Grow your own - Back on track

Weather conditions have led to a more steady sales season for fruit and vegetable products and suppliers are lining up new varieties for 2015, Matthew Appleby reports.

Gardeners Kitchen: Worcestershire-based grower says 2014 better than last two years - image: HW
Gardeners Kitchen: Worcestershire-based grower says 2014 better than last two years - image: HW

The year in fruit and vegetable growing sales at garden centres has matched the season overall - much calmer than in 2012 and 2013. Warmer early weather helped sellers of pack vegetable plants - cold weather held them back in 2013 - and mild and wet weather has led to a steady season throughout, say growers.

In a steady year, one shift has been Spalding-based wholesaler Baby Plants leaving the market after owner Charles Oliver retired last year, opening up opportunities to supply many independent garden centres. Another shift was The Garden Centre Group (TGCG) buying Garden & Leisure, as well as other consolidation in the market.

Smalley House and Garden Plants has taken over the marketing of Baby Plants ranges grown by Cheers Nurseries, whose owner Henry Cheer say 2014 has been the archetypal reasonable season, with the sector - estimated to be worth £50m- £100m retail - stabilising after big growth three or four years ago.

Speaking at the National Plant Show, Quantil retail sales manager Mark Clementson reflected the mood. "It's been an excellent year - very flat, no stupid big peaks and troughs," he said.

For 2015, the Lancashire-based grower has new herb ranges with 50 varieties and grafted vegetable products too. Quantil has 200-plus varieties in strips and pots and has products available every week continuously from spring to autumn.

One more novel introduction is a sweet potato collection, which Clementson says makes a good hanging basket plant and has been trialled in garden centres this year.

Quantil supplies the Tillington Group. Andy Bunker, director at group member Alton Garden Centre, says Quantil's thrice-weekly distribution helps centres that want little and often delivery.

"Grow your own has been okay this year in pockets. Grafted continues to sell well and once you're hooked you don't go back because it's a better plant, stronger, higher-yield and more disease-resistant. But they might be £3.99 instead of £1.50 for an ordinary plant so it needs someone like Alan Titchmarsh or David Domoney to get the message out."

Bunker adds that half-sized, cheaper vegetable packs could be attractive to consumers. Tomatoes and runner beans remain the best sellers, followed by peppers and cucumbers, but "cucumelons" have a new following while aubergines, rocket and melons come and go in popularity.

Bell Brothers Nurseries representative Carl Presgrave says sales this year have been the best since 2010 but are unlikely to reach that peak again. "Pack veg is quite big for us. Overall this year has been good. We had a better start than in 2013 because the weather was warmer. All in all we've been quite successful with it.

"Our peak was 2010, which we haven't seen again, but we have had an increase in sales from 2012. We're not doing anything new this year in the range and our best seller remains Tomato Shirley."

Bell's, of Lincolnshire, grows herbs, soft fruit, pot and pack vegetables and bedding and bulbs. Presgrave adds: "Hopefully I'd like to see a little bit more growth in 2015 if we can, though I don't think we'll ever reach 2010 figures again. There was a lot of media coverage back then and it was a new concept with grow your own everywhere.

"There were a lot more market-linked sales with sundries-type products not going as well at the minute - for instance, growbags and tomato food. It would be nice to see retailers increase their displays and link sales."

Good for gardeners

Gardeners Kitchen sales director Helen Boers says 2014 has been "an average year for weather and that's been good for gardeners, so that's been better than the last two years".

The Worcestershire-based grower introduced grafted tomatoes this year, growing them on site, "and they did well". The pesticide-free grower, which supplies 300 products from March to September and introduced "extra shelf life" vegetables last year, is also working on unusual varieties. "For 2015, customers have been asking us about different varieties and if we're happy with them we'll launch them in 2015. We've been trialling things like cucumelon and spaghetti squash after being asked for them".

On the other end of the vintage scale, Boers adds: "We introduced a traditional range for 2014. When we started it was F1s only, but we've been asked for old varieties." Leek 'Musselburgh' and runner bean 'Scarlet Emperor' remain best sellers, with beans having a "brilliant" year despite the plagues of slugs.

Gardeners Kitchen is also exhibiting at Glee at NEC Birmingham (14-16 September), where the show will have a new grower atrium section. Boers says: "At Glee there's more companies, plants-wise. I've seen the plans and I'm looking forward to the revamp because they lost the plant touch at Glee so I'm looking forward to nurseries coming back because if they took the plants out of the garden centre it wouldn't be a garden centre."

Nursery Fresh Plants director Peter Hull says 2014 has been a fairly static year but there is potential for growth by extending varieties grown. "The consumer is becoming more aware of what varieties they want. Cooking programmes tell them to use more specific varieties and that's where we'll sell a specific variety rather than just a cherry tomato. The potential is all about growing the right varieties for the consumer."

Frank P Matthews representative David Bunn helped introduce the new apple tree 'Little Pax' at the recent National Plant Show. He says the tree, which was discovered on the Isle of Wight by monks before Matthews took it to market for them, has attracted a lot of interest in the media. "People were interested in the story behind the apple. It's a nice story but we don't know how sales are yet."

The profile of the Worcestershire-based tree grower's sales are similar every year, with Victoria Plum always the top seller. But Bunn points out that this year more "weird and wonderful" fruits are selling - mulberries, medlars and quince.

New Place Nurseries sales director Steven Lee says spring "see-sawed" for many, with good weeks and slow times, but the year to date has been generally pleasing. Based in West Sussex and now owned by Roundstone, New Place grows liners as well as ornamental and fruit trees.

"We're getting quite good response on top and soft fruit," says Lee. "Demand is greatest for cherries and plums, then pears. With apples there's a lot sitting around in centres. Sales have steadied off in the last couple of seasons on apples."

He adds: "On soft fruit we've been doing it for six seasons. We do a steady amount that we know the existing customer base will take up. We're not looking to grow massive numbers and take on Mcintyre's." Lee says a trend in the market is retailers taking little tree orders year-round and often, rather than in big drops.

New business

Country Herbs & Plants co-owner David Nieburg says he has been very pleased how business has developed, with no weather surprises and some new business coming his way. The longer herb season has benefitted from the lack of peaks and troughs, while one of the Spalding nursery's sidelines, strawberries, has also done better than for a few years.

Nieburg has picked up herb business from Baby Plants after it closed, lost Garden & Leisure business after TGCG bought the chain, but picked up business elsewhere. Merediths is believed to be supplying TGCG with edibles now.

Other than that change, Nieburg says: "Boring parsley, garden mint and chives still account for a large percentage of sales - the mainstay varieties are always important and then customers like a bit of peripheral. Tree spinach has gained a lot of interest because it has a bit of colour."

Nieburg adds that Country Herbs as well as fellow growers Hawkesmill and Farplants do well because they can manage the batches that herb growing requires. Country Herbs has 200 varieties. "It's a terrific number of batches we have to plot every week to provide an availability list," he says.

"When a customer wants a herb order they expect us to have the full complement there, so my challenge is to have as good an availability list as possible to meet customer interest and demand. I'm not a credible herb grower if I've not got garden mint or parsley when they place their first order for three weeks."

He adds: "A number of herb growers over the years have gone out business down to the difficulty of managing stock and maintaining profitability and a good availability list."

Market optimism

Some 31 per cent of British adults who own a garden grew their own fruit and vegetables in 2013, according to a HTA survey of 1,000 adults. This year, helped by the arrival of new television programmes such as BBC2's The Big Allotment Challenge, there was optimism that grow your own and plant sales would be even stronger. The HTA linked its "It Starts with a Pot" campaign with grow your own.

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