Feature plants - whether single palms or finely sculpted topiary - are the signature of an increasing number of domestic gardens. Such plants, especially when in larger pots, can command high ticket prices, so can represent a valuable revenue stream.
A significant number of UK gardeners also grow exotic-looking plants that look as though they have come straight from the Brazilian rainforest or the deserts of North Africa. But what inspires them to do this when there are thousands of indigenous and introduced plants that are hardy to freezing point and below and more commensurate with the UK weather?
Some like to be reminded of holidays abroad, following visits to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Australia or China. For others, the size, boldness and architectural nature of these plants means that they can make a statement in their garden. Some, of course, grow exotic-looking plants just because they are a bit different.
It is difficult to estimate the number of people hooked on this kind of gardening (neither the HTA nor the Garden Centre Association have figures), but it is certainly high, judging by the increase in sell-through to consumers and the growing number of retail nurseries specialising in them. Here are 10 ways for retailers to capitalise on this trend:
1. Think big
Large plants that offer instant impact have been a major growth area in garden retailing, and the evidence shows that people are willing to pay for them. Plant Publicity Holland UK & Ireland representative Mark Long says: "Specimen shrubs are your opportunity to make big-ticket sales. Cash in on the trend. In spring, make sure that top-quality specimen magnolias are always available. Some rhododendrons are good choices too. Information is key in this case and customers need support when making big purchases. Brief staff to offer assistance, and for really big specimens offer delivery (free locally if possible). Make it easy."
Plants with big foliage make another potential revenue stream. Curator Stephen Griffith of Dorset-based Abbotsbury sub-tropical gardens and plant centre says: "Some large-leaved plants can be made a feature in their own right. There are many plants that grow in cooler climates that can echo or mimic the bigger species from the tropical jungles. Plants such as bananas, with their huge leaves, are perfect for creating a bold statement."
2. Promote hardiness
You could be forgiven for thinking that all exotic-looking plants are tender. However, with winter average temperatures continuing to rise, we are able to expand the range of exotics we can grow and sell.
The man largely credited for the genre of gardening known as "exoticism" is London-based designer Myles Challis, who is also head of horticulture at the Living Rainforest in Berkshire, and carries out design work in association with Paramount Plants & Gardens in Enfield, London. He has some good news for garden retailers in urban situations: "Microclimates created in towns and cities enable many of our less hardy plants to be grown. Hardy exotics lend themselves to almost any situation, and they look good with buildings - both old and contemporary - in containers, and in gardens of any shape or size."
3. Instant, easy and year-round
Challis says exoticism has three great qualities that you should explain to your customers: "The first is that they give an instant effect. Most exotic plants have a fast rate of growth, which makes it possible to create established-looking gardens either immediately or much more quickly than with traditional planting.
"Second, an exotic garden requires minimal maintenance, mostly the time being spent on watering. And third, exotic plants can have year-round appeal, looking little different from winter to summer bar the splashes of vibrant colour. This is important in a climate where the summers are comparatively short. After all, who would not prefer a lush green winter setting of palms and bamboos to a bleak scene of bare twigs?"
4. Attract the non-gardener
Green fingers, it seems, are not essential when gardening with hardy exotics. "Provided hardy exotic plants are watered sufficiently, especially when first planted, they are more likely to flourish than dwindle and die. Generally speaking, they are tough subjects and seldom prone to bugs and diseases, unlike roses for instance," says Challis.
"Exoticism is a style that attracts people of all ages and walks of life - even the non-gardener. The sheer enthusiasm that these plants seem to engender, and the pleasure that people appear to have from acquiring them, never ceases to amaze me."
At Compton Acres Plant Centre in Poole, Dorset, joint manager Ian Smith agrees. "We stock a range of sizeable and feature plants, including tree fern trunks far bigger than you would see in a 'normal' garden centre. Around 50 per cent of our stock went in just a couple of weeks, and this was even before their fronds had fully opened, so they were little more than hairy trunks," he says.
"People like the look of them and want something different - one customer had no prior knowledge at all of how to grow them. And the plants can have ticket prices of more than £240." Smith also says it is important to group big items with the smaller perennial ferns.
5. Tree ferns
Of the many feature plants for modern gardens, the tree ferns rank as some of the most dramatic. The best in terms of hardiness is Dicksonia antarctica, a fully-fronded specimen can be more than 2m across and often taller.
