What lies ahead for horticulture in 2014?

After a tough start, better summer weather and economic improvements brought some gains across many sectors of horticulture last year. But what of prospects for 2014? Matthew Appleby, Sarah Cosgrove, Sally Drury and Gavin McEwan report.

Garden retail Centre owners aim to build on last year's modest gains

Garden retailers made small gains last year against 2012, when sales fell by double digits. While this may seem slim pickings, centre owners are happy with that result considering the weak start to the season.

Sales look as though they will end three-to-four per cent up on 2012 after a prolonged fightback following a very late start caused by cold weather in spring.

Consequently, new Garden Centre Association (GCA) chief executive Iain Wylie thinks owners will enter 2014 with more confidence. Speaking last month, he said: "They've had a reasonable catch-up over summer and autumn and all the indications are that Christmas will be OK. Most retailers, while not bursting with confidence, think 2014 will be an OK year."

Supermarkets and high street retailers meanwhile continue to see gardening as a potential market, with Tesco, Waitrose and Next all making in-roads.

Acquisitions, partnerships and alliances will increase. Tesco is opening joint stores with Dobbies, Waitrose has joint enterprises at Percy Thrower's in Shropshire and Notcutts in Kent.

Last year saw Garden & Leisure and three other centres bought by The Garden Centre Group (TGCG), with Notcutts, Squire's and Blue Diamond also buying up independents Garden Pride, Secretts and Fermoy's.

Wylie says this will continue in 2014, especially as TGCG is keen to get to 200 centres quickly and "the others will pick up the ones they want". He says bigger chains give independents an opportunity to give customers more choice.

Buckingham Garden Centre general manager Mike Easom flags customer service as a big issue for 2014: "We had two poor seasons before 2013 and that made us take stock. We want to dare to be different from the competition. Paramount has to be customer service.

"We need offers - customers are getting more price conscious - and more links with local companies. We have a Ford car you can win on site and we give free coffee to people waiting at the garden centre while they're getting an MOT for their car at the local garage."

He adds that more online marketing, links with local schools, British grown and support for the local community are also key areas.

Armitage's Garden Centre managing director Will Armitage says confidence is coming back. "The consumer is getting more confident about making committed purchases and I'd like to think bigger-ticket items will start to go again."

He adds: "More and more are going on the internet with more mundane products - things they don't want to queue at the garden centre for. They're coming to the garden centre for different reasons - leisure, catering and because it's a nice place to shop. People still want to go to shops. They don't want to go on the internet.

"All garden centres are seeing growth in food and we're selling more instant planted products than ever before, though there is a slow decline in bedding."

But he says new categories are unlikely to emerge. "When you're coming out of a period of insecurity and things retracting, people go back to tried and tested and what's safe."

Hillier managing director Andy McIndoe meanwhile warns independents not to give up more space to non-plant retail in 2014. "One of my biggest concerns is garden retailers giving up more and more on plant material but then you're more comparable with other retailers and there's a lot of general retail and not much expansion. One good gardening season in 2014 and people will feel a lot better."

On the supplier side, Gardman and Solus have both had management changes and will refocus for 2014. Smart Solar, run by Gardman founder Paris Solar, and former Solus managing director Nick Davies's new garden centre supplier are set to shake up the market, says Wylie. "Watch this space with Smart Solar. Gardman will be on high alert with that one."

Ornamentals - Caution still prevalent but orders now starting to improve

Slow ordering, a harsh spring 2013 and a late Easter 2014 will make bedding growers "cautious, careful and considered", says British Protected Ornamentals Association chairman Ian Riggs.

"We will see less free stock in 2014 because free stock is risky stock. Production will be less this spring than last spring," he adds.

Fresh Acres managing director Richard Lovejoy says: "Ordering is three weeks later. That will mean a mad scramble or empty nurseries - they won't grow anything if they have no orders.

"Capacity is falling out of the industry. There's over-production on the continent and it will have a knock-on effect here. There will be zero surplus in 2014 so if big groups foul up with buying decisions they won't be able to pick up any in the UK."

Biomass boilers for himself, Pinetops, Cobbins and Double H could help beat energy prices, particularly if the Government gives tax incentives, adds Lovejoy.

