Grown in Wales

Grown in WalesGrown in WalesGrown in Wales

29

March

On being small

Charles Warner

I can hear a nuthatch.

Selling plants to garden centres has its own set of challenges. Probably the biggest of these is the seasonality. A grower spends 9 months preparing for the three months in which he or she can make a profit. If you can break even during the other months then you are doing well. That applies to us all, big or small. There are also a raft of practical problems related to the production of a living product. These are all there to be overcome by the concientious grower and it's why we need experience. In recent years the trade that supplies your local B and Q and your garden centre Group store has changed beyond recognition compared to that which I entrered in the early 80's. It's a global business now with plant material shooting around on trucks and aeroplanes from one side of the globe to the other. Garden centres have become meccas for colour hungry shoppers and have begun to use the techniques of the supermarkets to entice customers into buying and they have become emporiums of tat in an attempt to create turnover during those other 9 lean months. If you are part of this trade you can't really knock it. There has been a huge expansion in the industry and it's kept food on the table for many of it's workers. To sustain the level of consumer demand growers have turned to foreign shores. There are places with better climates, lower pay rates and better orginised industries that are ready and willing to supply us with excellent material and like so much of what we consume in the UK the skills to produce it have gone abroad to. It changes the economics of growing. If there are a series of middle men in the chain, all hungry for a bit of profit, it favours large producers that can maximise efficiency and bring down material costs by buying in huge quantities. Profit per unit can be small if you have millions of units and on the whole that is how the industry works now.  

So how does somebody like me fit in ? My skills are a little out of date. I have a tiny nursery and I operate in area where it is difficult to collaborate with other growers because there just aren't many . My thirty odd years in growing commercially has given me an intuitive feeling for what constitutes a quality plant but it no longer matches what the mass of consumer are looking for.

I was on a garden centre last weekend for a "meet the grower" event to help them to kick off their season. Next to where I was standing there was a unit filled with Lithodora "Heavenly blue" . You might know it. It's a hardy alpine with electric blue flowers. They had been bought from a Belgian company but could have actually been grown almost anywhere in Europe or possibly even Africa. they were excellent value in the sense that you got a huge pot full and they were a mass of flower. They were probably a mass of flower when they went on to the Danish trolley that brought them to our shores . They are quite a resilient plant and so they remained just about at their peak as they hit the garden centre bench. I guess they have a couple of days before they start to go past their best on a windy rain washed centre in Wales. Anyone buying one of those plants will get excellent value but not until next year. I don't know exactly how the grower got them to be quite so vigourous and floriferous so early in the season but the garden centre customer that plants that into the garden will soon realise why growers never pot a plant when it is flowering. I was chatting to the owner about them. He didn't really know what they were but anyone could see their appeal. He asked why I didn't grow them. On the bench behind me I showed him the ones that I had grown. They were in a smaller pot. Their compost was peat free, they had been grown under cold polytunnels and outside so they had kept their deep green colour. They had only been on a Danish trolley for about an hour and the flowers were at tight bud stage so were due to slowly open in the next week or ten days. To me they were perfect. They were brimming with health. They had a pictorial label so that anyone could see what the flowers were going to look like. What both the garden centre and I knew was that the Belgian ones were more likely to appeal to his customers. What I knew, or at least suspected, was that they would not perform as well in the customers garden and that when the flowers started to go past their best in the next few days they would be all but unsaleable.

As a small business there things that are hard for us to do. On a small scale it's difficult to invest in the machinery  and the lighting and the heating and the chemical growth regulators to create the sort of standardised product that was represented perfectly by those Lithodora from Belgium. At the same time though that is the kind of thing that appeals to the mass of potential customers even though it might not give the most satisfaction in the long term. There are though things that the small grower can excel at. The "meet the grower" event is one example. There was an opportunity for the customer of the garden centre to engage with the guy that grew their plant either on the garden centre or through the internet and social media. When I make deliveries I often interact with the plant buying public. They tell me the things that are important to them and I am able to show them the passion that I have for growing their plants they never fail to respond positively.For instance, The garden centres all fail to draw attention to the issue of peat but I often find that their customers think that it is an important issue and would buy a peat free product when offered the chance. There are other things that as a small grower we can offer that larger ones cannot. We can offer a dialogue so that they can tell us what their prorities are. Because we use our own transport we can be flexible. I once had a garden centre phone us on Easter Sunday because they had run out of stock. They had their plants in a matter of hours. Not possible if your supplier is in Belgium. We can offer different plants so that the independent garden centre can stock something apart from the standadised varieties that fill every DIY shed and large chain store in the UK and our product can be hardier, more robust and better acclimatised to the local environment. We can also write silly things on the labels that we print ourselves so that the consumer knows that there is a real person that cares at the base of the supply chain.

It can be heartbreaking though when everything that we as small growers can offer is overidden in favour of larger businesses. We have been supplying a large garden centre since early febuary with 9cm and 1L herbs. They left it until the last minute to request that we supply them and as we supply more 1L herbs than 9cm, the smaller ones were in short supply but we are fast catching up. We have delivered every week. Made the bed tidy, took away anything past its best and made the bench look nice. We have supplied them with bilingual bed labels which after three weeks they have not put up. This week the manager told us that he was taking the 9cm plants off because our range was not large enough. He is now going to a huge plant supplier in Sussex.Not just for the less popular varieties that we don't supply but for all the 9cm herbs No dialogue, no discussion and now we are expected to do everything we do for them including extended credit and pricing every plant that we supply but for half the turnover. I have to say that this was a slap in the face.It would be easier to understand if our product or service was poor or our price to high but I use a system of selling to garden centres that is designed to speed up the stock turn of every square metre of bench space on which we have plants. As such we concentrate on all the popular varieties that so many people want and supply the others in quite small numbers. We take away any plant that does not sell before it starts to go past its best and I know from experience which ones we take home the most. Rather than maximising each sale we make by filling the bench with plants we know the garden centre won't sell we have one eye on their stock turn and make an investment in that by not charging for plants that they don't sell. By keeping their bench looking fresh and full of popular plants they sell more and so we sell more. Of course most of the garden centres like this system but on the whole they like it for the wrong reason. They like it because we take away any unsold plants without them ever being invoiced but that is not the real reason. The real reason that we go to all this effort is that we sell more plants

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