Four Oaks 2017 review

Among the ‘best first show days at Four Oaks since the year 2000.’ That was the consensus of views among exhibitors about Tuesday 5th September. Even at the end of the afternoon of the following day – rather quieter but still busy – it was taking quarter of an hour to get out of the visitors’ car park onto the public road.

All in all, it was a particularly remarkable success, given recent concerns – now dispelled – about the ownership of the Four Oaks site, and the large change in the £/€ exchange rate. This is a serious matter for the exhibitors with more than a quarter of them coming from the Netherlands and other eurozone countries. And both for them and for many UK growers, static consumer incomes and the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit process provide an unhelpful background for forward planning.

All this said, the Four Oaks atmosphere was buoyant. Exhibitors reported that some of their grower customers were planning to increase production of lines in direct competition with imports from mainland Europe. Others reported retail nursery owners at last having the confidence to begin raising their prices.

And on the other hand, most plant producers from the Netherlands and other continental countries seemed to have continuing confidence in their product quality and the excellence of their service. Some of them were exhibiting at Four Oaks eight years ago as well as in every year since. The £/€ exchange rate in September 2009 was 1.15 and at the time of this year’s show it was 1.09, so they had more or less been there before.

There were even newcomers among exhibitors this year from the eurozone countries – such as Cor Huibers Tree Nurseries. But understandably their number fell well short of the 2016 show participants, with mainly smaller companies deciding to give Four Oaks a miss in 2017. And as every year there were comings and goings among UK exhibitors. Ornamentals breeding company Floranova returned after an absence of several years. Whetman Pinks, an exhibitor of long standing, was not there, opting to put still more of its efforts into its export business. QCR Recycling was a newcomer, with a potential outreach to every business that produces waste – even expanded polystyrene.

The Plant Scene

It goes without saying that begonias and petunias were plentiful at Four Oaks. But Thunbergia (Black-eyed Susan), on the other hand, is not an expected autumn feature of a British trade show. Yet it certainly seemed present on more stands than in previous years. To convert this climbing plant into a ‘buy-me’ retail product is something of a challenge. Nevertheless, as an added value item for sale in the extended season – say late June to August – it may very well have strong appeal to patio and balcony owners looking for something different.

Cuttings-propagated varieties – such as the Arizona series – were in evidence on the stands of Volmary (the breeding company that introduced Arizona), Kernock Park Plants, and Thompson & Morgan. Peter Bernard of Solgrow Ltd was also showing specimens and said that Thunbergia breeding had ‘come on ten-fold in the last few years’. He commented that the recently introduced Arizona and Sunny Susy varieties were easier to propagate and had a more manageable habit than older seed-raised varieties. On the Solgrow stand two major Israeli propagation nurseries, Cohen and Jaldety were represented.

Rudbeckia is a plant that might also make waves as an extended season patio item and could command a premium price. So said Stephen Page, a director of Walter Blom Plants. The company specializes in supplying herbaceous perennials to wholesale growers and propagators, and offers over 2000 varieties.

The SmileyZ rudbeckia collection is the result of recent breeding by AB Cultivars. Propagated from tissue culture, and currently comprising ten varieties, they are quite vigorous and need at least a 3.0 litre pot to do them justice, says Stephen. Potting to flowering can take as little as ten weeks.

Moles Seeds struck out into less expected territory by placing UK-grown cut flowers in the foreground on their stand. This is a result of the rapid rise in demand for varieties with good stems and vase life, said Peter Wyatt. Flowers featured in the large mixed bouquets included sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, delphiniums, grasses and the Beaujolais Bonnets scabious.

Plant combinations grown together from the time of sticking cuttings three to a plug to final disposal by the consumer have been an important production trend. Many UK growers first saw and heard of them at Four Oaks, when Dummen first promoted its then new Confetti Garden concept. The trend continues, with Richard Bull on the Florensis stand commenting on strong visitor interest in Mix Masters. Volmary’s Sally Cullimore had similar comments to make on her company’s trios, with herbs among the combinations which customers were asking about. The concept is not confined to cuttings-raised varieties. On the Thompson & Morgan stand, there were mixed basil varieties on show as multi-seeded plugs, part of their Direct to Grower range.

Machinery, Equipment & Services

Four Oaks is a magnet year on year for some of Europe’s leading suppliers of machinery and equipment for producers of ornamentals. TW Hamilton Design, Mechanical Botanical, Rotomation UK, Hortec Grow with Technology and Flier Systems are prominent among the exhibitors involved.

Hortec is a horticultural engineering company specialising in potting, tray-filling and compost handling machines made by the Dutch company Javo. Rotomation UK offers a similar range of equipment, together with spraying equipment and boom irrigation systems from Urbinati. Hand-held remote controls are a feature of these, well appreciated by customers, among them William Robinson of the family-owned Cheshire business W. Robinson & Sons.

New this year and featured on the stand of Mechanical Botanical was a sweeper from Steenks Service that is especially suitable for soil surfaces covered with geotextiles like Mypex. Managing director Mike Berry was also pleased with the Willburg pot topper, able to handle both chipped bark and the new wood-fibre derived product Sinclair Pot Topper. A significant advantage for this is the way in which it bonds with the surface of the growing medium in the container. This means that once watered it remains in place if pots are knocked or blown over or are accidentally mishandled.

Technical advance does not have to be grand in appearance and high in cost. The Root Pouch was launched in the UK eight years ago, and the interest generated in these growing containers brought the company of that name to exhibit at Four Oaks for the first time last year. It was back again this year, and the only exhibitor from the USA. The company’s product range utilizes recycled natural fibre and polyethylene from re-cycled plastic drinks bottles. Applications include hydroponic culture.

On the XL Horticulture stand a new anti-hot spot tape was on offer. Used to lengthen the life of polythene film by shielding the narrow areas in direct contact with the structural steel hoops, it is an advance over tapes made from PVC foam. These can emit damaging chlorine levels when the outer layer of the tape separates with age. And the adhesive on the inner surface often loses effectiveness with age, allowing it to slip sideways and cease to have a protective function. The new tape, made from polyethylene foam, is free of these weaknesses.

The Growers

Most of the British growers coming to Four Oaks come as prospective buyers. But it is also a selling opportunity for the considerable number that exhibit – almost seventy of them. They come from all parts of England, from Wales, like Seiont Nurseries (now owned by Lovania), and from Scotland, like Stairway Trees – distinctive for production in Air-Pots, in peat-free growing media. Some came from the Republic of Ireland too – seven of them collaborating in a joint venture on Kildare Growers stand.

Many of the grower-exhibitors are small family-owned businesses. But there are large producers, too, like Glendale Horticulture. Thanks in part to exhibiting at trade shows, the company has built its custom with the independent garden centre sector from a very low level two years ago to a seven-figure annual turnover now. In addition to networking with present and prospective customers, on the Glendale stand they were advertising for staff, with one post at director level!

While Four Oaks is certainly not without challenges and uncertainties, it remains much the largest horticultural trade show in the UK. This year saw it with almost four hundred exhibitors. It is a notably big event for retailers as well as for growers, and continues to combine international, national and regional aspects. The footfall and atmosphere in 2017 gave exhibitors and visitors renewed confidence that it remains on the right track.