Young vegetable plants have been the success story of the past two years in garden centres. But will the trend continue and is it worth more growers switching a part of their production from ornamentals to baby vegetables?
Popular lines such as young tomato plants are selling out at garden centres nationwide. In the last week of April, B&Q sold more tomato plants that any other week with "tens of thousands flying off the shelves". Sales of vegetable plants are 60 per cent higher than in 2009, the retailer says.
Horticultural trading manager Steve Guy adds: "After such a harsh winter the recent sunshine has seen customers spring into action in the garden. Last year saw people give growing their own a go and this spring we're seeing that last year's novices are now this year's enthusiasts. Last year, people may have grown a couple of tomato plants, whereas this year they're planning a larger crop to give food throughout the summer."
Last week, at B&Q's flagship store in New Malden, all vegetable plants had sold out by the end of Sunday. A staff member said: "They're all gone. We hope to get more in but I don't know when."
Wirral-based Burleydam Garden Centre retail operations manager Tanya Simpson says: "We've quadrupled the size of our seed department and have increased sales of Kinder young veg plants by 20-30 per cent. It's not so much the very small 99p plugs, more the larger, stronger plants. There's still strong interest in grow your own."
Gardeners are experimenting with more unusual edible plants, such as Suttons' grafted Turbo tomatoes, which promise higher yields. Conchita, Elegance, Dasher and Bellricco have boomed in sales at £3.99 each at retailers such as Garden & Leisure. Grafted peppers, chillis and aubergines are backing up the trend.
Bedding growers have turned to young vegetable plants to meet demand. Golden Acres Nurseries in Dorset, which runs four garden centres and a bedding nursery, has switched some production to young vegetable plants in the past couple of years.
Operations manager Simon Edwards says the young vegetables he grows sell well but predicts that the boom will end eventually. "As a nursery we're struggling to keep up with demand - and we're not the only people. It keeps on flowing out. The difficulty is because vegetable plants grow so quickly there is a risk you over-produce. You have to keep moving plants out of the nursery. Like anything else, this is a fashion, and one that will eventually stop. When the music stops you don't want to be left holding stocks.
"In our four garden centres we're struggling to keep stocks on the shelf. Some people are having difficulties getting fruit trees and soft and cane fruit plants but it is really veg and tomatoes that are the areas that are most difficult. We may not have the full range and will be out of some varieties."
Another Dorset-based garden centre group Haskins managing director Julian Winfield adds: "There is massive pent-up demand. Last year we'd been rocking and rolling for six or seven weeks by now but this year we only got going in April."
West Sussex-based grower Barnsfold Nurseries partner John Turner is turning to unusual tomato varieties to add value to what he grows to eat. "We thought last year's record April was good but this year is better," he reports.
"We're doing bespoke label novelty varieties such as Summer Cider and Bloody Butcher. In other years traditional gardeners have just gone for popular varieties like Moneymaker. We're increasing the range all the time, but nothing silly - the perception is still that veg is a cheaper product. We grow 50,000 plants now for independent garden centres and some local authorities. We are growing 10 per cent more a year and with peppers and other novelty veg 20 per cent more a year. They are selling faster than ever this year because every weekend has been on the button weather-wise."
Meanwhile, Essex-based grower Kinglea Plants is believed to have struggled on the bedding side while prospering with edibles. The firm has a seven-figure debt after going into administration with BDO late last month (HW, 7 May).
A Kinglea staff member says: "We don't know what's going on ourselves. We've got another month. Hopefully we will get back on our feet. We do bedding, indoor flowers and veg plants but we could end up just doing the veg now because that is what is successful."
BDO representative Charlotte Freeman adds: "We're trying to sell as much of the business as we can." Orders are being fulfilled but there could be new space in the market for another grower to step into.
The HTA believes grow your own is driving the market for 2010. HTA surveys show 45 per cent of garden owners will spend on growing their own vegetables in 2010. Three in ten expect to spend more time in their gardens too.
Allotment waiting lists have increased by another 20 per cent to 91,000 in the past year. It all adds up to a sustained boom in edibles and associated products. HTA president Caroline Owen says growers and retailers cannot afford to miss out: "Grow your own is continuing unabated without any doubt at all."