Meanwhile, many expect grower consolidation to continue, as in retail, for 2014. In 2013, Glendale bought Merediths and Butters took over Verde.

More supermarkets are set to follow Waitrose into the plant retail market. Tesco, for example, says Plants for Europe's Graham Spencer, is talking to British growers of bedding, perennials and shrubs.

Waitrose will triple its offer to 150 "hubs" in 2014 - and where Tesco goes, Asda and Sainsbury's could well follow.

Cresco, a grower/supermarket middleman, says if Tesco had the same market share of garden plants as it has of cut flowers it would sell £170m a year, rather than the current £25m.

Thompson & Morgan says begonias are the plant for 2014, with busy Lizzies still out because of downy mildew issues. Poppies are to be the seed and public display of the year due to the anniversary of the start of World War One.

Spencer is promoting Eryngium 'Neptune's Gold' as a Chelsea new-plant winner, an increasingly important competition to win if you want to sell large volumes. Some 20,000 will initially go on sale in May with Hardy's selling to the public.

Garden writer Peter Seabrook says even average weather will unlock pent-up demand and that could be fulfilled by supermarkets, which should increase the market if they get into plants more seriously.

On the amenity side, Palmstead Nurseries marketing and sales manager Nick Coslett says he bid for £1m more work in autumn 2013 than in the same period in 2012 but when that work will be enacted is the big question. "There's definitely a higher level of optimism than this time last year. There seems to be more work about, though no more money about. Competition is as ruthless as ever, if not more so with the main contractors ensuring they make their margin at the expense of everyone else's."

Boningale chairman Tim Edwards says: "It's all about the economy. The UK is improving but we are dependent on the rest of Europe. It's not enough for a full UK recovery but parts of European horticulture are on their knees. Our housing market is coming through but the recovery is still slow."

Coblands sales manager Lewis Normand says: "Dutch suppliers are targeting landscapers more now. But where the euro is strong they're less competitive. There's a huge marketplace still for the UK.

"Yes, there's lots of competition, but that's encouraged people to be more inventive. The economy is always a factor but there's nothing negative about the way the market is going in the UK. We're going for it in 2014."

Professional gardening - Ecological revolution continues for gardens

Things brightened up in heritage and botanic gardens in 2013 as visitor numbers bounced back after 2012's annus horribilis but professional gardeners know to be wary of being too optimistic.

West Dean head gardener Jim Buckland believes 2014 will be a fairly tough year. "I don't think people have any more money in their pockets to spend so I don't expect it to be substantially different from 2013."

Year-round opening, special events and added extras such as the Trentham Gardens fairy trail will continue to be popular, while gardeners increasingly use social media and blogs to promote their work. Grow your own and facilities for children will also continue to be trends.

Professional gardeners are also quietly conducting an ecological revolution. Sustainable gardening, biosecurity, less intensively managed gardens and the influence of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park landscaping will continue as big themes.

"It feeds into the zeitgeist," says Buckland. "We have lots of wild flower meadows and we planted 76,000 naturalised bulbs this year including Allium var., Crocus var. and Narcissus var. At around £4,500 they are fantastic value and make a really big impact early in the year, so if you want to extend your season they're very useful."

At the National Trust, Lady Astor's Rose Garden in Cliveden will be completed and work starts on the Frame Yard project at Mottisfont this year.

Head of parks and gardens Mike Calnan says: "I think there will be a continuation of the trend for herbaceous perennials and prairie meadow plants."

Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett agrees, predicting that the wilder approach will continue.

He adds: "We've got a thing about gardens being biodiverse - we've got 150 species of spider and 340 species of macromoth. That's a trend that people will pick up on. We're not just thinking about the flowers, we're thinking about the whole ecosystem."

Bigger animals are starting to become more welcome at venues too. At West Dean, dogs will be allowed in on leads in the spring for the first time, a trend that garden consultant Alan Sargent says is increasing.

The status of professional gardening is likely to be a hot topic next year. The Professional Gardeners Guild will reveal the results of its current pay and conditions survey in January, reigniting the perennial pay debate.

Balancing this will be the Institute of Horticulture achieving chartership status, which is something that Calnan says "represents a major step forward".

