Grow your own picked up as a category as 2013 progressed after a tough 12 months from May 2012 to April 2013. Weather hit home gardeners’ plans to grow more vegetables, although the economy and health concerns were underlying positive messages for the sector. Extending the planting season was a topic after the slow start and late boom to 2013.
Quantil retail sales manager Mark Clementson says: "Grow your own had a difficult time at the beginning of the season but extended nicely. Our pot vegetable range did well and strips held their own, but we won’t get back what we lost early on. We’re looking forward to a more normal year. We found customers like little and often delivery and in a bad year like this it works better because customers can react quickly and keep wastage down. We deliver four times a week and Saturday mornings."
He points out that crops such as Romanesco do well because they are popular as fresh vegetables in supermarkets now and beans are as successful as ever. "We always get a good six-week window." In 2014, Quantil will extend its pot range.
Baby Plants owner Charles Oliver says: "Veg was later than normal but there was still demand into July. To deal with that, it’s a matter of growing the right varieties. We have a summer vegetables leaflet to tell people what to plant in June and July and when to harvest. It gives confidence to garden centre buyers to buy it and staff to tell customers about what to plant."
Oliver adds that crops such as summer purple sprouting broccoli and later-season lettuce are suitable for summer planting. "Garden centres are taking this on board because people want to know how to get continuity of crops."
Philip Boers, owner of vegetable plug grower Gardeners Kitchen, says 2013 has been "really good" after a worrying start. "In the end, we grew three times as much as we’d normally have done and still struggled to meet demand.
"A lot of that was because some producers hadn’t seen good sales coming and had run out.
We’ve seen it before. If you don’t sell in March you sell in the first two weeks of June. Chains don’t go through later because their year is planned but independent garden centres go right through." In 2014 there will be a Traditional Range, stocked with old varieties such as Greyhound Cabbage.
Franchi Seeds director Andrew Collings says: "In the UK we don’t tend to think about other seasons of sowing. Italians and French sow later in the year."
Sidmouth Garden Centre owner Ian Barlow adds: "Grow your own picked up on 2012 for us, which wasn’t difficult. People have come back to it quite happily. Once you try it it’s in your blood so you have to go out and do it. The trouble is that the season’s short and if you miss the start you can recover to get a good year but not a brilliant year."
Matthew Thomas, sales manager at fruit-tree specialist Frank P Matthews, captures the general feeling by saying the weather’s influence has depressed sales and the influence of grow your own has levelled out on previous years after steady increases.
"Things have gone well this year and sales are fairly strong. There’s been more interest in the unusual — quince, medlar, mulberry and damson." But he says the bestsellers remain the traditional apple Scrumptious, plum Victoria, pear Conference and cherry Stella.
The top new variety was Pyrus ‘Benita Rafzas’, a cross between an eating pear and an ordinary pear that won the best breeder innovation award at the HTA National Plant Show. Thomas also cites red-flesh apple ‘Tickled Pink’, apple ‘Honeycrisp’ and Czech-bred cherry ‘Meteor’ as top introductions.
Blackmoor Nurseries sales manager Matt Teague says last autumn was dire but this spring was better. Blackmoor will increase production from August onwards by 10 per cent because "vibes from garden centres are very positive — a lot more so than in the last couple of years". He adds that cherries and trained fruit are going particularly well.
AE Roberts director John Gwynn reports that poor early-season weather hit sales of dormant crops but sales caught up partly later in the year. The fruit tree and bush grower intends to up turnover with multiple accounts for 2014, he adds. "For 2014 we have strengthened a number of trading relationships and will see significant increases in turnover, which we sorely need to repair the damage of the last three years."
The Ball Colegrave Summer Open Day gardens have had a huge makeover. A YouTube video showcasing the changes can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaBqyPkb4cQ. Among the ideas from the "greatest blockbuster experience of colour in its 50-year history of open days" are tomato tasting and patio vegetable displays.
Seed companies target gardeners looking to ‘grow to show’ or grow in kitchens
Suffolk seedsman Mr Fothergill’s has launched a mini range of seed vegetables suitable for exhibition work. The 16 varieties chosen for the collection are all popular with gardeners who like to grow with the show bench in mind.
The company believes an increasing number of vegetable growers are becoming interested in showing their produce. "It is important to us to monitor consumer trends and we believe we have identified a progressive niche market in growing for showing", says retail marketing manager Ian Cross.
