Market report - Overseas Nursery Stock

Having escaped the worst of the winter weather, continental growers say they are well placed to benefit from the current plant sales boom, Gavin McEwan discovers.

The harsh winter and a fine early season has led to a lack of large shrubs and lavender - image: HW
The harsh winter and a fine early season has led to a lack of large shrubs and lavender - image: HW

They say it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and while the icy blasts that chilled Britain in December were bad for many UK growers who suffered stock losses, they have been good news for many continental plant suppliers.

"It's a lot better than it's been for a while," says Jacob Kolff, owner and managing director of Kolff Plants, a Dutch-based consortium of 13 nurseries. The company has been chiefly supplying the UK amenity sector for 20 years, from rooted cuttings to mature trees, amounting to "millions" of plants, says Kolff.

"In December 2008, sales were dropping like a stone thanks to the strong euro and the recession, and there was nothing we could do. But since last summer, I feel that it's going much better - even though the housing market hasn't recovered, we are back to where we were before the downturn.

"Prices are going up, and there are some shortages, due to frost damage from last winter. That hit UK nurseries harder than those in the Netherlands, so that helps us. People are also growing less overall, so when sales pick up, that has an effect on supply."

Plant replacement fuelling sales

Part of the buoyant sales of plants right now can be explained by home owners replacing lost plants, he says. "In Ireland it has been even worse - entire hedgerows of Griselinia have just gone. Now we are seeing a huge demand for stock to fill the gaps - things like laurel, beech and hornbeam."

By contrast, Kolff points out: "We have an Italian nursery that hasn't really recovered its export market and I am wondering now whether it ever will. There were huge sales of things like Italian olive trees over a fourto five-year period, but I don't think that there will be anything like that again."

However, he adds that Spanish nurseries have been less affected. "They are fairly new in the British market. They used to sell to the Italian growers, but now sell direct to the UK."

Amenity is "still tougher" than retail, he admits. "British nurseries have changed production to growing more visually attractive plants for retail. We haven't changed our emphasis on amenity, yet have come out of recession stronger. A recession means you have to focus more on costs, which we have done. Sometimes that's healthy - you can always do things a little bit better."

Sales of trees are still "terrible", he adds. "If anything they've got worse. But the rest is doing well - shrubs, hedging, conifers, and container-grown stock."

Fellow Dutch-based supplier Boot & Co also reports a promising start to the season. "One market that is doing particularly well right now is the gardens of the super-wealthy, who are definitely still spending, sometimes into the hundreds of thousands of pounds," says UK representative Iain Wilson. "That often calls for large hedging and trees, including pleached forms. The garden designers I deal with are doing very well out of that," he adds.

Boot is expanding its Fleur Robuste series of amenity roses to include a perennials range. "A lot more people are using perennials in amenity planting, but we want to promote varieties that will be long lasting and easy to maintain in the landscape," says Wilson.

Greenhill Nursery supplies a broad cross-section to both landscape and retail sectors, from a range of continental suppliers including Denmark's ZenFlora group and Gimall of Belgium. According to owner Matt Graham: "There is a lack of nursery stock in certain lines, particularly large shrubs and bigger sizes of lavender. That's down to the winter, both here and on the continent, and to the fine early season. In that situation, whoever has the stock, wins. But as the demand came quickly, over a two-week period, a lot of growers were slow to react, or maybe they weren't cynical enough, and prices stayed fairly standard."

Mediterranean plants holding up

However, Graham disputes the claim that customers will now be wary of Mediterranean stock. "You might think that after the winters we've had, people would be cautious of those type of plants, but that hasn't been the case," he says. "We are still selling things such as bay that were damaged by the weather - people seem happy to replace what they've lost, they're not walking away."

Nor does he see the increasing awareness of plant provenance as a threat to importers. "I would always encourage people to buy locally where they can and where the quality and price is there," he says.

"Bedding for example is a relatively low-value commodity and most of the cost is in getting the plants to the customer. But this country relies on stock from places like Belgium and the Netherlands as there are quite a few lines that we just don't grow in the quantity and quality that's demanded, and it's those - bay, Buxus, topiary - that we've had most success with."

Fears of excessive "middle-man" charges from a company such as Greenhill are also unfounded, Graham argues. "When it places an order, the plants are still on the nursery, maintained by the guys who know them best. That order might be fulfilled by 30 different growers in three different countries. The plants are then delivered direct from grower to customer. By not keeping them on the ground here, I don't have to build in those costs and it takes away the burden of them sourcing all those plants themselves."

Heinje Nurseries is another continental grower benefiting from higher demand in the UK. According to UK representative Ian Sadler: "At the end of February we had more stock in reserve than ever, but since then sales have gone crazy - even on things that haven't sold in big numbers previously for us in the UK such as Buddleia and Potentilla. I don't know what it's down to, but I have sold more Buddleia than in all the rest of my time here. On bread-and-butter lines such as dwarf Rhododendron and azalea I've had none to sell since mid-March - the first time that's ever happened."

Exchange rate keeps prices keen

Lying in north-west Germany, Heinje's 60ha nursery avoided the worst of the winter, Sadler explains. "Temperatures were down to -12 degsC, but that's normal." And sales across Europe, particularly in Heinje's home market, are buoyant too, he adds.

"Garden centres are doing well, partly due to people replacing plants they've lost over winter. This is a wake-up call to people that a lot of imported plants aren't that hardy, although with something like a three-litre cordyline at £10 they will probably still take a chance."

Although the euro remains stubbornly strong against the pound, which has barely moved outside the EUR1.10-EUR1.20 range over the past two years, this is less of a handicap to importers than might be supposed, Sadler says. "We are keenly priced. The exchange rate has fluctuated but it evens out. It's not as good as exporters would like, but at least it's quite steady, unlike three years ago when it dropped like a stone."

He adds: "We price in pounds, and if you order pre-season we will hold that price for you if you need to top up later. Most retailers are operating on a minimum margin and don't want to have to change their electronic point of sale. You have to look after your regulars."

Hot sellers

Whether down to the efforts led by Sir David Attenborough to make gardens friendlier for butterflies, or merely to provide a big splash of summer colour, Buddleia are going through a purple patch.

Sales of more traditional hedging such as beech remain strong as some gardeners move away from more exotic options in the wake of two successive hard winters.

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