Scotland business

Scotland's flower sector sets out stall for growth

With both Easter and British Summer Time almost upon us, for many it is a signal to get out into the garden or embrace the change of season by buying flowers.

The Garden Centre Association estimates the garden market alone is worth £5bn across the UK. BBC Scotland takes a look at the sector as it prepares for the season ahead.

"When I was a florist we only got two deliveries a week into the market," explains Jo Riley, general manager of J van Vliet, Glasgow.

It is one of the UK's largest wholesalers of flower and plants with cash and carries in Scotland, England, Europe and New York.

As a lorry, newly-arrived from the Netherlands, pulls up outside the building he explains that now - with five deliveries into Glasgow a week - flowers can be in their cash and carry a day or so after being picked.

Inside the warehouse there is colour everywhere - ribbons of flowers in red, green, purple, white, and yellow, all displayed in neutral plastic containers.

One room is cool to keep the blooms fresh, but another room is warmer for orchids and other delicate plants.

Image caption Colours abound at J Van Vliet's flower and plant warehouse in Glasgow.

"The flower trade now is global," continues Mr Riley, although he adds that the Netherlands is still very important.

"So you get Italian foliages, you get Israeli foliages, you obviously get Dutch. You also get flowers from Columbia, from Guatemala, from Ecuador.

"The Dutch wholesale market is shrinking slightly. It's still huge but it's not as big as it once was and it's losing its global share. One of the reasons is the emergence of South America and Africa."

Looking to the future, he thinks South America will continue to be important.

"The Colombians will give you a guaranteed price, whereas in Holland, it's a Dutch auction so week-in, week-out the prices can fluctuate," he adds.

For those looking for home-grown Scottish blooms, the choice is not as wide as it once was, but we do still grow flowers, including daffodils, and the picking season has just began.

Image caption The daffodil picking season is already under way in Scotland

At the Burn Farm near Edzell in Angus, there are just a handful of pickers working so far but as the season progresses there could be 120 working on the busiest days, picking something like 100,000 bunches of daffodils.

"In the first years you're maybe slower," says a picker from Latvia who is in his seventh season at the farm, "but then you get speed and you know what you have to do."

The Scottish season can last six or seven weeks but it is dependent on the weather and other factors.

"We need a lot of things, weather, market and pickers to come right for a good season," says Colin Inglis who owns the farm. He is a member of the Grampian Growers farmers' co-operative, which includes farms which grow daffodil flowers, bulbs and potatoes.

Mr Inglis explains that the daffodil business is labour intensive.

"It's very selective as you go up the drills, you have to select the flowers that meet the market conditions, which is basically the length and the bud being closed.

"Then they have to put them in a nice bunch and put elastic bands on them - none of this can be done by machine."

Image caption Farmer Colin Inglis says the daffodil business is labour intensive, with flowers having to be packed by hand

At the nearby packhouse of Grampian Growers, flowers are being packed into boxes for a UK supermarket and a consignment is being prepared to go to Boston. Half of their bulbs go to the United States.

In terms of turnover, 15% of what they produce is flowers, bulbs are roughly 35% and potatoes are 50%.

"We are primarily bulb producers and exporters and we also pick flowers," says Mark Clark, managing director of Grampian Growers.

"So the flowers are a smaller percentage of our business, as is the case for the growers but they're a very important part to add profitability to the bulb crop."

Clashing seasons

The daffodil season starts in Cornwall, works its way up through England and in theory should end up in Scotland, but the vagaries of the weather can mean the seasons clash.

"In 2013 we ended up picking the same varieties on the same day," explains Mr Clark, "and we ended up with a season that was two-and-a-half weeks long rather than a season which should be six to seven weeks long."

The other factors which can have a big impact are the date of Easter and currency fluctuations. The later Easter is, the more flowers tend to be exported.

Many people of course grow their own flowers and plants. There are something like 22 million gardens in UK.

But, for garden centres, it is not just about plants.

"Catering is absolutely huge in garden centres nowadays," says Colin Barrie, managing director of Caulders Garden Centres.

"It would be almost impossible to have a garden centre and employ the numbers of staff we do and keep the business turning 365 days a year, without coffee shops."

Image caption Caulders Garden Centres have been busy stocking shelves ahead of their busiest time of the year

He began the business 16 years ago selling plants from an empty walled garden at Mugdock Country Park, near Milngavie.

From just himself and a part-time member of staff, the business now employs 140 across four sites in the Glasgow area.

Nowadays as well as plants and the restaurant, like most other garden centres, they also sell gifts and books. Christmas has also become an important time for sales.

But their busiest time of year is just about to start, and at the Caulders garden centre in Erskine they have been busy stocking shelves with plants, as well as watering and feeding.

As spring approaches the balance of the business changes from what is available inside, to what is on sale outside.

"As we move into spring we bring in loads and loads of fresh plants," says Mr Barrie, "and our sales turn from being dominated by the coffee shop and dominated by gift sales and they move over to plants and gardening."

He sees a bright future for independent garden centres offering range and expertise.

"We can generally do twice the amount of sales in the last 10 days of March than we can do in the first 20 days of March," he says.

"I think it happens because the temperatures warm up, the nights get a bit lighter, the mornings get a bit light and people feel in the mood for springtime."

You can hear more about the business of flowers and plants on Business Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland at 07:30 on Sunday and later on the BBC iPlayer or by free download.

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