Brisk spring trade in garden centres has kept UK growers busier than they have been for years, but most are treating this as a welcome one-off rather than the start of a trend.
"It's good for the industry - after two indifferent years it brings back the confidence," says Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson. "We have been low on some lines, which is frustrating in that we could have sold a lot more. Because the weather has been warm and we've had good light levels, stock has become available for sale sooner than expected."
But this is not the cue for nurseries to ramp up production, he argues. "In previous years, growers have upped production by 20-30 per cent, then have been faced with bad weather the next season. It's better to take the middle road - that way you may not have quite enough one year, but you won't have way too much the next."
Johnsons has seen its recent diversification into supplying the retail sector pay dividends, he adds. "Demand from retail has been fantastic, although there has been a slowdown more recently - it's got cold again in Scotland," he says.
"Retail is an area that we went into because we saw demand being stronger there in the longer term - although the amenity market is still strong.
We are 15-30 per cent ahead of our amenity sales budget and contractors I have spoken to have been quite happy."
The harsh winter has been a mixed blessing, he adds. "We had a lot of stock killed or damaged. Hebe we used to grow outside, but have had two years of damaged stock - you can't work on that basis."
Instead, he says, the company aims to be better prepared next time. "Last year they were saying it was a one-in-25-year event. Then, after this past winter, people said it was a one-in-100-year occurrence. But our strategy now is based on the expectation that last year will be the norm, so we are putting in a large area of extra protected space. We have no idea what the weather will be like next winter, but at least we'll be covered whatever happens."
He adds that problems of supply in the UK have not sent buyers seeking replacements from the Continent. "The home market over there is pretty buoyant - there's not a lot of free stock. Visitors to the plant auctions are finding that hasn't solved the problem."
Lowaters Nursery director Charles Carr is savouring the challenge of meeting high demand this season. "This is what springs used to be like when I started in the industry," he says. "You would work every hour you had from March to June in the hope of having an empty nursery at the end of it."
Venturing his own theory about the weather, he says: "It goes in cycles, and I wonder if we are going into an extended period of cold winters. We had a long run of cold weather in the 1980s, then milder weather in the 1990s and early 2000s."
The Hampshire grower is planning for "slight incremental growth" in production rather than a reactive rush. "We haven't speculatively potted up anything extra," says Carr, "because even the fastest plants still take three or four weeks (to become saleable) - during which time anything could happen. But we are seeing very strong demand for what we have. New customers, and some we have not seen in a while, have come to us after finding they couldn't get stock elsewhere."
This has been true across the board. "On the whole it's just been good plants that are selling," he says. "We sold out of Buddleja very early - we grow more unusual varieties - as well as things such as lavender, which sold out very quickly, Verbascum and Cistus. Anything with a flower is flying out. "
Darby Nursery Stock sales manager Chris Finlay reports a 25 per cent rise in sales of A-Z shrubs compared to last year and believes the strong demand has been boosted by the series of bank holidays, which has coincided with fine weather. "That's been the difference between this year and last," he says. "People got into their gardens early in the season and so were more likely to buy outdoor-grown stock than bedding or seasonal lines."
Customers are also catching up on replacing plants they lost over the two recent hard winters, he adds. "The last time we had two bad winters in a row like this, the garden centre industry didn't exist. People have lost shrubs that in normal years would have been okay. Although we had the same issue last year, there wasn't the good spring weather afterwards - people didn't get out and so we couldn't maximise sales. So there's a knock-on effect, we have two winters' worth of losses to replace."
The boost has come at a welcome time for the trade, he adds. "The past few years have been fairly tough and growers haven't been growing extra stock. Then we've been suddenly faced with increased demand - you can't anticipate it and it's hard to react to. The production cycle for a three-litre shrub takes two to three years."
This has left the Norfolk nursery depleted, but not adversely so, he adds. "Overall we have a good selection of shrubs left, but not huge volumes. Similarly with herbaceous plants. However, we are low on Clematis montana varieties, Cistus and Vinca are all gone, holly and ivy are almost out - though we will have a new crop of Buddleja. But even if we don't have a particular variety, retailers are happy to take a replacement as long as it's looking good."
While gardeners suffered winter losses, the nursery itself got off fairly lightly, he adds. "We are on an exposed site here in Norfolk but the temperature doesn't fluctuate that much. Minus 10 was as low as it got. We grow very hardy plants, some of which we had to fleece up, and some of which needed a light prune afterwards. And we spent quite a bit on fuel in the glasshouses."
Looking ahead, he concludes: "I think next year will get back to normal - I don't think we'll grow any extra plants. However, retailers should reserve stock with growers to ensure they have enough - those who did so this season haven't been let down. That's the lesson from this."
HAVE EXOTIC SHRUBS BECOME DISPOSABLE ITEMS?
The evidence of the season so far suggests the winter weather has not chilled the British gardener's fondness for exotic nursery stock.
According to Mark Smith, sales representative of Hertfordshire-based importer Europlants UK: "Garden centre buyers visiting us in February were unsure if their customers were going to replace fatalities suffered over the winter with like-for-like plants or downsize with hardier varieties. But I am sure that having such great weather in March and April has helped encourage people to re-purchase the plants that they loved and cherished, and we have had very strong sales with palms - especially Cordyline, bay trees and Phormium."
Andrew Richardson backs this up. "Phormium and Cordyline have just about all been killed off. Yet a lot of garden centres are saying that people are still asking for them - even people who've lost them two years in a row. It's like they're being treated as posh bedding."
Charles Carr confirms that the two borderline-hardy southern hemisphere plants "have been two of the crops that have sold best this season".
The rumoured decline in sales of larger imported specimens is so far proving unfounded, Smith adds. "We have only seen increased sales across all lines. If the plants are presented well, look fantastic and offer good value, they will sell. This spring has only reinforced our belief that many garden centres are not maximising sales of specimen plants. Those who are holding a good selection are seeing strong sales."