These plants were popular in Victorian times, but for the greater part of the last century they were ignored. In 1992 Surrey-based Pantiles Nursery began importing container loads from Tasmania - rescued plants from areas where the forest was being cleared. They proved to be hardier in the UK than people first thought.
The ferns are still being imported, although now from other parts of the world, which means that they may not be quite as hardy as the Tasmanian originals. Thick trunks is usually an indication of a slower growth rate - Dicksonia gain only an inch or so of trunk a year, so tall specimens can be hundreds of years old.
Suffolk-based Fernatix Nursery co-owner Steven Fletcher adds: "Tree ferns are very unpredictable. Sometimes they will come through a hard winter unscathed - and sometimes they will be damaged beyond hope." He recommends you tell your customers to give them winter protection, by at least placing a handful of straw into the crowns.
Along with the other hardy exotics with which they associate so happily - palms, tree ferns, phormiums and the like - bamboos have des- ervedly grown in popularity over the past 20 years. Before this, the plants' real potential was not exploited - they were used mainly as screening.
Challis said: "For many years only a few varieties were to be found in garden centres, such as Pseudosasa japonica (previously called Arundinaia japonica), and Fargesia murielae. The full beauty of bamboos cannot be fully apprec- iated when they are mixed with ordinary garden plants. They need to keep company with other hardy exotics. They are useful for filling corners, diverting paths to create mystery and as a substitute for trees."
The bamboo family is huge and diverse is size and habit, meaning there are some for any type of garden. Challis says: "Bamboos range from a few feet tall - some are ideal for groundcover - to towering giants up to 9m high. Their leaves also vary from only a few inches to more than a foot in length."
The best way to display bamboos is to plant out as many as you can so customers can see established plants. When they are small, in pots, it is impossible to show their full potential.
The Palm Centre based in Richmond, Surrey, opened in 1989 and supplies retail, trade, wholesale and online customers with a full range of hardy plants including palms, ferns, bamboos, grasses, olives, trees, arid and herbaceous plants. Owner Martin Gibbons, who wrote the best-selling identifier book Palms, says: "Many people like to grow palms in their home or greenhouse or, if they are lucky enough to live in a warm climate, their garden. But it comes as a surprise to many that a good number of palms actually prefer cool climates, and will thrive outdoors in temperate areas."
It is important that you use a reliable supplier, because accurately identifying a palm can be difficult. "Many species are difficult even for the experts to identify, since they differ only in flower or pollen details," explains Gibbons.
But fortunately for the planteria manager, most of the palms that are commonly encountered are relatively easy to tell apart, having major and often unique characteristics that with guid- ance enable staff and customers alike to tell the difference.
Some of the toughest palms for the UK clim- ate - starting with the hardiest - include the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), the Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), the Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), the Palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto), the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), the jelly palm (Butia capitata), and the Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata).
8. Spiky-leaved plants
Think of architectural plants and among the first that spring to mind are the dramatic, bayonet-shaped leaves and evergreen rosettes of agaves and yuccas. If anyone wants to make a statement in their garden, these are their exclamation marks.
Shirley-Anne Bell, who runs Lincolnshire-based Glenhirst Cactus Nursery says: "Because they have such bold forms, they are attractive at every stage in their lives. Some are totally hardy, so they offer all-year-round colour and structure in the garden and can be used as stunning centrepieces in island beds, to frame openings and as an upright foil to summer bedding schemes."
The fully hardy Spanish dagger (Yucca gloriosa) initially grows as a large rosette with stiff, pointed, spine-tipped blue-green leaves. But it can become even more dramatic later in life. Bell says: "It becomes tree-like with age, forming a stout trunk once the lower leaves die."
Bell also says the Chusan palm makes a good architectural complement to Cordyline and Phormium. "Cordylines are dramatic, fast-growing 'surrogate' palms, while phormiums are grown for their bold, sword-shaped leaves and fabulous colours, such as variegated pinks, creams and purples. Large varieties can make huge architectural subjects."
9. Maximise linked sales
Your customers will probably need guidance on what products are required to get the best from their feature and exotic plants, and topiary. Tell them that for best results, plants need to be fed twice a year with a balanced general-purpose fertiliser - many of these plants are permanent, so they quickly use up available nutrients in the soil. This means that you can direct them towards the fertiliser area or, even better, create a small display of appropriate packs nearby.
