus laevigata
- Hippophae rhamnoides Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (Sea buckthorn)
- Ilex (various hollies)
- Prunus spinosa (Sloe or Blackthorn)
- Pyracantha (firethorns)
- Rosa pimpinellifolia (Scotch rose)
- Rosa rugosa (various forms)
- Ulex europaeus (Gorse)
Buckingham Nurseries - Tingewick Road, Buckingham MK18 4AE Tel 01280 822133 Website www.hedging.co.uk
Hillier Nurseries - Ampfield House, Ampfield, Nr. Romsey, Hampshire SO51 9PA Tel 01794 368733 Website www.hillier.co.uk
Kelly's Nursery - Deerpark, Mullingar, Streamstown, Co Westmeath, Ireland Tel 00 353 44 922 6394 Website www.kellysnursery.ie.
Plant Publicity Holland - For ideas and information to help you with effective targeted promotions and boost sales of shrubs, visit www.gardenmessenger.co.uk
Priory Farm Plant Centre - Sandy Lane, South Nutfield, Redhill, Surrey RH1 4EJ Tel 01737 823304 Website www.prioryfarm.co.uk
Rootgrow - PlantWorks Limited, 1/19 Innovation Buildings, Kent Science Park, Sittingbourne, Kent ME9 8HL Tel 01795 411527 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Scheurich - Tel 00 49 93 71 507117 Website www.scheurich.de.