Succession troubles 'tragedy' for grower industry

The closure of alpine plants nursery Ingwersen signals an sector-wide challenge. Matthew Appleby reports.

A chapter of British gardening history ends next month when alpine plants nursery Ingwersen closes for good in what has been described as a "tragedy" for horticulture.

Paul Ingwersen, 77, is retiring after a lifetime at the family firm - founded by his father Walter, in Gravetye, West Sussex, in 1927 - and his two daughters do not want to take on the business.

It did not sell as a going concern and is likely to be landscaped over, with the 16th-century house at the nursery becoming a weekend retreat for its probable buyer.

Ingwersen is just one of many growers who have closed sites in recent years as lack of profitability, too much hard work and the rise of garden centres have made the industry less attractive to young people.

The Ingwersens have exhibited at Chelsea since its foundation in 1913 but after Ingwersen told RHS shows director Stephen Bennett that trade was disappointing at Chelsea compared with the other 50 shows they attend annually, "we were soon told there wasn't space for us any more".

Ingwersen is one of a generation of growers retiring as their children decide the business is not profitable enough to work in.

Another case in point is renowned Chelsea exhibitor, the carnation and Alstromeria specialist Steven Bailey, who is selling his Hampshire nursery due to ill health, five years after retirement. Bailey's daughter used to work in the business but now works in landscape gardening, said Brian Vibert, who has leased Bailey's Hampshire-based Silver Street Nursery since 2003.

Vibert said many premises in the area are closing. Bailey is to put up the 6.6ha nursery for sale later this year and Vibert is moving to his own land, glad not to be paying £16,000 in rent each year.

Vibert said five local nurseries have closed, with three now standing empty. "It's just the way it is. A lot of people have got older and don't want to carry on. Their children don't want to take it on and prices are too expensive for the likes of me to buy nurseries. We're open most of the time and don't have a day off. We can't afford to employ too many staff."

He added: "I find it sad, but when costs rise you can't afford to carry on."

Business transfer agent Avondale has found that 20 years ago 60 per cent of businesses were passed on within the family. Now it's only 10 per cent.

Specialist estate agent Simon Quinton Smith of Quinton Edwards said: "The older generation, more so than before, are selling up because their children don't want to follow them into the business. It's particularly a trend in our industry as well as being a general trend. People see nurseries as too one-dimensional - you grow plants and that's it."

Garden writer Peter Seabrook said: "It is a generational thing. And also, is due in part to the decline of specialist nurseries. Bailey grew perpetual flowering carnations but they aren't grown in the UK any more - they all come from Columbia. So that business went down and he started growing alstromerias. He stayed on the show circuit but gave up in recent years."

HTA president and Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson said: "So much about a successful nursery depends on the people there. If they leave, the nursery often ceases to exist.

"Ten years ago, garden centres were in the same position with no opportunity to sell. Now that's changed. But if we put our nursery on the market I don't think we'd get one enquiry because it's too complex a market and the margins are so low. Unless you've always been in it there's not much attraction to get involved. A lot of people in the industry are in their 50s and above.

"At landscaping events I see all these 25 year olds. It's a pity that young, dynamic energy is not in growing."

GROWER STATISTICS

1998: 2,750 levy payers
2000: 2,050 levy payers after levy paying threshold rose from £25,000 to £50,000
2003: 2,400 levy payers after 400 apple growers joined
2008: 2,131 levy payers before levy rise
2008: 2,101 levy payers after levy paying threshold rose from £50,000 to £60,000

HDC chief executive Martin Beckenham said: "Overall, the levy paid has gone up. What is happening is consolidation rather than business being lost. There's more business but fewer people running individual ones. That's common to a lot of businesses, for instance, garden centres. Often, when someone retires the firm closes but people continue to buy plants, only they may go to multiples instead."

NURSERY AT AUCTION

The Ingwersen nursery began 80 years ago when German-born Walter Ingwersen was given land to develop by the pioneer of the English Country Garden movement, William Robinson.

Now, eight decades on 10 lots of alpine troughs will be put up at a sale of garden statuary, architectural items and decorative fossils at Summers Place Auctions (in association with Sotheby's), in Billingshurst, West Sussex on 21 October. On 1 November the nursery will sell its stock of alpine and dwarf hardy plants and other effects at Birch Farm on the Gravetye Estate near East Grinstead, Sussex.


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