Protected stock - Dealing with drought

With drought leading to hosepipe bans, bedding plant suppliers are striving to maintain customer confidence, Hannah Jordan reports.

Growers are waiting to see whether hosepipe bans will deter gardeners from buying summer varieties - image: Chuck Eckert/Alamy
Growers are waiting to see whether hosepipe bans will deter gardeners from buying summer varieties - image: Chuck Eckert/Alamy

This month, Yorkshire became the latest region in England to declare drought as groundwater levels continue to drop and rainfall remains at low levels not seen, in some cases, for more than a century.

Meanwhile, hosepipe bans from seven of the nation's water suppliers are now in effect and the media is churning out daily headlines such as "Drought takes its toll", "Fish dying in rivers" and "Homes braced for hosepipe bans".

So will gardeners be reluctant to fill up on bedding plants for fear of being unable to sustain them? Will they depart from the traditional, colourful summer varieties in favour of hardier perennials? Or, indeed, will they ignore the bans altogether, fill their pots and borders and ensure that growers' products remain in hot demand?

The mood around the sector appears to be one of quiet confidence, with some bedding plant growers reporting record trading figures due to the unprecedented early sunny spell, while others simply say they are ready for whatever impact the hosepipe bans may have.

Changing traditions

Blue Ribbon Plants business development manager Philip Sanders says the West Sussex-based nursery has changed its products over the past two years to be better prepared for such situations. He feels that the tradition for extensive flower beds and vegetable patches has gone. "I don't see such a major gardening crisis as people are predicting," he adds.

"The trend now is for more specimen plants on decking," he explains. "In the past 18 months, we have been putting a lot of drought-resistant plants such as acers or rhododendrons in fiveand 10-litre pots, so we are ahead of the situation. Time will tell whether we've done the right thing."

Despite having confidence in the market, Sanders warns that growers must not be complacent and that building client relationships is more important than ever. "We are having much more detailed dialogue with our retailers about their needs instead of representatives just assuming that they will order the same as they did last year," he says.

Nursery Fresh Plants sales and marketing director Peter Hull says garden retailers are thinking more about what plants they should be stocking, in light of the drought, and the need to guide customers in the right direction. "The general public will become more selective in what they buy," he points out. Zonal geraniums, one of the Lincolnshire-based business's main crops during the summer bedding season, will do well and Mediterranean plants will come to the fore again, he predicts.

But although trade has been excellent over recent weeks, Hull says the next couple of months could see sales affected. "It is a major concern how the media is reporting the drought and hosepipe bans. People are easily panicked. Sales so far have been superb because the weather has been good. But over the next few weeks we may well see it starting to have an impact."

Chichester-based ornamentals grower Hill Brothers specialises in indoor and outdoor flowering plants and director Peter Hill feels that puts them in a strong position for the coming weeks. "You don't water our products with hosepipes or sprinklers so I don't feel we will be significantly affected. We may even find we might improve our sales because people who usually have their beds full of plants may turn to pot plants to have more chance of looking after them," he suggests.

Purchase delay fears

But Hill says other growers could see a deeper impact, particularly due to the timing of the hosepipe bans. "Bedding plant growers will be very worried because it will definitely have an effect on whether people plant their gardens as fully as they otherwise would. It's particularly difficult because it has come so early in the year and it will inevitably affect anyone who wants to plant now. If they can't use their sprinklers, people will definitely think twice or maybe delay their purchasing," he believes.

If drought conditions become the norm in the UK, Hill says both breeders and growers will have to consider producing new lines, such as Mediterranean varieties. It would be unwise not to respond to consumer demand for more drought-hardy varieties, he adds. "It could become a vital selling point."

With bedding plant growers currently reporting a buoyant market, Hill feels that there is no imminent threat to trade. But he points out that if the drought worsens and hosepipe bans are extended, consumer confidence could be affected in the long term.

"If this turns into a crisis as opposed to an inconvenience, we will start to see the repercussions next year. If their plants fail this year, it will be fresh in people's minds next year when they come to buy their garden products. If they don't feel they can look after it, they won't buy it, and that is a major worry," he adds.

Despite there currently being no hosepipe ban in Essex, WD Smith & Son owner Mike Smith expects to see an impact on sales of his bedding plants because, he says, local customers assume that media reports of bans in the south and South East include them.

"Our local customers just aren't getting the information that we don't have a hosepipe ban so we are putting up posters across our Essex retailers to get the word out," he adds.

Smith says he also hopes that garden centres will push the use of drip irrigation although he is sceptical about whether many people will adopt the measure. "With hanging baskets and containers we want garden centres to highlight drip irrigation but that will only be for the most hardened gardener. Your general part-time gardener won't bother with things like that."

But nursery consultant John Adlam thinks that people will use the systems. "People will use drip irrigation if it is the only way keep their gardens nice. We will definitely see an increase in their use."

Buyer confidence

Growers must do all they can to ensure that the public continue to have confidence in their purchases, says Adlam. He suggests that where water-absorbing gels or similar products are added to growing media, labelling makes this clear.

On securing ongoing custom from landscapers, Adlam advises growers to buy various sizes of bulk carrier, such as 600- or 1,000-litre, and supplying them to clients filled with water from their industrial systems to help them keep their planting schemes watered.

"In some new housing schemes the developers are preventing landscapers from using hosepipes. So it is important for nurseries to consider providing water from their reservoirs and boreholes so that their clients can establish what they are planting. That will help them continue to operate and growers to continue to sell to them," he maintains.

With the prospect of more dry conditions to come, Adlam expects sales of tropical plants such as phormiums and Cordyline to increase significantly. In general, he says growers, through monitoring the market and good dialogue with retailers, are well prepared.

"Everyone I am speaking to is doing all they can to support the sale of plants through this period. They are certainly not sitting back and doing nothing," he insists.

Getting the plant-care message across

Hortipak key account manager Paul Freer believes giving more detailed data on watering and drought-hardy plants would boost shoppers' confidence and support sales:

"There is only so much care and watering advice you can get onto a care card or pictorial label. It is hard to be able to give enough so currently it's just bog-standard information such as 'water well in dry weather'.

"The possible answer is QR codes that link to a site with more tips - that's the future. Gardeners will go home and go online to find out more about the plants they have bought.

"We also need more point-of-sale material with this kind of advice but we must get the key wording that will aid sales. Bench wrap is another effective way of getting information across and I think it could really work with a message like this. It gives a big full-colour message right in your face. It can also include QR codes or digital space where we can get information over to the customer.

"Our current range is about summer celebration and the jubilee, but there is no reason why it couldn't be extended to hit something focused such as drought tolerance and watering tips."

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