A stalwart of the Chelsea Flower Show and now 44-years-old, the leading UK supplier is renowned for the huge range it offers – some 900 seed varieties.
Hardy and stunningly beautiful wildflowers that help sustain biodiversity are the latest customer favourite, followed by the classics – sunflowers and sweet peas.
And if gardeners want to make their fellow enthusiasts green with envy, new arrivals – the radiant Cosmos Mandarin, bee magnet Coreopsis Incredible Swirl, free flowering Rudbeckia amplexicaulis or the blooming Silene Sibella Mix – may well do the trick.
Most of the company’s seeds are hobby ones, sold direct to consumers and through more than 3,000 retailers, while also within the firm’s fold are seed brands Johnsons and DT Brown along with ornamental flower plant specialist Woolmans and garden equipment maker Darlac.
Each year billions of nature’s miracles, mini in size but beyond mega in their importance to life on earth, are sent from seed breeders from around the globe to Mr Fothergill’s manufacturing plant in Kentford, Suffolk.
This is run by 160 staff and here machines fill and despatch some 50 million packets of seeds each year alongside the company’s trials field for testing varieties and a quality control science unit.
Some 35 percent of trade is international and Mr Fothergill’s also has offices in Australia and New Zealand.
The last 14-month period has been a big one for the firm which, after a management buyout backed by Harwood Private Capital, is pursuing a vigorous growth strategy.
This includes a major digital upgrade with e-commerce platform Shopify, launching in July, that will transform scalability and customers’ browsing and purchasing experiences.
Covid brought home the importance of being omnichannel and doubling turnover to £100million over the next five years is a key target for chief executive David Carey, son of co-founder Brian, for whom the fundamentals are quality and reliable germination.
“All our seeds must pass our 96 percent plus germination rate, we test twice with a year in between and are obsessed because gardeners must be successful, without that confidence they see no point,” he explains.
Our structure ensures we have the manufacturing capability so we have control, can support promotions and are experts at packing at scale which gives us total flexibility.”
Windowsill Gardening, a new social media campaign, reflects how the world of growing is changing. “We want to demystify it, show it is affordable and that it can happen in the smallest spaces and doesn’t need a greenhouse,” says Carey.
“Our research shows people are getting the gardening bug much younger, the average age is 26 influenced by social media. Climate change is influencing choice, demand for drought resilient plants is increasing, and feedback from our customers indicates they would buy other product categories so there are a lot of new opportunities.”
After the upheavals following Brexit, trade with Europe is also picking up again with Canada another strong market.
Partnerships, such as the one with the Royal Horticultural Society, are also central and Mr Fothergill’s has just launched a National Trust seed range with garden centre group Blue Diamond and a shopping trial with furnishings retailer Dunelm.
“They all play a vital role in educating and inspiring people,” adds Carey who sees one challenge the whole trade must urgently address – the lack of a younger generation making horticulture a career choice.
“We support training and would like to see more incentives because not enough younger people are being attracted into the industry, for example we desperately need seed experts,” he explains.
“We have one of the last original seed masters remaining and now he is retiring. All that expertise and knowledge must not be lost.”