Finding the right balance for growing media

Manufacturers must reconcile environmental concerns with the higher quality of peat. Kris Collins reports.

The peat debate continues to drive developments in the growing media industry, with the big players now fully behind the development of more environmentally friendly growing media products for the consumer. However, the issues within the debate have changed. Having seen peat-free products hit the market in the early days of the debate, only to be withdrawn again or fail to meet expectation, most now realise the importance of some peat content in growing media mixes.

The likes of the Growing Media Association (GMA) and big players in the growing media market are placing more emphasis on peat- reduced products following increased demand from both the amateur and professional user. Westland Horticulture alone is spending £2m in 2008 on television advertising to promote its West+ range of 50 per cent peat-reduced growing media. And it isn't the only one in the market keen to push its peat-reduced products.

GMA chair Catherine Dawson says the industry is moving away from totally peat-free product development. She tells HW: "We're seeing a big emphasis on peat reduction in product development. The industry is moving away from the notion of peat-free, though products are out there. Sinclair's J Arthur Bower's New Horizon, for example, is a peat-free product with great performance.

"But we are seeing more and more companies diluting their peat-based products. We've found that the small but very vocal pro-peat lobby is outdated in terms of what is going on in the industry. In the past they'd say there's no demand for peat-free products, but the majority of consumers are unaware of what is in the bag from the start, so they are not likely to be asking for alternatives.

"There have been some awful peat-free products out there that are off-putting to consumers aware enough to seek out the products. That has happened in the past, but there is now an increasing occurrence of peat dilution - some as much as 50 per cent - backed up with research and development (R&D) that is proving very successful."

In the competitive arena of compost sales, Dawson is equally concerned about pricing as about quality. "Prices have been really eroded, so much so that growing media has become a real cost-competitive product in garden centres and multiples, and this has done nothing but devalue what a growing medium actually does for an amateur gardener," she says. "With continued price cutting there is effectively no money for further R&D - there is no point in going to the expense of buying compost if the product is then going to fail.

"We want to see less devaluing of the product. Garden centre buyers should be looking not for the cheapest deal but for a product that does its job. If the consumer has spare money for the garden I'm not sure rock-bottom prices are part of their agenda - they want a quality product that is going to do its job."

A premium product

Combating the devaluation of compost, manufacturers are developing their brands and products in terms of quality and many are moving or have already moved into building purpose-specific ranges of compost to fetch a premium price. Dawson adds: "We've seen companies like Scotts trying to upgrade the market with use-specific composts. We've always had ericaceous options on the market and more recently hanging-basket options, but I think Scotts in the past few years has introduced a vast range of specialist products. It's good for the consumer, because they get a more specified product, and good for the industry because it creates more opportunities. Many companies have followed suit."

Westland Horticulture has used the peat debate to its advantage, taking the messages from both sides of the argument to drive the development of its product range. While it offers peat-free products through its Unwins brand, the company's recent developments have been in reduced-peat and reduced- environmental-impact products. Head of marketing Keith Nicolson says: "The philosophy we have is that we'll use peat as a way of putting out very high-performance composts. Our highest-performing compost, West+, is actually now 50 per cent peat-reduced. This was launched last year and is now a key part of our range. This year we have developed the range to include water-saving versions and ericaceous versions.

"West+ is the cornerstone of all future developments in the peat-reduced arena for us. Some manufacturers have not been able to address taking peat out while boosting performance, whereas we've seen it as an opportunity to drive the performance of our products."

Westland has responded to the environmental concerns surrounding peat use with the launch of Earth Matters. It also contains West+ for high performance but is totally peat-free. Nicolson says the company aimed to produce a peat-free compost that out-performs any other peat-free substrate on the market. "It's not just about developing West+ - we are trying to reduce the impact we have on the environment through packaging, distribution and sourcing of raw materials. Part of the marketing of Earth Matters is about showing how we have worked towards these goals."

Changing perceptions

Aiming to change public perception of peat-reduced products, Westland has announced it will spend £2m in the next year to advertise West + to television audiences. Nicolson adds: "If a product didn't perform we wouldn't continue to supply it, so we are investing heavily in communication to trade and at consumer levels to communicate the benefits of using West+ and the fact that it helps the environment. We want to demonstrate that you don't have to compromise if you want to take the peat out of your product.

"We challenge anybody to use the product and not see outstanding results. We have endorsements and recommendations from a whole host of garden specialists and experts."

County Tyrone-based Growmoor Horticulture is expanding its product range by 30 per cent for 2008, having seen good response to product developments in 2007. Aiding both garden centre staff and consumer health and safety, the company has downsized its 75-litre options to 60 litre. Similar to Westland's marketing campaign, Growmoor has introduced a Gro-Plus consumer range of composts, catering for all needs from organic and peat-free to peat-reduced and specialist mixes, such as ericaceous and indoor. The range has been designed with eye-catching packaging and ease of use, supplied in 15-litre bags with unique carry-handles. With consumers having less time to tend their plants, the company has developed the range to take the burden. Gro-Plus brings with it extra water retention and nine months' advanced constant fertilisation, reducing the need to feed and water. For retailers' convenience, the company offers a four-mix pallet of 140 bags providing peat-free, peat-reduced, multi-purpose and ericaceous in one delivery.

Environmental issues have demanded a swing to compost embodying either a serious level of reduced peat usage or total peat-free capability for Growmoor. Glee 2007 saw the launch of updated peat-free products, as well as the presentation of the advanced Gro-Plus range embodying the use of environmental style mixes allied to fertilisation and water-retention technology designed for modern consumers, taking into account changes in the environment and weather patterns. Also new for 2008 is Growmoor's 100 per cent new technology Organic compost in 60-litre bags. This, following extensive grower trials, was shown to not just meet the capability of pure peat-based products but, in many cases, actually improve upon them.

Growmoor head of sales and marketing Bernard Hawkes says: "The Growmoor principle is to constantly develop growing media that is modern in its concepts and powerful in its presentation. This started with the Summer Thru' Container & Hanging Basket product, which embodies a raft of plant growing improvements but is still able to retail at 'old style' compost prices. In 2007 it became one of the UK's largest-selling brands within its sales sector and was chosen by numerous garden centres for promotional selling".

Environmental responsibility

According to Dawson, latest research shows retail buyers and consequently consumers have even more responsibility to act on the environment when choosing their growing media.

She says: "It's not just about habitat loss anymore. Undisturbed peatland has been found to store more carbon than the entire biomass of the world - once you start to harvest a peatland that carbon is emitted.

"It is incumbent on garden centre managers to bring that into their thinking when choosing products to stock. The big names in growing media - Scotts, Westland, Bulrush and so on - are all getting heavily into peat reduction. Not everyone is happy to give away what their products are made from, though, because it's so competitive."

She notes that GMA members have started getting involved in the British Ornamental Plant Producers (BOPP) accreditation scheme, with several geared up to take accreditation this season. "It's the first time an external accreditation has been placed on growing media," she says. "It's a great scheme for manufacturers to be involved in as it is well-respected among growers, retailers and the large multiples."

TIPS FOR RETAIL BUYERS

Catherine Dawson suggests:

- Growing media has seen a lot of cost competition in the market. Don't go for the cheapest deal - look for the right product with both quality and cost in mind

- Look into specialist composts - there is a mass resurgence of products for a specific purpose

- Look for peat-reduced and peat-free where possible

- Look out for BOPP-accredited products in coming seasons.


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