Analysis: Recession bucked by outdoor plant sales

Although the euro has hit imports the resulting price rises may help the sector further, says Matthew Appleby.

Outdoor plant sales in garden centres are almost 11 per cent up this year, according to Garden Centre Association figures. A good spring after a cold snap this winter has helped growers and garden centres after several years of struggle. While no-one can predict the weather for 2010, several trends are emerging.

Essex-based Abercorn Garden Centre owner David Norman says it is typical of plant-based centres, in that horticultural sales were well up in 2009 while landscaping and furniture was down.

He notes: "We will base most of our predictions for 2010 around plant sales. We're confident we'll do as well in 2010 as long as the weather holds. People want to spend and money is still around and will still be around next year for plants. The balance has changed from high-value stock to pure gardening."

HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted insists that there is no reason why 2010 should not continue on from 2009 as a good year for plant sales: "With the general election and continuing economic uncertainty, people are going to want to stay at home and enjoy friends and family rather than travelling further afield. The only big question mark is the weather."

Maxted adds that the HTA's greater focus on plant of the month and its new National Plant Show in June should create a buzz around plant sales in 2010. A reinvigorated Chelsea Flower Show with new sponsor M&G Asset Management should also help to raise gardening's profile.

New Forest Garden Plants (NFGP) are well placed to reflect growing trends for 2010. The Hampshire grower has diversified from its origins in herbs and alpines into specimen imports and now perennials.

Owner Matthew Dixon says the import market has been hit by the strong euro this year but that may lead to price rises across all plants. Also on the bright side, herbs have prospered because of the grow-your-own boom. Perennials, particularly as promotional lines, are making NFGP into a year-round nursery, with an expanding cash and carry arm for landscapers. Meanwhile, the company's other speciality, alpines, have been subject to a price war this year.

At Abercorn, Norman says herbs continue to prosper on the back of grow your own while alpines now sell better in larger pots than the traditional 9cm pot as gardeners look for "a more significant plant". He adds that 7.5 litre to 15 litre native stock from Hillier and Johnsons of Whixley now does better than imported specimens.

Dixon says growers are faced with a high value euro for the next few years: "I thought turnover would plunge dramatically but it has surprisingly remained fairly static. We still import a million euros' worth of plants a year but everything has shifted down from larger to smaller stock at lower retail values. The specimen market will return at a higher price and that will benefit UK growers because it will push retail prices up for all plant products." He is confident enough to be developing a new area for larger specimen stock.

Dixon's £3.5m annual turnover business borrowed £1m to build on the 12ha former Solent Trees site near Beaulieu in Hampshire in 2005. Production is now three million plants a year. The range includes 35-40 per cent imports, 25 per cent herbs, 20 per cent alpines and 20 per cent perennials plus some vegetables, soft fruit and bulbs. The nursery has developed too since foundation by the Dixon family in 1985. It started as a herb specialist as New Forest Herbs, then added alpines, then started importing citrus, olives and bays before getting into herbaceous two years ago.

The nursery was on four sites so they built a single nursery for efficiency. Dixon recalls: "It was a big risk but we took the plunge. It's been hard for everyone in the industry. That's why it's important to be able to sell all year." The move into year-round sale is paying off, with £140,000 of plants in despatch in the second fortnight in November.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board's latest corporate plan, covering 2010 to 2013, points out that growers supplying garden centres have had a "good season" helped by the weather and "more active sales teams on the road".

An example of this is NFGP new sales person Jayne Homer, who has moved from Knowle Hill Nurseries which went into administration in September.

Homer says: "For garden centres, it's not just about the plant any more. You need point of sale and care labels. Every time we revamp an area of the range it's like the Forth Bridge - we have to start on another."

Meanwhile, NFGP sales manager Phil Walker has put together what he says is the largest range of herbaceous plants in the UK for 2010, with 800 lines available in oneand three-litre pots from February onwards. NFGP has also added a new shade tunnel to its 12ha site to keep hosta, ferns, pulmonaria, epimedium and other shade loving plants.

Walker says: "A lot of garden centres can look identical because they get the same products from suppliers. We're trying to be a little bit more individual." For 2010 he says heuchera, astrantia and new varieties of hosta will be a big part of growth in NFGP perennial plants sales.

In alpines, Homer says there is a price war going on and "let them get on with it". NFGP has kept prices the same at 69p or 60p for a trolley full while others have reduced them to 50p. Whiterigg Alpines came out of administration recently to find nearby Lovania had stepped into the market, which is showing little growth.

Dixon says: "We're thinking of calling alpines something else. There's a perception they're a rockery plant but they do a lot more than that." The idea is to label them as for shade, ground cover, tubs and containers, with the word alpines in smaller type.

It seems that constant tweaks such as this are what will drive the market, outside the uncontrollables such as weather, recession and exchange rates in the future.

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