2011年8月19日 星期五

Market report - Bedding Trials

Summer trials are a horticultural institution that serve a range of purposes from assessing the potential of new varieties and ensuring that current lines still perform to engaging with hobby gardeners and polling their views.

Mr Fothergill's puts the emphasis on comparison at the Suffolk trials site it has used for the past six years. "We are trialling around 1,500 lines, looking at the quality of seed from competing suppliers," says technical manager Tracy Collacott.

"We try to select the best we can in terms of uniformity, quality and colour range. Unlike the Dutch trials, it's a working comparison trial - there are no fancy mown paths around the site. But we are also showcasing this year's introductions and the coming additions to our mail-order range as well as potential introductions for the future."

This is important to give the Mr Fothergill's brand - and its Johnsons Seeds range - credibility in the market. "We can't replicate, for example, the Scottish climate in East Anglia but it's still more representative for the British market as a whole than trials in, say, California," says Collacott.

Indeed, this year's weather has been a challenge for less hardy plants, she adds. "The cool night-time temperatures are almost unheard of here and the result is the trials are a bit dwarfed. Our sweetcorn plants are three feet (1m) high rather the usual five to six feet and Cosmos are no taller."

Gathering evidence

The 60:40 split between flowers and vegetables at the trials is "reflective of the state of the market", she explains. "We try to find unusual varieties of vegetables such as coloured carrots. We are also looking at smaller squashes from the USA, which is not a crop that most people think will grow here but has been fruiting prolifically. On that basis, we can sell the seeds with confidence. We have even been trialling watermelons that produce superb fruits and we will put those in the catalogue too."
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Having polytunnels at the trials site enables comparisons between indoor and outdoor growing, she adds. "We are trialling some tomato varieties both inside and out and if they fruit well outdoors we can then say that on the packets."

Another ongoing area of investigation at Mr Fothergill's is late sowing of flowers. These trials, begun four years ago, have shown that Alyssum and some hybrid sunflowers can be sown in late July and will still flower in September-October. "It means that they can fill in odd spaces in the garden," says Collacott. "We can add that as a tip for customers."

Thompson & Morgan in nearby Ipswich takes a different approach, eschewing a trade event for a press day and an open weekend for consumer gardeners in late July, which this year attracted more than 5,000 visitors.

"We have display gardens across the site, including such things as growing in pouches as well as key products and customer favourites," says company representative Helen Johns. "Concepts such as vertical gardening can inspire people even if they only have a small space in which to grow."

The event also includes demonstrations of horticultural techniques and question-and-answer sessions with gardening experts. "We hear from them what they like and don't - they even vote for their favourite flower," says Johns. "It can also alert us to problems such as impatiens downy mildew this year."

The company also has a trial ground where new and existing varieties are field tested. For trade visitors, she adds: "We showcase what's coming up in 2012 so they will recognise what's in the spring catalogue. We have a big window when things are looking good and we can show people round."

The combination of consumer gardening with breeding of novel varieties "sets us apart", she says, and the two are connected. "Customers like to know that we are pushing the boundaries by trying new things. And dealing with people's problems and demands informs our breeding."

A good example of this is the company's award-winning Buddleja 'Buzz' series, she says. "Gardeners tell us that buddleja get too big and unruly and set seed everywhere. A plant like 'Buzz' can meet those concerns. It's a two-way thing."

Customer feedback

Flower and home-grown vegetable breeding is the sole concern of Norfolk's Floranova. "Our UK summer trials give us the opportunity to show our full product range to our home market," says supply chain director Kate Monaghan.

"The California Spring Trials and the Flower Trails in Holland are important too but they are effectively exhibition stands for us. And we also get visitors here from Europe and even the USA."

Floranova's event also serves as a testing ground for experimental varieties, she adds. "Our customers can see things pre-launch and we can get their feedback on what they do and don't like and what they are looking for in their market. While distributors are the main audience for the trials, they will also bring their grower customers."

Positive feedback has already been generated by the company's Pansy Freefall range and the Vegetalis range is proving "extremely popular", Monaghan continues. "People are doing their own small-scale trials, testing the water, and are finding that they are profitable, low-volume, high-margin crops that can be fitted in after the main bedding plant season. They also fit nicely into the trend for easy gardening, where you plonk a few plants in a container or even buy one ready-planted."

Vegetalis is among the ranges being trialled in Devon at Suttons Seeds, where consumer-friendly home growing is still moving forward, according to the company's technical manager Tom Sharples. "We tend to work in trends and our new varieties link with those. We are conscious of people coming into gardening, especially into vegetable growing. That is slowing from the 40 per cent-plus growth of previous years, but is still five-to-10 per cent."

Such newcomers to growing are unsure where to start, which is where Suttons' For Your Space initiative in garden centres comes in, he says. "It's aimed at different scales of grow your own, from windowsills and window boxes through to patios and what we're calling 'square-metre gardening'. That feeds into the new selections."

This means new livery and point of sale for the range, which includes "a lot of new varieties as well as good existing ones", he adds. "It's also supported by videos on our website. So far, it's gone down a storm in garden centres."