Market changes behind debate on plant supply

Landscape industry's plant-supply debate begun at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew illuminates wider changes in design and contracting.

Shows: Hortus Loci manager Mayor (left) working with Childs (right)
Shows: Hortus Loci manager Mayor (left) working with Childs (right)

Following the recent landscape industry debate hosted at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (HW, 7 March) about who should supply plants, garden designers and landscapers have continued to express opposing views.

Society of Garden Designers (SGD) chair Juliet Sargeant said garden designers feel "a bit hijacked" by the Kew discussion and in particular by a project budget outlined by the Outdoor Room founder David Dodd that, he said, demonstrates how much profit could be gleaned by plant supply.

In his analysis, designers scooped a much bigger percentage of the profits, something he believes is unfair. Dodd said he wants an industry standard where designers agree not to supply plants.

Code of conduct

While talk of a pan-landscape industry code of conduct has met with a generally positive reaction, any such agreement would not work for the SGD as far as plant supply is concerned, according to Sargeant. She said the society "isn't in the business of micromanaging our members".

"To us, the nurseries say they don't care who buys the plants so long as they pay," she said. "I think it's a shame when you're making such headway on working together - it's a shame if this divides us." She added that in 20 years of practice she has only lost a handful of plants, putting that down to her control of the supply process.

Jo Thompson is another designer who takes this approach. "I would always source my own plants - it's about controlling the quality," she said.

While landscapers worry that they are losing control of supply of not only plants but all materials - something that would seriously erode their profits - some designers feel aggrieved.

As one put it at the recent Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) Awards, it is usually designers who woo the clients in the first place, and so should net the profit on plant supply.

Designers such as Andrew Wilson and John Wyer said this devalues the art of garden design, but others said they are not living in the rarefied world at the top end of the market and have to make their money where they can.

Sargeant said she thinks there is room for both ways of doing it, with designers and landscapers partnering with those who are happy to work in each paradigm. It is a view that nurseries share - and they say the market for directly selling to garden designers is growing.

Nick Coslett of Palmstead Nurseries said "garden designers and small garden makers" are now 25-40 per cent of his trade, up from 15 per cent five years ago. "Tim Richardson is right in saying that some of the garden designers are 'ladies who lunch' - they don't have to make a full-time living out of it - but I consider them valued customers," said Coslett.

"Half of the people who come to our workshops are garden designers," he added. "We try and do different events - we find we can get a lot of garden designers involved because they're solo workers. Landscapers find it hard to get away."

Half and half

Jo Good divides her time at Tendercare Nurseries between garden design and being a plant sales adviser, primarily for other garden designers. "For us it's 50:50 garden designers and landscapers," she says.

"I've been seven years in the business and it was the landscapers more before. Garden design generally has become more popular with the public. More garden designers are looking to source plants - it maximises their profits.

"Our view is that if we are advising garden designers it will generate more plant sales. There are more garden designers coming though. I think diversification for nurseries is the way to success."

James Coles of James Coles & Sons (Nurseries) said his company supplies very few designers but that is something it wants to change. "It's a market we're looking at. The perception is a lot of designer work is small numbers and often difficult to deliver, but that's not always the case. We know that market is there." The nursery has seen a lot of interest from designers in its National Plant Specification courses.

Provender, Coblands and Hortus Loci also have dedicated staff members, with Hortus Loci employing a shows plant manager, Pedro Mayor. It is supplying Matthew Childs, Hugo Bugg, Cleve West, Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show and says almost all customers are landscape architects or designers.

Joint managing director Mark Straver said: "We try and supply a one-stop shop. What they don't want to do is go to 40 different nurseries. They want all these plants delivered on the one day. We can join together 35 or 40 customers to import from Europe in a lorry."

Partner Robin Wallis added: "We have a personal shopper but some garden designers have got so organised we contract grow for them - Ulf Nordfjell, for example. Some designers have had their fingers burned with contractors who don't know the plants. In some cases a designer gets completely and utterly shafted by a contractor and that's why they want to source every plant themselves."

Fluid approach

Perhaps a more fluid approach to plant supply is here to stay. Plants for the Bury St Edmunds garden that won the supreme award at last week's APL Awards were supplied by both designer Jason Lock of DeakinLock and the award winner Stewart Landscape Construction.

Managing director Mark Richardson said if it goes as far as a landscaper supplying labour only, their business will not be viable. But he added: "I don't want to fight over things like that. I think it's really important that we have a clear understanding and working relationship with the designer. If you don't have that, there are all sorts of problems.

Supply issue Potential pitfalls identified

Supplying garden designers is not all plain sailing. "Designers generally want delivery on site to a domestic property, whereas landscapers usually have their own yard," said James Coles of James Coles & Sons (Nurseries).

"When we're delivering in a 17-tonne articulated lorry, getting into a housing estate is not easy. If they order it and come and get it, fantastic."

Nick Coslett of Palmstead Nurseries said some designers are not confident and "keep changing their minds". He added: "Sometimes the garden designer tends to be on their own and that can muck the day up for us, but that's really quite a minor point.

"I think garden designers are missing something out of their business planning. They could go back to mentor the client to become a gardener - there's a market there. Some do that, but not consistently."

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