Amenity bedding contracts are becoming more cut-throat as councils continue to slash budgets. But new opportunities such as upcoming World War One displays and sporting events remain, while a few local authorities are still keeping up efforts from decades ago.
Grassed over areas and wild flower meadows have become more fashionable, but peat-free seems to be making only small advances despite the Government cut-off point for its bodies using peat coming in 2015.
With spring bedding going in around now, there are still contracts to be had, although the flavour of bedding displays is changing fast.
One authority expanding further into the amenity bedding market is RHS Wigan Cup award-winning Birmingham City Council. It intends to replace old glasshouses at its Cofton nursery by the end of the year, with plans to supply as many local authorities in the Midlands as possible (HW, 18 April).
Beating the cuts
RHS president Sir Nichols Bacon congratulated Birmingham on maintaining horticulture despite the cuts. But the council is going further than that and investing in glass for bedding, including growing for external sales.
Nursery manager Chris Jones says the rebuild will give an extra one-third growing area. The council already supplies Wyre Forest District Council and Walsall Council with bedding. Its suppliers include Syngenta, Ball Colegrave, Young Plants, Pentland, Petersfield and Botany Bay.
"We're looking to expand in 2015 and aggressively go for external contracts to fill the extra area," says Jones. "People say we're subsidised by the council, but we're not. We have to go for market rates with a very small profit margin. We run as a business." The aim is to fill the glasshouse with three-quarters for council use and the rest for residents and external contracts, he explains.
Darlington Borough Council's Woodburn Nursery keeps a steady client base of some 24 contracts, including Bromley in Kent, Telford in Shropshire and East Riding as well as many smaller ones such as Newton Aycliffe and Spennymoor.
Bristol City Council's Blaise Nursery grows two million bedding plants a year for Bristol and other councils. Bristol is a Britain in Bloom winner while Bournemouth Parks & Gardens, which grows bedding at its Kings Park Nursery, won gold in the Britain in Bloom coastal category and a special tourism award last year.
Nursery manager Chris Evans says he used Melcourt Sylvamix Hanging Basket peat-free growing media. Evans promotes the seaside town at flower shows and with unusual displays - including a commemoration of World War One poet Rupert Brooke and an edible plant bed in Lower Gardens for 2014.
The success of these three councils contrasts with Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which shut its Greenhouse 2000 nursery in Festival Park in October 2012 after the nursery lost £512,421 from April 2007 to March 2012.
Stoke tendered for £40,500 of bedding earlier this year. According to a council report: "The decision is necessary to ensure that the city council is able to maintain the current high standards of seasonal bedding displays in respect of the contract for the supply of summer and winter bedding plants through this tender opportunity."
Peter Holman, owner of amenity horticulture specialist Peter Holman Associates, says the 2013 bedding season saw planting down by about 20 per cent in floral displays in London, the south and the South East - a trend that he expects to continue.