Jungle plants, particularly, can suffer from drought, especially during the periods of establishment and again when mature when roots are intertwined and fighting for any available moisture. The opportunity, therefore, is to promote irrigation equipment and water-retaining crystals in conjunction.
Then there are books on impactful plants, exotics and topiary, plant containers for specimen plants, pruning equipment and compost mixtures.
Whether your customers are planting bare root, ball root or pot-grown plants, it is worth recommending use of mycorrhizal fungi - Rootgrow. It enhances a plant's root system, meaning that a newly-planted plant can find more food, nutrients and water. It can only be applied while planting because it has to be in contact with the roots.
10. Sell feature plants with general plants
You can link other, more traditional plant sales with your feature plants. Griffith says: "Drifts of herbaceous groundcover will make a good foil with which to show off more sculptural forms, and will also make a good contrast when planted close to spiky-leaved plants such as Yucca."
He also says traditional herbaceous plants such as Hosta and Farfugium, with lush and exotic-looking leaf forms, can easily earn a place in a feature display.
Sell your feature plants within a pre-selected container option - and promote the fact that all can be grown in containers. The gardener can then move plants around seasonally, putting them on full display when they are in season, and tuck them away in a less prominent position when they are less attractive.
Smith says: "Container planting is ever more useful in small gardens with lots of hard land- scaping, and finds prominence in defining spaces, such as a pair of pots used to mark the top and bottom of steps, or the entrance to a doorway."
Makers of pots have identified that if you sit a decorative plant in a container of the same colour as the flowers, sales go up. Smith adds: "Good pot suppliers help garden centres to link sales of pots and plants by advising on effective displays, and splitting pots into categories such as warm colours, pastels, foliage and specimen plants.
Retail staff need to think about style, colour and fashion - that's the way to dramatically grow sales."
Topiary and cloud-pruned plants
Good topiary specimens can command premium prices. Most often it is seen shaped as birds, animals, pieces of furniture or simple geometric forms, but some garden centres have gone one step further - Priory Farm Plant Centre in Surrey made a steam train out of Buxus sempervirens.
Trade shows such as Glee and Four Oaks exhibited Italian topiary in the shape of bicycles with riders, full-sized patio tables and chairs - not for sitting on, and even a grand piano with piped music coming from within its branches.
Plant Publicity Holland UK & Ireland representative Mark Long says: "Topiary is enjoying a huge burgeoning of interest, and anything from neatly-clipped balls to novelty shapes is going to find a buyer. Shrubs that offer year-round form and interest and are easy to care for are worth targeting. Style and modernity are hot buttons with this group of plants, so make sure that displays reflect this. Uncluttered, simple presentation will score in this case."
Customers inspired to try creating topiary do not just need to go for box, although this is the most common. Direct them to Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), holly (Ilex aquifolium) and privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium). And make sure you stock starter kits from Burgon & Ball, or at least a good set of cutting tools such as from Bahco and Felco.
Practical advice for customers
- Stephen Griffith, Abbotsbury Sub-tropical Garden & Plant Centre "Close planting creates a microclimate within the border, and the close proximity of the plants creates a buffer zone that limits intense cold weather penetrating through."
- Martin Gibbons, the Palm Centre "Cycads are very adaptable to growing in pots; they can be stood out all summer and moved to a protected spot in the cooler months."
- Ian Smith, Compton Acres Plant Centre "The best position in the garden for the banana - the hardiest species being Musa basjoo - is a sunny one. It should also be sheltered from strong wind because the large, papery leaves can easily become lacerated."
- Steven Fletcher, Fernatix Nursery "Ferns for a sunny place in the garden are few and far between, but some success can be had by planting Polypodium, Polystichum and some of the smaller species of Dryopteris."
- Shirley-Anne Bell, Glenhirst Cactus Nursery "In the garden, cacti and succulents are striking and easy to care for, and will tolerate the hottest and driest summers with no need for endless watering."
Fernatix Stoke Ash, Suffolk IP23 7EN. Email@fernatix.co.uk
The Palm Centre Ham Central Nursery, Ham, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7HA. www.palmcentre.co.uk
Glenhirst Cactus Nursery Station Road, Swineshead, Boston Lincolnshire PE20 3NX. www.glenhirstcactiandpalms.co.uk
Abbotsbury Specialist Plant Nursery Abbotsbury, Weymouth, Dorset DT3 4LA. www.abbotsburyplantsales.co.uk.