Grounds care - Squeezed margins pile pressure on smaller operators

Firms focusing on council grounds maintenance work face another challenging year as cuts bite hard while those focusing on private clients are more optimistic.

However, across the board contractors say there is a trend for longer, larger contracts and they fear smaller firms may be pushed out of the market as clients become more demanding. Margins are so tight that some competitors are ditching profit just to stay in business.

Consultant Andrew Gill says: "I think we're going to see more consolidation and more takeovers. Some smaller outfits will be swallowed up by the bigger guys simply because the margins are being squeezed."

Companies in the local authority market report very competitive tendering. ISS Facilities Services Landscaping managing director Phil Jones says: "Tenders are very tough and prices are going down. A lot of players in the market are going to drive down the price to get the tender rather than a profit, to make the books balance.

"Clients are expecting contractors to find savings from their own contracts rather than reduce the service. They want to pay less but they don't want less service."

Glendale Managed Services managing director Andy Corcoran says: "What you see are more savings being requested and significant changes to the specifications. We're seeing more services bundled into one contract and procured as one - for example, street scene and grounds maintenance.

"Where we see contracts being procured there are often reductions in the quality of the specification. There seems to be far less money being spent on parks in particular. In 2014, cuts will continue to provide the backdrop of the marketplace."

Corcoran adds that companies must continue to control costs and facilitate clients' specification changes to survive. Jones agrees, saying the market offers opportunities for those with long-term client relationships who can effectively negotiate with and educate clients.

"I do think it's difficult for the smaller companies in the current market to find the finance often to buy the new machines and equipment needed to service larger contracts," adds Corcoran.

In the commercial sector, Frosts Landscapes grounds maintenance and interior landscape director Darrell Hedden says there is a move for lots of sites to be amalgamated into bigger packages run by firms such as Capita, DTZ and Jones Lang LaSalle.

"Over the next 18 months there will be some large tender opportunities coming out from these guys," he adds. London will be where the money is spent, he predicts, while firms in the north will continue to struggle.

Landscape - Market upturn in South East but north-south divide persists

The landscape market will remain mixed in 2014 as the north-south divide continues but optimism is rising as the existing market heat in and around London begins to spread some warmth.

BALI Grand Award winner Gavin Jones has experienced a measurable upturn in both domestic and commercial opportunities for 2014, mostly in the South East, says chairman Martyn Mogford.

"This reflects recent positive economic press comments and the number of cranes on the London skyline but we fully expect that pricing and securing work will remain very competitive."

The Outdoor Room's David Dodd and PC Landscapes' Paul Cowell also mention London cranes. Dodd, also BALI South Thames chairman, says he heard optimism from outside the South East too at the BALI chairman's meeting in December.

"There's a lot more money being spent in the private market - that's only going to increase. In the private domestic market, it's very good. With commercial projects things are going to be quite tight because of local authority cutbacks."

However, Blakedown Landscapes senior contracts manager Phil Townsend says conditions are still "very tight and tough" in the north. "There's going to be a bit of resurgence but it's going to be 18 months to two years before we see anything like a full recovery, but nothing like the levels of three-to-four years ago."

Tim Edwards, chairman of industry supplier Boningale Nurseries, says northern landscapers are looking at work starting in 2015. Managing director Matt Mott adds: "In amenity and construction we're seeing larger specimen plants. With the big commercial schemes there's some evidence that they are starting to move."

Trading alliances like the one formed between Gavin Jones and Norris & Gardiner in September are a feature commentators think could well trend in 2014.

Green roofs continue to be a theme, with interest in green walls and, on a smaller scale, rain gardens continuing. This year landscape courses at Greenwich University will be taught from its new £76m Stockwell Street building, which features 14 green trial roofs.

Boningale is growing its market share with GreenSky substrates and plugs for green roofs, used by Frosts in its award-winning Library of Birmingham project. GreenSky manager Maggie Fennell says landscape architects have more green roof schemes coming up in 2014 and a lot of interest in green walls. Edwards points out that "there's a massive market out there for green walls".

Water issues will come to the fore as The Flood & Water Management Act establishes SuDS approving bodies at county or unitary authority levels with developers needing to meet higher sustainable drainage standards to secure planning permission.

