Mixed weather going into 2013 has meant business at the beginning of the season has been stop-start, but growers are nevertheless looking forward with some optimism. However, with the industry having taken such a battering from the weather last year, an atmosphere of caution pervades, prompting suggestions that plant shortages could be on the way if there is a spell of good weather.
"We want weather to get better," says Allensmore chairman Brian Taylor. "People are nervous about stocking up if the weather is going to be bad. We've got good reserves in. Hopefully the weather will improve by Easter, which is an important time for us. There is a lot of caution, certainly over the bedding side of things because it has a short shelf life. We need to play it up and be positive to make sure that the customers are there."
Quality Ornamentals general manager Paul Brooking adds that the industry is not hoping for a blistering year. "It has been steady and that's fine with me," he says. "The whole industry has had enough of boom and bust. We want a steady season. It's looking that way at the moment. When the weather's up, it's going well."
He points out that the usual spring bedding plants - primroses, pansies and violas - are all selling as well as they usually do and there was the expected surge running up to Mother's Day. "At the end of last year we were not as bad financially as we might have expected, but there was an enormous amount of wastage," says Brooking.
"Our production is actually very slightly up, by about one or two per cent. There probably will be a shortage this year if it's a good year. The general view is that people have cut production, but they cannot risk the wastage. There's nothing that anyone can do about it."
Bell Brothers sales manager Carl Presgrave says the season has been slow to get going but the allocations for the season are promising. "Garden centres are worried about a shortage of stock and there could be some shortages because a lot of growers have cut back," he maintains. "We've cut back some lines to cut potential wastage."
Contributing to the general optimism despite a slow start to the season is the recognition that when the good weather has come, sales have picked up. "It has been stop-start and we're waiting for the sun to come out, but we'll be ready when it does," says Chamberlain Nurseries sales agent Ian Ashman. "When the weather has been good the phones have been ringing off the hook. We have taken more orders than we thought we would have, but people's gardens are still waterlogged."
Chamberlain is also concerned about wastage. "We're producing what we can comfortably sell," Ashman explains. "With some things we have cut volume. It varies across the range - some more, some less. We had tons of wastage last year." He maintains that the main selling point for spring bedding and other plants will be colour. "People are looking for colour," he adds. "People want impulse sales and they need colour to sell."
Blue Ribbon Plants has seen positive results from investment in a range of coloured pots from Desch Plantpak. "We've put a lot into coloured pots and we've had a lot of forward orders - a lot of interest," says Blue Ribbon sales manager Philip Sanders.
Desch Plantpak UK business development manager Ian Riggs adds: "If you put lavender in a black pot it's worth £2.99. If you put it in a blue pot it becomes something more valuable to the housewife buying it and it's now worth £3.99. The same works for a daffodil in a yellow pot or a red pot for Mother's Day. That's 30p more for the grower for a difference of pennies. It's better for everyone. We're extremely pleased. It has exceeded expectations."
Blue Ribbon Plants had a difficult year like many nursery businesses, but is taking a positive approach to 2013 and is one nursery that has decided not to cut production. "It's too early for us to tell how things will turn out but, on the positive side, our site is at capacity for growing," Sanders explains. "We have not cut back. We've sold well, but it still depends on the weather."
He echoes Brooking's wish for an average year. "What growers want is a normal year, with normal weather patterns and the usual level of sales," says Sanders. "There is a small amount of optimism. Last weekend was very good because we had good weather all over the country. We are terribly weather-related. There could be a shortage if we get a run of good weather."
He notes a general trend of orders coming in earlier. "People are stocking up two or three weeks earlier than in the past five years with bedding and perennials. That's definitely a trend with all our clients. That's quite a lot earlier." The business is also putting time into improving its website. Blue Ribbon Plants is also soon to put in a planning application to develop a 5,000sq m glasshouse, which Sanders insists shows positive thinking going forward.
QR codes developed
Baginton Nurseries is busy promoting its new brand, Heart of England Plants. "We deal with independents and it gives them a bit more marketing," production manager Jack Olds explains. "We have QR codes on all the labels now and we're developing our website. It'll be ready in a couple of weeks and by autumn we should have the full range. It helps with the retention of business. Customers will come back asking for the brand so garden centres will stock it. It's encapsulating everything that we're about. We've toyed with it for a few years and it's developed into this brand. It's doing really well."
He maintains that QR codes will be invaluable for the promotion. "The trend for people having smartphones will just keep on rising. Older and middle-aged people are starting to get them and younger customers are coming up. QR codes can tell them how to grow the product and get the best value. Also, you know these plants are grown in Britain and not cheap Dutch stuff. We really believe it's going to be successful."
Olds feels Baginton did well last year. "The margins were tighter but we had no wastage," he says. "We made less profit but we did okay. We haven't slashed our numbers back. It's down to the weather, and a knee-jerk reaction is just as bad. We just don't know what's going to happen. You've got to rely on what you're good at - customer service, having a quick turnaround from order to delivery and offering that little bit extra."
Primrose festival helps to boost nursery's orders
Burston Nurseries boosted orders with its recent primrose festival, held in February with Belgian breeder Rudy Raes.
The festival showcased the work of Rudy Raes on primrose genetics, which has created varieties of similar shape in a range of colours with very accurate blooming times.
Burston director James Alcaraz says the festival is a good way of promoting the plants and increasing orders. "Those retailers who came have ordered," he adds. "There's nothing like seeing a pretty plant to make you decide to order it."
He hopes the partnership will continue and plans to hold the event again, adding that primroses fill a gap in the season when there is nothing else out there, making them a valuable crop for the industry.
The primrose season has been mixed, he says. "We are going to have some wastage this year because it has been stop-start with weather."