Mr Fothergill’s stresses that the range is not giant vegetables, with the exception of Pumpkin Atlantic Giant, but usual-sized varieties chosen for their shape, uniformity and all-round quality.
If the crops produced do not make it to the local horticultural show, the varieties chosen have the advantage of great flavour, so will be welcome in the kitchen, it adds.
Each packet has its own distinctive livery and all the varieties are merchandised in a block at the top of the stand for maximum impact. Varieties in the range include Runner Bean Benchmaster, Onion Vento F1, Beetroot Pablo F1 and Leek Cairngorm F1.
Stewart Garden has launched a Kitchen Garden range, including a Herb Pot and the Kitchen Garden Propagator Set. The collection includes the Electric Kitchen Garden Set, comprising 67cm growing tray, propagator cover, a 12-watt heater matt, five flower pots and two seed trays. The set is available in lime and mocha with a suggested retail selling price (SRSP) of £34.99.
The Herb Pot in mocha and white joins the lime and white model. It has a patented
self-watering system, four removable pockets for individual planting and water reservoir, with an SRSP of £14.99 in both colours.
The 38cm Kitchen Garden Propagator Set has a deep gravel tray and vented clear cover, four growing pots and two seed trays. In lime and mocha, it sells at an SRSP of £9.99.
Broadening garden centres’ appeal
Grow your own television gardener James Wong has been touring garden centres with his Homegrown Revolution message, based on the range of unusual seeds he created for Suttons.
He has given 65 talks over the past nine months and spoke again at the HTA National Plant Show to tell delegates what is right, and wrong, with the garden centre industry. "There’s a crisis that’s facing our industry," he says. "The new generation is not coming into gardening — customers or staff."
He adds that he met a lot of young people "obsessed with gardening and growing, but they didn’t find what the industry is offering very exciting".
Wong’s gripes about the industry
• "Quit trying to make horticulture cool. That’s tacit to saying it’s uncool. Young people are looking for authenticity."
• "At the Chelsea Flower Show, thousands of plant geeks from around the world pull off horticultural miracles, but the top media story is gnomes. If your marketing people don’t find plants cool, get new marketing people. Plants are exciting."
• "Cooking TV shows used to be obsessed by process. Now they’re about why you should be interested — heritage, fun, fresh ingredients, exploring the world. Gardening can be the same."
• "Don’t overcomplicate. There is no ‘one best way’. UK horticulture clings to a model of trying to repeat what posh people did 30 years ago, but now we mostly have tiny outdoor spaces."
• "Plants in garden centres are like carpet samples. They aren’t just outdoor soft furnishings. Makeover shows are successful by not focusing on the process but on the reward. The problem is they show gardening as low-skill, instant, with little creativity and they never show time spent designing gardens."
Wong’s advice for retailers
• The grow your own revolution is "fuelled by hipsters in their 20s and early 30s. Tap into this market through social media." He says there is a "time warp concept of gardening" and if grow your own does not change, in five years it will be over like overpriced cupcakes and vintage dresses. Gardening magazines’ free seed cover mounts are often the hardest plants to grow but the cheapest to buy, such as cauliflowers. "If commercial growers find it unprofitable, why will you not?"
• He advises tapping into the "Saga lout" over-50s generation.
• Most garden centres sell the same things. If you sell different plants, you get more impulse purchases.
• Become a cyber sleuth by researching on the internet, including on Pinterest, what interests gardeners. He cited bonsai chillies as an example.
• Show customers why they need to experiment. Show them the vitamin C levels of blackcurrants compared to shop-bought.
• Prove it to them. Buckingham Nurseries grows crops at the front of the centre, shows how to use them and has tastings at the year end. Sell frozen lollies with strawberries in them.
• Edit to inspire. Do not use A-Z plant layouts. Display in sections such as "bee-friendly plants".
• Be ruthless on quality. Do not use any dead plants.
• Become a local hub — sell regional apples, for example.
• Integrate catering and growing, such as lavender cupcakes.
• Education is the best entertainment. Make yourself a theme park, with your customers’ purchase being the souvenir — for example, make-a-wish dandelion jars in the weedkiller area.
• Do not take yourself too seriously.
• Team up — work together with other garden centres.