Studio Englebeck's Luke Englebeck explains that for landscape architects to be successful in 2014 they need to engage more with big issues such as ecology. He also calls on them to "be less retiring" as other professions are impinging on their work.

Garden designer Andrew Wilson says garden designers are increasingly winning commissions from landscape architects and 2014 will see "a sense of more inventive and individualistic design thinking in the air - perhaps a sense of adventure".

Fellow garden designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin says 3D printers will start to be used by landscape architects and designers this year. He points to resurgence in interest in woodlands as a recreational space, while designer Jo Thompson says communal and miniature gardens will be popular.

Fisher Tomlin adds: "Guerrilla gardening has become part of the established garden world and a more thoughtful approach to communal urban gardening will take over with temporary installations and pocket parks following a global trend."

For all sectors, 2014 will see a continued focus on plant health and provenance, disease-resistant varieties and replacing lost trees.

Arboriculture - Standard to drive successful planting

Publication of the new BS 8545 standard on establishing trees in the landscape is due early this year. "This has the potential to make a big difference to tree-planting success rates, shifting the trend for new tree-planting failures from increasing to decreasing," says Barrell Tree Consultancy managing director Jeremy Barrell.

"I also represent the Arboricultural Association on a project with the Tree Council to design a national framework to list heritage trees in the same way as buildings," he adds. "We are seeking lottery money to do this and expect it to be big in 2014."

Three years after the original Trees, People & the Built Environment conference, a second will take place in April as part of the Institute of Chartered Foresters conference in Birmingham.

Consulting Arborist Society chairman Mark Chester says: "The last one attracted 400 delegates and this time it will have a bigger venue. More than 100 papers have been received already."

The Arboricultural Association, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, intends that its conference in September will advance the debate on the importance of urban trees, particularly in relation to human health, says senior technical officer Simon Richmond.

"It will aim to get different sectors to appreciate the value of trees as not merely a green backdrop to our lives, but as a key part of preventive health care," he says. "That will be a theme throughout our anniversary year."

He adds: "We are also developing an industry code of practice for tree work at height, for which we have secured funding. This will be a starting point for a revision of the technical guidance."

Edibles - R&D, labour and supermarkets' British-stock pledges high on the agenda

A year of "normal" weather is high on the wish list for 2014 among fruit and vegetable growers after two challenging seasons.

"A warmer spring would be good," says British Growers chief executive James Hallett. But the biggest opportunity, he says, will be implementing the Agri-Tech Strategy, with the first announcements of how the Catalyst Fund will be spent expected in June, along with an agreement on what the Innovation Centres will bring.

The loss of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) "won't mean an overnight loss of available labour", he adds. "But growers will have to exercise due diligence in sourcing labour during a transition period which some unscrupulous people will try to take advantage of."

The full implementation of the "Bright Crop" initiative to attract fresh talent into farming and food should help to make the sector a more attractive career choice, Hallett suggests.

NFU horticulture and potatoes board vice-chairman and soft-fruit grower Anthony Snell firmly believes that the biggest challenge will be the availability of labour post-SAWS and the uncertainty that brings. But he adds: "I am still positive about soft fruit and we are investing in production.

"Every year costs seem to go up and labour is the big one. But consumers appreciate that it's a healthy, British-grown food and as long as we keep up the flavour and quality, the demand will follow. Growers have to grow what customers require though, rather than speculatively."

English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow is also cautiously positive for top fruit. "Retailers must live up to their promises to stock English apples wherever possible," he says.

"We have record crops of Gala, Braeburn and new varieties, and most of that will be sold between the start of January and the end of April, with some going into May."

The slight year-on-year decline in apple consumption remains a concern though. "We saw some shelf space lost, particularly on Bramley's - it can be hard to get that back. Yet the benefits of increased consumption are enormous." But more than anything else: "We hope the weather will be good, without the difficulties of the last two seasons."

Cider apple growers will continue to expand orcharding and processing, with the domestic market still in growth, in contrast to other alcoholic drinks, according to National Association of Cider Makers representative Simon Russell.

"There's a lot more consumer activity now that the big brands have gone into cider," he says. "There will be around a thousand new acres (400ha) of orchards in the next year or two. Meanwhile, producers are making great strides to secure exports."

