A Long Hot Summer
We've had a busy time of it over the last few months. Beavering away in our Somerset eyrie seemed surreal as the rest of the world stopped, and it feels like we're only now coming up for air.
It has been - well - challenging. As a mostly online business we've been in a much better place than many, but we've had some stressful times. I've needed my botanical walks with Woody, our Sealyham terrier (you can see all the photos on our Instagram account)!.
There were obvious problems over the summer. Our bigger orders collapsed, but everyone headed out into the garden to dig ponds or make meadows. So we had lots of smaller orders to fulfill. The systems at some of our growers couldn't cope, but we were able to work around that. The garden was full of pond plants for most of the summer, which was interesting. We had to find 10,000 seed envelopes from thin air. Our suppliers were generally fab, though. Other online businesses were not so lucky - ironically, several will find it difficult to recover from the reputational damage done as they struggled to meet demand and deal with the difficulties of disrupted supply and delivery networks.
Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
Not only has there been a surge in demand from gardeners, but there have been growing issues with supply.
This hasn't just been our problem. I had an odd call a couple of weeks' ago from a buyer at a large seed merchant - the UK's volume leader in wildflower seeds. He wanted to know where we sourced our seed as they were running out of stock...
I was very happy to tell him - promoting our harvesters and growers is part of what we do, and public knowledge - but it was an interesting moment!
A little while ago Kew asked a market research company to analyse the UK wildflower seed market. The results were comical. The researchers couldn't understand where the seed was coming from; they had contacted the producers here (I would say there are probably only 6 or 7 "major" producers in the UK, so not difficult) and added up all their production, and it came to a fraction of the total seed sold here.
This came as no surprise to everyone in the business, though. The majority of wildflower seed sold here comes from Europe, where it's much easier to find and harvest and process or grow.
The same is true across the board - not just seed, but a whole range of plants, not just ornamentals. We've lost most of our growing nurseries across the board, so depend on imports of fruit trees and "native" plants too, for example. Customers are stunned when they realise just how few people in the UK are growing plants for sale on a commercial basis. Ahead of January 1st, when it will be much more difficult to import from the EU, there will almost certainly be significant shortages and price rises.*
We're affected by Brexit too, because we are squeezed by larger retailers switching to sourcing plants and seeds from UK growers/harvesters. It's looking possible we won't have many plants for sale past January, missing out on two month's of sales. Our regular suppliers weren't able to allocate us the stock we needed this year. Looking out to 2021/22, because all the smaller plants will have been sold this season, we'll be looking at selling smaller sizes only. I've bought in as much seed as I can for spring, but really need more. We'll be competing with all sorts of odd retailers for wildflower seed in the summer, I'm sure.
Paying The Price
The horticultural trade has bigger issues than Brexit, too. It's had the same unhappy experience as the food industry, which for most of us is a more familiar tale of woe. Like it or not, consumer choice has been predominantly price driven. I despair of comments like this in online gardening forums: Look at this Apple tree/orchid/houseplant/rose/etc bought today from Aldi/Lidl/Ikea/etc for 50p!
Over time consumers, consequently, lose sight of the real cost of production. For producers this means a never ending cycle of falling margins and prices, and desperate efforts at yield enhancement, often through introducing environmentally unfriendly means. There's no money for investment in the business - no new glass or weeding systems. Old IT systems start failing and business resilience is poor - which we saw at first hand over the summer.
Growers and sellers of plants / seed aren't just vulnerable to one off events; things are also getting trickier due to climate change. The bare root planting season continues to get shorter as autumn warms up. This year's dry spring meant many plants didn't put on enough growth to meet size requirements. Some seed is in very short supply; yields of Rhinanthus minor, Yellow rattle, a key meadow species, were down something like 70% this year. We had to ask people to pay £260/kg for it, but I have seen prices over £500/kg. Ridiculous.
Home Grown Please
The shortages and price rises we're seeing might have a silver lining in the longer term though. I've seen no evidence of it yet, but surely they must lure some younger people into growing and harvesting, even with the challenges they will face.
We've been promoting plants with UK origin and provenance for years - it's our USP. Growing our own plants rather than importing them is good news in terms of biosecurity, and, for native plants, genetic diversity, resilience and local ecosystems.
Supply will take a few years to catch up with demand, particularly increasing demand - plants take a while to grow. Some - like Yellow Rattle - might just disappear from sale for a while. My hunch is enthusiasts and local non-profit organisations will fill part of the interim vacuum, and that natural regeneration and changes in land management, rather than planting or seeding, will become much more of the mix. Not such a bad thing, but if you need any plants this bare root season you'd better buy them now. Interesting times.
* From January, EU plant imports will be have to have a phytosanitary (health) certificate, pre-notification submitted by the importer in England, Scotland or Wales, documentary and identity checks, and a physical inspection. Costly and potentially time consuming.