Plants have always been an easy target for local authorities looking to trim costs and never more so than in the current climate of reduced public spending. But as bedding plant suppliers report this week, how local authorities are responding to financial pressures varies hugely.
Where some have brought the axe down hard, others and especially those with significant tourist populations to support are maintaining their investment in plants, others still are ringing the changes with, for instance, a new focus on larger plants with lower maintenance requirements.
Baginton Nurseries managing director Will Lamb says: "There are definitely cutbacks in the numbers of plants that local authorities are ordering and some we used to supply are no longer taking orders at all. We're hearing budget cuts are the reason. But on the flip side, we have also won other tenders so are a bit up overall."
The company has gained from being well placed to meet the specific demands of such tenders, he adds. "There are a number of things that can help you win a contract - the plant quality, service to back it up, quickness of getting plants to them. And, of course, the price - a lot will just look at that."
Being accredited to the British Ornamental Plant Producers scheme has given the firm an edge, he explains. "Council tenders are often complicated and want evidence of policies on sustainability, recycling, health and safety and discrimination. Accreditation makes that more straightforward."
The market is getting tougher, according to Lamb, but he remains optimistic for the longer term. "Generally, bedding is on the slide - it's survival of the fittest. We have sharpened our pencil to win these and fortunately we don't rely wholly on local authority work - we sell slightly more to garden centres."
He adds: "I think that there will be a steady decline in the next five years. But I'm hopeful that it will regenerate in time. There will be demand for colour in parks and places with a tourist industry will see an effect on revenue where they have cut it. Right now they're shooting themselves in the foot."
Kernock Park Plants of Cornwall has carved a niche in supplying "instant" bespoke carpet bedding made up of sedum, Alternanthera, echeveria and other low-growing perennials. But according to marketing manager Mark Taylor: "It's down quite dramatically this year by around 40 per cent. We are hoping for a resurgence next year with the Olympics and the Queen's diamond jubilee."
He describes the sight of local authorities putting flower beds back to turf as a concern. "Around here I see less civic planting even in villages. In future it may not be the local authorities paying for them but local sponsors or partnerships. From a supplier's point of view, it becomes more fragmented and it's harder to get hold of the decision-makers."
Among the suppliers of more conventional bedding, Pentland Plants partner David Spray says: "We have seen some local authorities cutting back on autumn bedding to protect their spending on spring bedding. If that's the case, we will know by Christmas - the good ones order before then."
Ball Colegrave marketing manager Stuart Lowen adds: "It seems to be affecting local authorities in different ways, but there is a decline overall, which is challenging for suppliers such as ourselves."
Crosby's Wholesale Nurseries partner Nigel Crosby has been perhaps an unexpected beneficiary from the trend. "It fluctuates, but last year has been really good for us," he says. "A lot of local authorities' own nurseries are being shut and if they still want plants they have to come from somewhere."
Such customers are changing their demands, Crosby adds. "They are looking for bigger, fancier products so they won't need so many to fill a bed and products that need less maintenance. Begonia Non-Stop, for example, have been strong in the North West and put on a good display."
Looking ahead, he says: "In general, some local authorities will stop doing bedding plants, some will cut back and others will maintain them. Price is still the main driver. There are some tenders we quote for year on year and never get."
Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council is among those that recently closed their own nursery According to a council representative, this is partly because of the cost of running it.
But Edinburgh City Council remains committed to growing most of its half-a-million plants at its nursery in the south of the city. "Spending on bedding has been about the same for the past three years," says a representative. "We have changed some displays to herbaceous perennials. But in many places there is still a role for bedding."
At Stockton Borough Council, horticultural manager Dave Murdy says: "Spring and summer bedding plants play a big part in creating a wow factor and each year we will plant 500,000 plants in carpet beds and structures such as planters, barrier troughs and baskets." This approach won the borough the "city" category in this year's Britain in Bloom competition.
But Murdy adds: "Really, the enthusiasm of our staff is the key. They take pride in their work. We like to experiment with designs to make them as colourful as possible using all the favourite varieties, which we plant at up to 50 per square metre."
Bristol very much in bloom
Bristol is becoming increasingly recognised for the quality of its amenity horticulture, attested to by its being awarded a gold and named winner in the large city category of the RHS Britain in Bloom competition last month.
Nursery officer Rod Pooley says bedding plants have a role to play in maintaining such standards. "There is a strong element of neighbourhood involvement in the outskirts as well as the centre. We have extended planting to a ten-mile radius to raise standards and promote awareness. In a lot of cities, you don't see baskets outside the centre."
However, this does not necessarily mean blanket bedding displays for all areas. "The high-profile sites still have bedding but most now also have some permanent planting," he says. "Britain in Bloom is also judged on sustainability criteria. It's hard to justify wall-to-wall bedding. We use herbaceous planting in the beds too - Monarda, penstemon, solidago - that can then be kept or replanted elsewhere, while the bedding is recycled."
This year, Pooley and his department selected a tight colour scheme for the city's planting of just yellow, blue, dark red and silver to create a unified look.
"Next year will be the Olympics and also the Queen's diamond jubilee, which takes care of the colour scheme, particularly as Bristol is a torch-bearing city for the games," he explains. "It should be a good year."
Not only is the council self-sufficient in bedding, some of the 1.7 million plants it grows are also sold on to other local authorities, so it has an interest in the future of the market.
"We are one of the biggest bedding plant growers in the South West," says Pooley. "Overall there is a downturn in bedding and there is also a move to cheaper plants. It's sad to see. If you cut everything, what is there to look forward to?
"There is a need for bedding, especially in touristy places, and Bristol is attracting more and more people each year. But I worry that with a couple of bad years there will be a loss of skills and capacity in the industry."
The nursery has been growing in peat-free for more than 10 years and now grows everything either in a 100 per cent peat-free medium or a 60:40 peat-reduced mix, he adds.
"We are one of the few to offer that to local authority customers. Growing in peat-free is not the easiest thing to do and it has taken a while to perfect. For us the issue is the greater weight of peat-free, which adds to delivery costs."