He adds: "We are also lobbying for the duty escalator on cider to be dropped in the next Budget, as it was in 2013 on beer."

Parks - Cuts pose serious threat to future of already hard-pressed council services

As councils prepare to fix their 2014-15 budgets, the spectre of even deeper cuts looms large, with many parks professionals saying we are yet to see the worst of the cuts already made.

Yet 2014 also promises to be the year of the park sector fightback, with The Parks Alliance, formed of industry experts and born out of discussions hosted by Horticulture Week, aiming to make itself a household name.

Parks consultant Andrew Gill says: "We're still seeing the affect of cuts feeding through, particularly around reductions in maintenance and cuts in investment - that's always a slow burner."

The next round of cuts "won't be that bad" because of forthcoming local and general elections, with councils finding "some money in the piggy bank", he adds.

However fellow consultant Peter Neal says 2014 will really stretch the sector. "The biggest impact will be felt in our larger cities where parks are used the most, but the scale of cuts will be the most."

Other commentators say there is a very real danger that some parks will be left without any type of service at all or at least a two-tier system where statement or grant-funded parks are given more attention than others.

The sector is eagerly awaiting the Heritage Lottery Fund's report into the state of parks, due this spring. Parks policy adviser Shaun Kiddell, who has been conducting the inspections, is concerned about deterioration and expects a three-year delay between cut and result. But he is "amazed" at the quality of some parks and innovative revenue-raising ideas.

Parks consultant Dr Sid Sullivan forecasts: "There will be far more commercial and business management expertise at the highest level. Technical people are going to be better appreciated. We need to realise that we are going to value both sides of expertise."

Sullivan adds that 2014 will see big data come of age and the return of philanthropists. "I feel nervous," he says. "I think there are one or two services we're going to lose, which would be a disaster. We'll see deterioration in public health and an increase in type 2 diabetes."

But he also predicts money coming from public health in 2014 with closer working between the two sectors.

On The Parks Alliance, Sullivan points out: "Parks have now got a champion. It's growing - many people are saying: 'Yes, I want to be a part of that.' For the first time, we've got a united group of industry professionals that's going to engage with ministers, and that's a real step forward."

National Trust head of parks and gardens Mike Calnan adds that the trust is also very concerned about the future of urban parks. Access to gardens and parks is one of the National Trust's founding principles.

"It's early days and we are talking to all sorts of people," he says. "We are not saying we have a solution. I think in the future the solutions may be many and varied."

Turf - Preparation crucial for meeting weather challenge

If the weather forecasters are right, the first few months of this year could prove challenging for groundsmen. However, those who prepared for the winter by ensuring a well-drained root zone and a good cover of healthy grass should be smiling when spring arrives.

Pesticide legislation means a lot of managers need to look at a combination of cultural practices, alternative substances and a very selective use of pesticides. It will be a major challenge for some, but not all.

Britrisk Safety technical director Jon Allbutt explains: "I am confident that within golf, greenkeepers - through good education, training and research - will be able to deal with it without difficulty. My concern is within the landscape sector, grounds maintenance and sports such as cricket, soccer, rugby and the racecourse industry."

Budgets are likely to remain challenging for all turf managers throughout 2014, with more councils looking to increase mowing intervals and many areas being turned into one-cut-a-year meadows. For sports turf managers, budget shortfalls could mean fewer inputs.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing sports turf managers is to ensure their facility remains natural turf and not artificial. They must produce and maintain the best playing surface possible within budget limitations and regardless of the level of play and weather conditions. Poor surfaces quickly become dog-walking grounds or are ripped up and replaced with synthetics.

While recognising they have their place, Campey Turf Care managing director Richard Campey warns of the advance of the "plastic pitch". Last month, he was the only exhibitor catering for natural turf surfaces at an international show in Brazil. "One company from China has sold 40 million square metres of plastic. The challenge is keeping the turf natural."

Science is working hard to provide the means to provide first-class turf. Work at the Sports Turf Research Institute should soon bring results to help turf managers provide a denser sward in shaded areas of stadiums or under trees. Other work is looking at nutritional needs and water management.

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