Ornamental growers will need to diversify to stay alive, retailers have suggested, after outdoor retail plant sales dived by 48 per cent in the first three months of 2013.
It is feared the second coldest March on record will lead to casualties in the sector. But experts say pent-up demand from gardeners and the "normal spring" forecast for April could yet save the season.
Garden Centre Group chairman Stephen Murphy said: "We're not taking stock in and are pushing back to the supply chain, which is why it's going to be a difficult year for growers. They need to look to diversify seasonally because of the volatility of weather season-to-season."
Johnson of Whixley director Andrew Richardson said: "Chains are realising they are going to have a very short season. Garden centres are saying: 'Please sell elsewhere if you can.'" He added that growers and retailers will carry on cutting commitments for 2014 so "there will be a lot less in production".
Industry estimates suggest retailers lost £60m in hardy containerised plant sales in March. Scotsdales managing director Caroline Owen said: "We're trying to work with growers to delay our forecast plant orders. But the spring bedding season is a write-off. We've been offered bedding at good prices that we'd pass onto the customer but we don't have the footfall."
Neil Gow, a director at the Garden Industry Manufacturers Association, said: "Cash is tight in the sector. Now as 14 April pre-season payments dates loom it is going to be very tight. I suspect we will see some casualties."
Growforth managing director Stan Green said the weather has caused a "huge impact" on sales and he "felt for" primrose and other bedding growers who have "virtually missed their season".
HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe said spring crops such as hebe and primula may have missed their window because "people are just not coming into planterias".
But he warned that garden centres must be stocked up for when the weather turns. "There's been a chunk of the season lost but if there's a fantastic April and May things won't end up too bad."
Sinclair retail managing director Danny Adamson added: "I suspect a tidal wave of orders are coming as pent-up demand and light nights all add up to high sales."
Weather conditions - Still time for the season to turn around?
While spring bedding growers struggle with the cold weather, which has held back demand and pushed up heating costs, many nurseries are optimistic that there is still enough time in the season for business to return as the weather improves.
Stuart Taylor, director at bedding grower Arden Lea Nurseries, said: "It's frightening, particularly in comparison to last year when we had an excellent spring. There is nothing like a good start. It gives momentum to the season. So this year is an exercise in holding your nerve."
On heating costs, he added: "We're pouring oil into the summer crops and not making many sales. That equation can't last forever."
Bransford Webbs managing director Geoff Caesar said: "Garden centres are stocked up and what is concerning is the stock that has been potted is not showing much growth.
He added: "We will have a relatively short window for the sales period. We are cutting some lines due to come on later in the year because they're going to clash.
"We haven't had any wastage, but lines that would have been selling in garden centres have been sitting there for six weeks, so they are not going to come back to us for repeat orders."
Seiont Nurseries nursery manager Neil Alcock said: "It has been slowing sales and deliveries, particularly with our biggest customers because they still have stock on the ground. Some crops are three or four weeks behind. We are still buying weekly deliveries of fuel, when normally the last order is in March and that lasts us into the summer. We're burning 80 litres of kerosene an hour, but certain crops you have to keep heated."
He added: "Garden centres are busy but people are not buying plants. We're probably going to be exceptionally busy for a short space of time."
This week, British Protected Ornamentals Association chairman Ian Riggs warned of catastrophic impacts on bedding growers' businesses from the weather. He said the sector needs to move away from a boom-and-bust culture and find ways to instil stability and commitment in its supply chain.