News of Hurrans' five garden centres going into administration - the £3m-turnover group is for sale through agent Hammond Phillips - and anxiety about Wyevale's protracted re-financing negotiations dominated private discussions at the conference.
But with the theme being "Poised to Ride the Recession", garden centre owners and suppliers said 2009 could be a great year, particularly if grow-your-own takes off further and predicted good weather comes along this spring after last year's washout.
Stewarts GardenLands managing director Martin Stewart, presenting the best associate (supplier) award to Taylors Bulbs, said: "I'm optimistic, naturally. The list is all positive. It is hard work in January so this week's conference couldn't be better timed. A month from spring and everyone is saying it's going to be a brilliant year."
Gardening writer and HW columnist Peter Seabrook said: "Trading is buoyant and I'm extremely confident about the forthcoming season." But he added that he was disappointed that keynote speakers were more of the motivational than hard business variety.
Bents won the Garden Centre of the Year title. Chairman Ron Bent said Christmas trading had been good and a January sale had been successful.
He added that garden centres can increase prices, with a seven per cent January rise in his restaurant prices having had made no impact on sales.
There were 48 centres with 131 retailer delegates at the conference, slightly up on 2008. Some 79 companies with 142 delegates attended, making 273 delegates in total.
Millbrook Garden Centre managing director Sue Allen, who is set to retire in June to be replaced by daughter Tammy Woodhouse, launched an appeal for 50 garden centres to raise money in 2009 for Greenfingers.
Castle Gardens won the first Green City award for work in its community. Breathing Places, a BBC programme from the creators of Springwatch and Autumnwatch, has teamed up with the Plant Publicity Holland/GCA promotional initiative Green City to run promotional weekends at garden centres.
The activities will focus on wildlife gardening, as the programme encourages viewers to find nature on their doorstop. All resources will be provided by the BBC.
GCA AWARD WINNERS 2008/09
Ruxley Rose Planteria: Under £3m Sunshine Garden Centre
Ruxley Rose Planteria: Over £3m Stewarts GardenLands
Worral Cup for best signs/PoS All-in-One Garden Centre
Barton Grange Trophy for best display Donaghadee Garden Centre
Dick Allen Award for most improved centre Van Hage Chenies Garden Centre
Garden Centre of the Year 2009 Bents Garden Centre
Christmas Display 2007: Under £3m Castle Gardens
Christmas Display 2007: Over £3m Barton Grange Garden Centre
Best Outdoor Living: Under £3m Whiteleys Garden Centre
Best Outdoor Living: Over £3m Bents Garden Centre
Best People Award Aylett Nurseries
GIMA Award best garden product retailer Poplars Nursery Garden Centre
GCA Associate of the Year Taylors Bulbs
Green City Town & Country Outstanding Achievement Award The Gardens
Group: Castle Garden, Brimsmore Garden Centre, Poundbury Garden Centre
Garden Centres of Excellence (over 84 per cent audited) Bents, Webbs,
Cowell's, Millbrook, Grosvenor, Trelawney, Whiteleys, Frosts, Coolings,
Wisley, Poplars, Woodlands, Burleydam, All-in-One, Lady Green