Another customer arrives. This time the demand is different. "I really need something bigger. Got any 25cm stock?" At the nursery, it is the same story. An order comes in — evergreens, Buxus, hedging material. In general, it is lots of everyday, tried and tested shrubs. But then the next order is for several thousand pounds worth of stock including some choice specimens and a few unusual items.
For nurserymen, the crystal ball can be murky. Decisions of what to grow will be taken at least a year, if not two, in advance. For trees, we can be talking about a five-, seven- or even 10-year lead-in time. Favourites will appear on the list but then it can be something of a shot in the dark trying to predict trends so far ahead. A lot of tree and shrub varieties will be grown on spec and then, as buyers’ whims change, topped up with stock bought in or imported. Perhaps the answer is diversity.
Diversity of plants
"The trend we are seeing is movement toward more diverse planting and people are using more perennials mixed in with the shrubs. People are still having gardens made and in that we are seeing an ever increasing diversity of plants being used," says Palmstead Nurseries sales and marketing manager Nick Coslett.
Kent-based Palmstead grows hardy nursery stock for the amenity market and has an on-site cash and carry for home-grown and imported specimens. It produces one million pot-grown shrubs and perennials a year and grows 200,000 trees in the field.
At Greenfingers in Kenilworth, cash and carry operations director Phil Seagar is seeing much the same trend in sales. "This year, plant wise, it has been a complete mix — a cross section. You can’t say everyone is aiming towards creating cottage gardens or Japanese gardens or anything specific. It’s a complete mishmash," he declares.
Best-selling lines at Palmstead currently include box and lavender, along with hornbeam and beech for hedging. Where box blight has proved problematic, rosemary is finding favour — not least because it clips well. Elsewhere, evergreens are selling well.
For landscapers and contractors, this year’s unseasonal weather has affected buying times and buying choices. As the UK’s largest grower of trees and shrubs for commercial landscaping, Leicester-based Coles Nurseries has 200ha, producing one million field-grown trees and two million container shrubs.
Marketing manager Harry Hitchcock notes: "Sales that feed either directly or indirectly into the retail market suffered badly with the weather this year. The dry spring and hosepipe bans brought schemes to a standstill. Luckily, rain later in the year gave a much needed boost to amenity planting at times when conditions are usually considered to be unfavourable."
Along with the weather, difficult economic times have brought drastic results for some in the retail industry, but reports coming from the landscape and amenity sector suggest that business has been steadier. But that is not to say there has been no effect. Seagar believes:
"The end user has always wanted the best job done for as little money as possible. But now they want even more."
Delivering the basics
With tighter budgets, some landscapers are also finding they are asked increasingly to deliver the basics. Coslett says: "Hedging and screening are popular. These are the fundamental things people put in for privacy. When spending may be on the essentials rather than excessive embellishment, it is those essentials that always come to the fore."
Hitchcock agrees and acknowledges that the desire for instant impact and robustness is also driving purchase choice. "Interest in hedging items continues to grow, from three-litre Buxus through to larger instant hedging units, particularly Fagus and Carpinus," he says. "Larger trees seem to have increased this year too, with heavy and extra-heavy standards being favoured for amenity planting — possibly as they are more robust against damage by vandals. Native plants remain of strong interest over worked ornamentals."
It all adds up to a demand for quality trees and shrubs — and if those plants can give immediate impact, so much the better. "The key to the current market is instant landscaping," says Diss-based Robin Tacchi Plants sales and contracts manager Phillip Rusted. "It’s gone away from bedding and gaudy colours. Clients can’t wait, so instant impact is back."
Rusted has not seen much change in tree specifications — 10-12cm forming the majority of orders — but has noticed increased demand for mature shrubs. "When people move into a new house, they expect the garden to look mature," he explains.
Seagar agrees, though he has seen tree sizes increasing too. "I am getting asked for bigger now. Whereas people would have come in for an 8cm sorbus, now I am getting enquiries for 20-25cm girth and upwards." Hitchcock adds: "Larger, native plants seem to be of greater interest now than they have in many years."
To Rusted’s mind, we may ultimately see a Waitrose/Tesco style split affecting landscaping. As an illustration, he explains: "You have the high-end schemes with instant impact plants and then there is the Tesco car park — and never the twain shall meet."
Plant hardiness concerns
While looking for good value, landscapers and contractors remain concerned over hardiness. Memories of recent severe winters mean less-hardy plants are being left on the shelf.
"Hardiness does remain on people’s minds," says Coslett. "Sales of things like Cordyline and palms have been modest this year. So many were wiped out last winter or the winter before, so there has been the conservatism you would expect."
If there were to be a strong, definite trend this year, one might hope that it would revolve around origin and provenance — UK sourced, UK propagated and UK grown. Recent outbreaks of pests and diseases, particularly on imported stock, have made the headlines. It is a topic high on the agenda of all concerned. But the bottom line remains the crucial factor — price.
The problem, says Segar, is not everyone is prepared to pay more for UK-grown stock. "They would rather take something imported with a certificate of plant health." From the supply point of view, he adds, it depends on what it is and how it can be grown over here.
"With ash, for instance, we tend to keep our trees English grown," says Segar. Rusted echoes the sentiment: "In an ideal world, yes, but in reality sales are price-driven."
As the planting season gains momentum, the position over shortages remains unclear. Coslett thinks there may be one or two things in short supply, especially where stock was lost due to the cold weather and nurseries found it hard to reinvest. "In the short term, I don’t think there is anything that is massively in short supply, but the situation will be clearer after Christmas," he adds.
For some nurseries, the problem is more of shifting stock to give space to those plants potted this autumn. For some plants we may even see a price war erupt as space becomes critical and thoughts turn to charging decent prices again in the spring. But that is not the case for all plants.
For some, notably skimmias, prices have gone through the roof, as Seagar explains: "Light levels have been a problem. Small skimmias from Holland, for instance, are at a premium because they are sold by the amount of flower buds on them and this year, because of the lack of light and good temperatures, there are hardly any with a decent amount of bud on them. It means the price has been pushed up."
Predicting future trends in tree and shrub sales remains as difficult as long-range weather forecasting. In future, the plants that find their way onto the landscaper’s shopping list may be affected by many factors. There may be legislation relating to the control of pests and diseases. Choices may be limited — or expanded — by planning controls
and building designs. Environmental factors might lead to mass planting of native species.
There may be new and better cultivars too.
Backed by publicity, new plant varieties quickly find their way into garden centres. In commercial landscaping and amenity planting, it is often the case that improvements must be proved to win sales over tried and tested varieties. Robin Tacchi Plants is currently concluding some trials and hopes to give us news of some exciting new lines soon.