The horticulture industry is braced for a potentially painful spring after drought conditions were declared to have now spread across nearly half of England. Hosepipe bans in some areas are tipped to come into force within weeks.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman officially declared the South East in drought following a summit on Monday with water companies, horticultural trade bodies and growers. More areas are likely to be affected, she added.
The NFU called for the Government to extend beyond the end of March the period in which growers can abstract water from rivers to fill reservoirs for summer use if enough rain falls by then.
Garden industry representative Tim Briercliffe described the mood at the meeting as sombre. "There's a big chance hosepipe bans will be announced in March and come into force in certain areas before Easter."
Briercliffe, who is the HTA director of business development, added: "The water companies are talking about when, not if."
Suppliers Southern Water, South East Water, Anglian Water and Thames Water, confirmed that without downpours they would have to impose measures in the next few weeks.
Hosepipe bans in 2006 were "catastrophic" for many garden sector businesses, added Briercliffe. Retail sales fell by a fifth and a third of customers said they would cut spending because bans sent out strong "anti-gardening messages", he added.
Paul Cooling, chairman of Kent-based Coolings Garden Centre, said restrictions would affect sales of plants but boost that of butts, watering cans and downpipe diverters. The 2006 ban knocked six per cent off sales.
"We will advise customers on mulches and using more tolerant plants. Gardeners are not frivolous with water but are penalised at the expense of other users. Alternatives such as phased restrictions are good in theory but hard to police."
Darren Brooks, general manager of Notcutts Garden Centre in Cambridge - an area in drought since last year - said bedding sales dipped but people still bought shrubs and water butt sales went up.
"We advise customers to use water-saving crystals as well as drought-tolerant plants, which we group together on one stand."
Charles Carr, director of Lowaters Nursery in Hampshire said: "We are selling drought-tolerant plants to garden centres and offering point-of-sale material on dealing with drought. Most garden centres we deal with seem well up on the advice and products they offer."
Majestic Trees owner Steve McCurdy, who shipped only eight trees a week against a usual 50 to 200 at the worst of the 2006 ban, urged the HTA and the RHS to fight for exemptions for drip-, seep- and micro-drip irrigation.
Claire Muckleston, owner of Bourne Garden Centre outside Ipswich, and in a water-meter area said she was taking on 10 per cent more drought-tolerant plants. "We advise on harvesting rainwater and have three tanks at the centre."
In drought - Affected areas
Areas covered in this week's drought announcement
In drought since last summer
Parts of Bedfordshire