Positive and Optimistic – Four Oaks Trade Show review

Veteran Four Oaks exhibitor Simon Earley of Earley Ornamentals, said that the first day of the show this year was simply the best he had ever had, and there was no doubt the mood among exhibitors and visitors was positive and optimistic. Despite worrying times for businesses of all kind, Four Oaks 2018 will remain in memory as an even better-than-expected experience, reports John Sutton.

Event director Pat Coutts wrote in her introduction to the Show guide that the ornamentals industry is ‘nervous on both sides of the Channel’ She continued to write that she hoped ‘very much that when the post-Brexit dust settles, we will have the best products from both sides and return to a stable trading relationship.’ There are certainly UK growers who stand to gain through the weakness of the pound post-referendum, because of the impact on the prices of imported plants. Some have already felt a benefit, however the current instability is unsettling.

Four Oaks has been a truly international show for many years. In 2015 well over a third of the 450-plus exhibitors came from overseas, mainly from Eurozone countries.

In 2018, two years after the referendum, the proportion has fallen to around a quarter. It is particularly Dutch companies that have been affected, with the number of exhibitors over these three years down by almost 50%. Almost certainly, the most common reason for Dutch exhibitors to have ceased coming to Four Oaks will be their sense of insecurity about the stability of exchange rates, tariffs and border arrangements. Most of these non-returners will be concentrating their export efforts elsewhere.

Some British growers will naturally not be sorry about this, but the wide-ranging plant offer at Four Oaks does help to attract visitors who are buyers. Every British grower/exhibitor – they account for about 15% of the Show total – is keen to see buyers!

The presence of British exhibitor Aerona Ltd at Four Oaks is certainly a sign of the times, appearing for the first time in 2016. The company’s business is freight forwarding and customs clearing. It has expertise in customs clearances of plants, seeds and flowers imported from countries round the world. Depending on Brexit terms, it could become busier still with horticultural products.

Among this year’s exhibitors the first-timers included foreign companies, just as in previous years. There were new countries represented, too: Ulinscy Nursery was the first Polish business to show at Four Oaks, and from Japan came the bonsai specialists Japan Hort Business.

TOPS, Trade Only Plant Sales, has exhibited at Four Oaks in the past, but returned this year after a lengthy absence. Established in 1985, this young plant producer specializes in supplying small to medium scale grower-retailers. The TOPS stand was well bedecked with Union Jacks, but if you need plants buying British has limitations. Cuttings of Elsner PAC pelargonium varieties from Germany and Surfinia varieties bred in Japan, both popular in the TOPS portfolio, are flown into the UK from yet other countries.

To illustrate the complexities of the modern trade in plants a little further, there was Simon Wright, the entirely British sales manager for the Dutch company Schneider Youngplants. He was drawing the attention of stand visitors to the new Schneider pansy series composed specially for the UK, with varieties from several true breeders’ series, selected and thoroughly road-tested for performance under British nursery conditions.

The Four Oaks Show is a major opportunity for breeders to show off new and recently introduced varieties. Many are entered in the New Products Competition, but by no means all. Panther Pink was one example, a freely branching digitalis variety that does well as a container plant.

The Genesis Plant Marketing stand is every year a go-to destination for seekers after new varieties. Fred Yates’ new nemesia range provided the most colourful spot there in 2018. There are eight different colours, and UK growers will be able to buy young plant material for four of these from BallColegrave. A new series of basket antirrhinums, also from Fred Yates, is now waiting in the wings for future introduction and is a big advance in freedom of flowering, said Nigel Judd.

The Four Oaks Show is not entirely about ornamentals. For Israeli exhibitor Hishtil, on the Botanics International stand, herbs are very important. Peter Collins reported plenty of interest among British growers in Hishtil young plants, especially for lavenders and rosemary. Israel is currently a Xylella-free country. On the stand, the new variegated thyme Sparkling Bright was among highlights.

On the Floranova stand the new dark-leaved Begonia Bossa Nova Night Fever Papaya commanded attention, and there were also new patio varieties of tomatoes and peppers. Impressively and colourfully in full bearing, examples such as the yellow sweet pepper Liberty Belle and chilli peppers Atomic and Alter Ego refreshed the offer in the Vegetalis range.

Young plant producers have to do more than list the right varieties. There is also the question of meeting customers’ other needs. David Spray, on the Pentland Plants stand, foregrounded their new 2019 offer of 25-plug strips, four together that lift separately from a 13×8 plug base tray. Customers can choose separate varieties for each strip, mix & match fashion. This will offer flexibility and ease of handling, and appeal especially to grower-retailers.

Indebted to Chemistry

The rising tide of demand for green solutions to growers’ needs continues to swell. There were ten exhibitors listed in the Organics category at the back of the catalogue, nine in Bio-stimulants, and nine in Biological Control. XL Horticulture, known for its range of durable high specification polyethylene film covers, is now increasingly known also for its ProBio product range. This includes the ReviTEAlised tea compost concentrate.

FLiPPER, the new wide-spectrum contact insecticide and acaricide from Fargro, is also part of the green scene. A biopesticide derived from olive oil, it leaves no residues and there is no harvest interval. There was timely news that shortly before the Four Oaks Show, an EAMU had been granted for its use on ornamentals. Last year’s EAMU for the product was for protected tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries only.

