As they struggle to compete with low-cost imports, many British ornamental growers believe customers can be persuaded to put plants billed as "locally grown" into their trolleys.
This view is backed up by recent research from the HTA, which showed that nearly half of all gardeners would be willing to pay more for locally produced plants - indeed one in five would pay 20 per cent more.
The PlantForLife Environment Report found that gardeners are generally "greener" in their outlook - over 80 per cent described themselves as "fairly or very concerned" about the environment, compared with fewer than two-thirds of the wider population.
HTA commercial services director Andrew Maxted sounds a note of caution: "This is an area we will be doing more research in this year. It's a hugely complicated issue, and we need to conduct qualitative research to understand what underlies consumer behaviour.
"We're not like some other countries where sticking the national flag on a product is enough. The consumer needs to see what the benefits to buying locally are."
This research coincides with moves towards industry-wide branding of British-grown plants, under the "Home Grown" banner. According to W Godfrey & Sons owner Dr Bill Godfrey, who has done much to drive the initiative forward, what prompts customers to buy local products above all is the belief that they are supporting local businesses.
The Surrey-based grower believes that reducing "plant miles", fear of imported pests and diseases, and hardiness are also concerns but adds: "People like 'environmentally friendly' plants, provided they don't cost any more. On the whole, though, people are very concerned about what they put in their mouths - whether it's organic or whatever - but not about other things they buy."
This is Godfrey's conclusion after three years of research into consumer attitudes and behaviour. "We did some preliminary research three years ago with the South East Regional Development Agency and the regional NFU," he says. "The results were encouraging enough to approach a marketing agency to do some market testing. We wanted to see whether people would vote with their purse, so we arranged for identical areas in four garden centres to stock plants both with and without the labelling.
"We also interviewed customers more generally. That was last summer, and the results were quite favourable."
The fact that supporting "local" businesses came out as a top concern suggested that labelling should go beyond merely "British produced", he says, adding: "It should be a national brand, but we hope to build in a degree of flexibility." Labelling under development allows growers to enter the county or other area in which plants were grown.
"We hope to roll it out to the industry in autumn, so they have time to incorporate it into their plans for the coming season," Godfrey explains. "People are jumping on it now because their customers are asking for it. The garden centres involved in the trials want it straight away. More and more growers are sticking a Union Jack on their plants, but you need a message to go with it. Lots of people recognise the Red Tractor logo [on UK-grown edible produce], but they don't necessarily know what it means."
Keeping all parties on board - the NFU and the HTA, for example - has meant the scheme has had to be carefully drafted. On the question of what constitutes "British", the draft text says that "growers will have assembled the components to produce the plants, and offer a finished plant, fit and ready for sale."
Godfrey explains: "The peat may come from the Baltic, the pots from France, but as long as the skill to produce it is British, it would be treated as a British plant."
He believes such labelling need not be confined to retail lines. "I've met my local borough council officers - they didn't know where their plants came from. So it's not only about sales, it's also a question of raising awareness."
And NFU horticultural adviser Chris Hartfield, a supporter of the scheme, agrees: "We would hope there would be the same appetite within the landscape world as with retail. If not, the industry should raise awareness of UK-grown stock, which may be better adapted to the climate here than plants grown in, say, Italy."
But to "get the message out there", Godfrey needs another tranche of funding. Already a logo has been created and information leaflets drafted.
Perhaps surprisingly, the main backer of the project so far has been the Horticultural Development Council (HDC) - usually more associated with furthering the science of crop-growing than its marketing.
HDC representative Scott Raffle says: "This is not classic HDC work, and we have been working with the NFU and the HTA as it was felt we needed their help."
Raffle has already been approached by a number of growers showing interest in the scheme. "There is a lot of excitement already," he points out. "We plan to roll out the logo used in the test to all HDC-registered growers, along with point-of-sale marketing material. Then it's up to individuals to work with their customers."
However, this must first be approved by the HDC itself. "It can't happen quickly," he adds. "We want to iron out the issues before we promote it to the industry."
Raffle says the HDC has been trying to anticipate problems with the scheme before they arise. "The question of what is defined as 'locally grown' or 'British-grown' has legal implications," he says. "And there is the question of policing it. Can anyone stick a label on their plants and call them 'Home Grown'?" Hartfield believes the scheme will be able to police itself. "As with any such scheme, you can take steps to stop people misusing your label," he says. "With something that is trademarked, you have some legal comeback."
Given the potential gains from such labelling, though, the danger is that the longer any umbrella labelling takes to be developed, the greater the likelihood of individual growers jumping the gun and introducing their own.
"We want everyone to use the same logo, but some growers are already using a Union Jack or other design," says Raffle. "Obviously, we can't stop them, but it would be nice if everyone used the same label."
Wiltshire-based West Kingston Nurseries has developed its own labelling already. All its new pots and trays now come with its daisy logo - not a million miles away from that of Home Grown - and the words "UK-grown - low plant miles". Accompanying point-of-sale material has been designed to reinforce the message to customers.
Nursery co-owner Mark Jackson says: "Initially we looked at what was being done and there wasn't really anything we could use. We are following developments but now it would be difficult to reverse. And because we print in two colours, it would be hard to show a Union Jack."
Jackson believes the labels are appropriate for most of his stock. "A minority of plants we might buy in as seedlings," he says. "It's still quite ecologically sound though - 200 of them take up a very small space. It's the final product that has the high transport cost."
First reactions have been positive but Jackson sounds a note of caution: "It won't transform sales overnight - we see it as more of a drip-drip effect."
ONE STEP AHEAD
Devon-based Rainbow Plants launched its own Locally Grown label 18 months ago and has since expanded its use in sales to local garden centres.
Joint managing director Pam Joy (pictured above with husband, Bob) says: "Our labels carry a Union Jack but also make it clear that they are grown in the South West, since most of our sales are to garden centres on the peninsula. The response from them so far has been good."
She sees it as useful in giving the nursery's plants the edge over imported stock. "Other nurseries are doing it too," she says. "There is so much competition and a lot of nurseries down here have already closed down."
Joy would not be tempted by a single, nationwide Home Grown logo, she explains. "We're happy with the labels we have. The most important thing for us is that they say, 'South West-grown'."
Those selling locally grown plants should highlight the following benefits:
- Buying locally grown plants entails fewer "plant miles", so less use of - and dependence on - fossil fuels;
- Hardy stock will be already accustomed to local climatic conditions;
- Customers will be supporting local businesses and local employment.