Times change

The news that another respected colleague of ours is phasing himself out of the plant industry was hardly a shock. Peter Cave of Cambridge has been flying the flag alone in the comprehensive plant mail order business in recent years. There used to be a whole cluster of us. Selling plants by mail order was in fact where Mark started in the plant business but we bailed out about five years ago.

Mail order plants used to be a major force in the market place. And it was the way keen gardeners sourced plants which were out of the ordinary. We too used to receive all the catalogues and place orders every year from Alouette (long gone), Bay Bloom (also long gone), Peak Perennials (now sales from their garden centre only), Top Trees (closed a few years ago), Parva Plants (closed last year), Woodleigh (now producing only hydrangeas), Kereru Bulbs (retired) and several other businesses operated by keen plantspeople who offered something different.

At some point the mail order plant business morphed without many of us noticing. It changed from supplying the rare, desirable and different and became mainstream, perceived by many customers as a means of getting cheaper plants delivered to the door than those on offer at garden centres. I must say we had noticed that the calibre of many of our mail order customers had declined, but it took a secret shopper survey by Consumer’s Institute to make us realise that the public perception had changed. We were deeply relieved to come out top equal in the Consumer survey but they rated only on service, quality and price. Nowhere did it take into account the range and type of plants being offered mail order. Consumer’s Institute only ordered what we call the dross – bread and butter lines that we all carried to a minor extent. They did not even acknowledge the existence of the new, the exciting, or the experimental plant lines which many of us built our businesses on. Nope, mail order had reached a stage where it was expected to compete on price and quality with stock garden centre lines.

At the same time, the face of plant retailing is changing dramatically. Nationally many garden centres and nurseries are closing or selling up their valuable real estate to cash in their assets. There is little evidence of a vibrant industry where new, younger colleagues are entering the plant production trade.

But the Big Box retailers are here in force. In our trade, there has been much railing against the impact of the plant sections of the Warehouse, Mitre 10, the supermarkets and Bunnings but one might as well be King Canute. Customers will often shop where they feel they are getting best value and if that is a Big Box retailer, most of whom offer no advice or personal service, then that is the tide of change.

Times change, dear Reader, and that is all it is. In the 1950s, keen gardeners had to source their choice plants from overseas. There was only a very limited range available in this country. I know this because we own a garden which was initially founded on extensive imports of plant material. Mark’s father Felix may have hidden the invoices from his wife (he did spend a lot of overseas funds on plants) but he didn’t destroy them and we still have the files showing what plants he brought in. Keen gardeners learned the basics of plant propagation because the first task was to try and ensure that there was a backup plant to the one original specimen. And material was swapped with other enthusiasts. Horticultural societies flourished and were a major source of interesting plant material. It was also the time when Sir Victor Davies was building Duncan and Davies to be the power house of horticulture in the southern hemisphere.

Garden centres are a relatively recent phenomenon, making their appearance around the seventies and it is even more recently that they have embraced the cafe, giftware lines and outdoor living accoutrements that we now regard as the norm. Reflecting, I guess, the increase in disposable income.

The nineties saw the emergence of landscapers as a real force in the gardening scene. Their popularity rests in part on the increasing value placed on good design in a garden (and a good landscaper is first and foremost a good designer) combined with disposable income. A switch, our trade mag asserts, from the “do it yourself” ethos that we embraced with a vengeance in this country to a “do it for me” line of thought. This probably a natural progression where each generation tends to be more cash rich but time poor than their parents.

Modern garden centres carry a remarkably wide range of plants (certainly compared to what was available a few decades ago). But there are two aspects which haven’t been replaced in these changing times. Plant imports have been stopped almost dead in their tracks by government policy on bio security so there is very little new material coming into the country. And with the demise of mail order plants, the connoisseur end of the market has almost completely disappeared. There are many plant lines which are simply not available any longer.

Along with it, some of us fear the loss of status of plantsmanship. I asked Mark to define plantsmanship because it is a term often bandied around. Off the top of his head, he trotted out a quick definition – “the ability to use different plants in creative ways in the right environment and to feature unusual plants”. We haven’t managed to improve on that impromptu definition. Plantsmanship (and I can’t find an acceptable gender neutral substitution) used to be highly valued in apprenticeships, in professional institutions and in amateur gardeners alike. Bernie Hollard was a fine example of a plantsman who built a garden founded on plantsmanship. Somewhere along the line, when we embraced the mantra of good design and mass plantings, we threw plantsmanship out with the bathwater.

So if you are one of the small group can not survive without a stewartia, you covet a deutzia collection or you have been searching for a trochodendron or an oxydendrum, you had better contact Peter Cave before he shuts the nursery gate next year. He is probably the last grower producing many of these rare and obscure plants and it may be a while before we see this type of material being offered again.