The days of synthetic chemical compounds are far from over, though. ICL Professional Horticulture presented well-attended seminars on both days of the show, with a recently introduced chemical product as a major focus. H2Gro wetting agent, a blend of surfactants from ICL, is a powerful tool as a compost additive in its granular formulation, and in its liquid formation as an after-potting drench or as an additive to irrigation water. Reduced watering frequency, extended shelf life in the retail phase, and reduced loss of water and dissolved feed are among the benefits. On the ICL stand visitors were shown the effect on the re-wetting time for Jiffy-7 compressed peat plugs: they saw within a single minute the difference H2Gro made.

Sinclair Pro, part of the Westland Horticulture group, was showing Zinc Complex, a new product for improving yield and quality, especially of plants growing in pots or other containers. A formulation with other micronutrients, it won a High Commendation from the New Products judging panel. This was awarded on the evidence from trials showing its positive effects, which stem from the increased production of auxins by plants. Sinclair is well known as a growing media specialist, but also offers ranges of both water soluble and Sincrocell controlled release fertilizers.

Four Oaks has always been a happy hunting ground for customers for pots, packs and trays of every description. ‘Recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ are increasingly the watchwords for current developments in producers’ ranges. On the Poppelmann Plastics stand their new blue pots were well to the fore. Launched at IPM in January, these are made from post-consumer recycled plastic and are themselves 100% recycleable.

On the stand of Modiform, a Dutch rival for Poppelmann, the recently introduced EcoExpert range was on show. Recyclable cardboard is the raw material here, and after use the pots and trays are recycled by retailers, together with other cardboard waste. EcoExpert products are also industrially compostable, and any items that escape into the environment biodegrade quite rapidly.

D-Grade containers from Desch Plantpak are also biodegradable. The D-Grade bio range is industrially compostable, but D-Grade fibre pots go one further and can be composted by the consumer.

The influence of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV programme early this year has been profound, even making its mark on the concerns of Four Oaks exhibitors! There will surely be another chapter here to report when the 49th show is held, on Tuesday 3rd and Wednesday 4th September next year.

New at Four Oaks

SunBelievable Brown Eyed Girl, a sunflower introduction already much in the news this year, was the winner of the 2018 Four Oaks award for best new bedding and pot plant. Bred by Thompson & Morgan and entered by A busy scene on the Fargro stand. Beekenkamp Plants, the variety had already been chosen as number three in the Chelsea Show RHS New Plant of the Year competition. At the National Plant Show in June it was the winning variety in its New Plants Awards category.

Salvia Rockin’ Fuchsia, a new Proven Winners variety from Kernock Park Plants, earned one of two Highly Commended awards in the same category. An interspecific hybrid, it is similar in habit to varieties like Amistad. Individual flowers – of a glowing purple with darker bracts – are larger, in dense showy spikes. Garvinea Sweet Sunset, a vibrant orange bred by Florist Holland, was also Highly Commended.

In the Nursery Stock category, the fern Dryopteris wallichiana Jurassic Gold was the winner. From Genesis Plant Marketing, its unique selling point is the bright golden orange colour of the new foliage as it emerges in spring. Rudbeckia Forever Gold from Rijnbeek & Son, and Echinacea Full Salmon, from Allensmore Nurseries, were the two Highly Commended entries.

We do not yet have promotional campaigns for the herbaceous perennial of the year, but if we begin to do so soon, perhaps a start should be made with Echinacea. Allensmore Nurseries not only entered four new Echinacea varieties, but on their nursery have put down an acre to their container production this year. At Wisley a two-year trial has just come to its end, with AGMs soon to be announced.

There was an usually large number of entries in the new varieties competitions, in both the nursery stock and pot plant categories. More bench space would have been welcome! The judges had no shortage of impressive entries to consider. BeePure, a fine Monarda, and Heucherella Hopscotch may well have been in the running as the judging panel was picking nursery stock winners.

In the bedding and pot plant entries, particularly notable among the also-rans were begonia Esmée Dreams, from Beekenkamp, Thunbergia A-Peel Tangerine Slice, a Proven Winner from Kernock Park Plants, and dianthus Peach Party, bred by Selecta and entered by Pentland Plants. Then for something quite different, there was the Chick Charms collection of Sempervivum varieties, entered by Newey Young Plants.

XL Horticulture took the award for best new professional equipment, with the double-layer polythene film product XL Evo Twin Skin. It enables tunnel structures to be clad just as though conventional single film were being used. The two layers can then be separated by pumping air between them, very simply creating a highly insulated structure.

The Birchmeier motorized knapsack sprayer, entered by Agralan, won a High Commendation. Its air-supported spraying system offers users easy control over droplet size and cover. The Skelly Tray, a recyclable shuttle tray for use with biodegradable pots, was also Highly Commended. From Plantopia, this re-useable tray ensures that pots made of peat fibre, paper or cardboard can breathe, so maximising root growth within them. The INDO Element, Europe’s first direct drive LED growlight, won the award for Best Professional Product. From lighting specialists INDO, this is compact, extremely simple and inexpensive to install, and almost maintenance-free. Each fitting weights little over 3.0kg. The spectral performance is claimed to be superior to competitive products.

And for the best retail product, Tyne Moulds and Machinery successfully entered its Vertical Planter, a green living wall system. It can be simply fixed to any type of wall. Ones that are not load-bearing are also suitable, using Unistrut supports and rigid steel mesh panels.