With the National Plant Show just around the corner, British ornamentals growers are confident they can build an awareness of UK-grown plants, and hold onto gains made last year against imported plants - even as the euro weakens against the pound.
In February, HW reported a five per cent dip in the value of all plant imports to the UK - though the figure of £340m remains well ahead of the £197m figure 10 years ago. Already, more recent figures from the Dutch Agricultural Wholesale Board show that after a two per cent decline last year in exports to the UK, Dutch growers rebounded in the first four months of this year, exporting more than 11 per cent more to the UK than in the same period in 2009.
Yet many growers and retailers believe the "buy British" trend is still heading in the right direction. Farplants is a marketing group representing five growers in the south of England. According to sales manager Nick Richards: "It's a trend that we see continuing. The euro is weaker than it was but hasn't gone far enough yet to make a real difference to plant buyers."
On a like-for-like comparison, Richards says: "We are pretty competitive on price. Several of our big customers have told us they are committed to buying British now - they appreciate the quality and the labelling on UK-grown stock."
He adds that a key point of differentiation from imported stock is the compost and fertiliser used by British growers. "Compost in British plants is higher quality and will contain controlled-release fertilisers, whereas a lot of Dutch growers will use a liquid feed - plants are then likely to go backwards once they're on the shelves."
Midlothian grower and garden centre Pentland Plants is moving towards greater self-sufficiency across the plant range, says partner David Spray. "It's something a lot of growers are looking to do. It's partly an effect of the euro - below about EUR1.50 to the pound, you can grow most things cheaper here. At Pentland, we have gone back to growing our own shrubs as well as herbaceous plants - we are a one-stop shop for our garden centre as well as selling rooted cuttings to other customers."
This is one way to keep going in a sector where margins remain tight, he believes. "It seems that the people making the money these days are the grower-retailers. I wouldn't want to be tied to supplying supermarkets - some of those growers are having problems. We have a huge number of customers but the margins are still small - we have to keep the houses full for 52 weeks a year."
Cornwall-based Kernock Park Plants is not only benefiting from healthy UK sales but also exporting plants to the Continent. Sales manager Mark Taylor says: "We are exporting things like Phormium and Cordyline to France, as well as herbaceous plants. That's partly a legacy from when we took over Hewton Nurseries' liner range, but have expanded it to 100-120 shipments a year to Europe. It confuses the CC trolley people, who are used to plants only going the other way."
However, as our graph shows, the euro has already weakened this year from below EUR1.10 to the pound in April to around EUR1.22 to the pound now, which for Taylor is a concern. "It isn't as strong as it was, so now the important thing is to keep a hold of those customers that we gained when it was strongest," he says.
"In the past, garden centres that would have looked to the continent are now buying British, and we have to hold onto that. Fortunately, there is something in the psyche of plant buyers that wasn't there maybe five years ago - the idea that it's better to buy British because of product miles. I have spoken to customers recently who have said they will even pay a slight premium for UK-grown plants. There's an awareness that we need to maintain a healthy UK industry and now having a UK-only plant show can only help that."
This appears to be borne out by Dobbies Garden Centres head of horticulture Neil Fishlock, who says: "Our sourcing policy is to find products for our customers that offer the best quality and value for money. Local sourcing is extremely important to Dobbies and is guided by our environmental policy, which aims to continually raise the practice of energy conservation, sustainable sourcing and recycling across the business."
Bransford Webbs managing director and chair of the HTA's ornamentals committee Geoff Caesar says a weakening euro will put this to the test. "Some garden centres do seem to be trying to source British-grown stock, but how much of the trend away from imports is simply down to prices remains to be seen," he adds.
"The weak pound has certainly made prices of Dutch stock too expensive for many. Most of it used to get into the trade through sales off the vans and there are far fewer of those going around than there were - they weren't getting the sales to sustain it. For them to come back, the euro needs to move far enough to make it worthwhile again for them. That will be when the current trend is really tested - when they're back in the car park."
But growers can do themselves no harm by emphasising the British provenance of their plants, he believes. "We have been putting a Union Jack on our plants and bed strips for a couple of years now - except for one or two things that don't grow well here, such as Pieris. Our sales have been strong but I don't know whether that's a reflection on that. We've certainly encountered no resistance from garden centres."
While a relatively small number of British-branded plants within a garden centre's overall range could embarrass a retailer reliant on imported plants, he says: "The reality now is that most garden centres aren't stocked from abroad."
However, Kings Seeds commercial development manager and British Protected Ornamentals Association marketing committee chairman Ian Riggs is less optimistic. "The euro is already weakening against the pound. If it goes back to EUR1.60 to the pound, as it was five years ago, that will suck in imports," he warns.
But according to Delamore managing director Wayne Eady: "Plant imports have certainly declined and I think this will continue for a while. It isn't only driven by exchange rates but also the types of purchases consumers are making. We have seen clear trends towards the 'economic' varieties in our ranges and this is reducing importers' ability to move stock around because transport is expensive."
HANDING ON THE BANNER
The Home Grown campaign, which aimed to draw customers' attention to the British provenance of plants, will require more funding to continue under the auspices of the British Protected Ornamentals Association, says W Godfrey & Sons owner Bill Godfrey. "It's now retrenching - we reached the end of the road with the funding we had."
However, he continues to see the campaign not as anti-import but simply as a means of better informing the customer. "Some of the best nurserymen are Dutch," he says. "We weren't seeking to criticise, only to make people aware that there was a choice."
This is an area where the gardening industry lags behind other sectors, he points out. "Food in the shops gives you its provenance, even production methods. Beers are promoted either as local brews or from Poland or wherever. Those retailers are more sophisticated.
"But the British plant industry has failed to tell its clients it exists. When we started the campaign, we found that customers had no idea where plants came from, but they said they would love to know. They are definitely up for it. But some growers, though in favour, said their customers wouldn't want to highlight how much of their stock wasn't British-grown."
He adds that "scope is there" for home-grown sales in amenity also. "We supply local authorities and they would buy from us anyway. But when I asked the head of open spaces at our local council where his plants came from, he had no idea."