Adam Dunnett, sales director of Hampshire-based Hillier Trees, shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the nursery sector in 2020.

Q: What is the background of Hillier Trees? When was it established and what does it specialise in?

A: The origins of Hillier was the purchase of a two-acre nursery with companion florist shop in Winchester in 1864 by Edwin Hillier. The business has expanded over the generations from this starting point. Between the World Wars, more nursery land was acquired, allowing production of larger trees for Local Authorities to begin. From the 1970s, when fourth-generation Hilliers John and Robert began to oversee the business, Hillier began to supply local authorities and landscape contractors on a much larger scale, bringing Hillier Trees into the leading position it enjoys today.

In the early 2000s, a decision was made to move towards growing large, semi-mature trees with the objective to be UK market leader in this area. Today, Hillier is the largest grower of semi-mature trees in the UK.

At any one time, we have 750,000 British-grown trees growing across more than 700 acres of land on our field tree nursery in Petersfield and container tree nursery near Romsey – both in Hampshire. This move towards quality, semi-mature trees at scale has set us in good stead for prominent projects, such as the supply for the whole Olympic Park project in 2012. We pride ourselves on being able to work with requests at any scale, large of small.

Q: Tree planting is at the top of the news agenda at the moment – have you seen this reflected in your business? Have you, for example, seen an increase in demand and, if so, how do you go about meeting that demand?

A: We are certainly incredibly busy at the moment, with an unprecedented level of orders. It’s very difficult to know if this increase is being driven by the fact trees are receiving significant good publicity at the moment. Whether it is impacting directly or not, it can only be a good thing. Although our customers, the landscape contractors and landscape architects have always been very engaged in trees in the landscape and passionate about them, that hasn’t always been the case with the end client, and that is definitely changing, which I would say is attributable to the great publicity trees are getting.

Q: What trees are you seeing the biggest demand for? Why that particular species?

A: Demand for larger, semi-mature trees generally. This is being driven by the fact a lot of customers now want truly British-grown trees and we are one of the few UK nurseries growing semi-mature trees – some of these have been growing in our fields for over 25 years! Acer campestre are in very high demand, as are oaks, following the problems around oak processionary moth and people wanting to buy from a trusted, OPM-free nursery.

Q: What has your reaction been to the increased focus in tree planting and its importance in recent years?

A: Brilliant! Very welcome, but well overdue!  

Q: What are the main challenges facing Hillier and nurseries generally at the moment?

A: We have massive concerns around biosecurity and the impact of importing new and dangerous pests and diseases. As a country, we need to be taking these threats far more seriously and putting robust plans in place which help as much as is possible to mitigate them.

However, our biggest challenge comes in the shape of the skilled tree grower, or the lack of them! We have a fantastic team of very skilled growers, but we need more of them and we need young, talented and enthusiastic growers. Recruiting these individuals has been challenging for many years. As an industry, we need to find innovative ways to fill this skills gap and encourage people to enter this wonderful industry.

Q: What are your thoughts on the tree-planting targets that are being put forward by government?

A: I’m delighted that the government appears to be taking tree planting seriously and understanding the importance of trees and all the benefits they bring. Almost any figure is potentially achievable. A target has to be backed up by the funds to enable this and ways which properly incentivise the industry to invest to a level which is required to deliver the targets which are being bandied about – put your money where your mouth is! I’ve seen little evidence of this so far. Money for planting is one thing. Alongside this, you need the funds to maintain these trees through their lifespan, particularly in their formative years. There has been a lot of talk about urban forests in the last few years and targets set. When planting in an urban environment, it’s more important to get the right trees of the right size than to hit an eye-catching headline figure. It’s quality, not quantity, that counts.

Q: What is the background of Hillier’s re-elming campaign? Can you tell me about the Ulmus ‘New Horizon’ elm?

A: Ulmus ‘New Horizon’ was developed by a scientific programme in the US and Europe which started its work as far back as 1958. U. ‘New Horizon’ has been planted in fairly small numbers for the last 30 years and during that period it has proven to be 100 per cent Dutch elm disease resistant. Along with our European partners, Hillier has been building up numbers of U. ‘New Horizon’ and we now have sufficient stock to be able to really promote this wonderful elm. It is a cross between U. pumila and U. japonica, a hybrid with very similar characteristics to the original English elm and one that fills the environmental gap left when 30 million elms were wiped out in the 1970s and ’80s.