Growing media - Everything to play for

Exchange rate issues are likely to dominate the growing media market in 2017 as suppliers continue to innovate, Matthew Appleby reports.

Late start: growing media sales have been hit, showing a slight decline overall - image: HW
Late start: growing media sales have been hit, showing a slight decline overall - image: HW

In 2017, unfavourable exchange rates for importing peat from Ireland and continental Europe could have an impact on the industry.

A reasonable peat harvest has helped supply, but with the euro strengthening by 15 per cent, raw material prices could go up by a similar amount.

The industry has continued to innovate into niche areas, while some retailers may look around for better deals if prices do change.

There is a lot to play for. Verdict Retail predicts long-term growth in its latest report, saying growing media is set to be the fastest-growing gardening category, with an increase of 2.4 per cent over 2016—2018. Euromonitor said growing media sales rose by one per cent in 2016 and in forecasting three per cent growth in 2017.

In the past 18 months there has been consolidation in growing media, with Westland buying Sinclair and melding their offer into their own. Meanwhile, Bord na Móna has dropped the Vital Earth brand in favour of their Growise brand.

Post Brexit

Nevertheless, the 2015 upheaval caused by Sinclair going into administration is over and new issues such as post-Brexit exchange rates are the areas importers have to watch, with Irish, German and Baltic peat going to be more expensive, with a 20 per cent year on year price difference.

Bord na Móna UK’s consumer head Charles Farmer says suppliers are absorbing increases in prices
and "retail prices will be similar to 2016 because of pressure in the market".

The very late start to the season hit growing media sales as much as it did other areas such as bedding, and despite a strong May and long autumn sales season, sales showing a slight decline this year overall, GfK has found.

Farmer said 2016 sales were not as good as expected because of a "dreadful first quarter" and the season being concentrated into May. He said there were expectations around June but "there was only one decent week then the European football championships and Brexit came along. Autumn was good but did not make up.

Exchange rates are stabilising now, says Farmer, but he adds that "hedging at the right time is key".
Peat proportions are still rising, however, with Scotts bringing out Levington Essentials as a basic range to add to the better Miracle-Gro and best Levington ranges, which will be 20 per cent cheaper at £3.99 for 50-litre composts.

This is in competition to another high peat product, Westland’s Jack’s Magic. Farmer says: "I’d say the peat content [overall] has gone up, though we have kept everything as it is."

Bord na Móna launched Pro 5 at Glee, a premium range including a 50-litre higher peat compost with vermiculite.

The company also launched a broader range of 10-litre ericaceous, citrus and other specialist composts.
Peat-free seems to have stabilised at below 20 per cent of sales as gardeners look for products that are guaranteed to work.

On the retail side, Bunnings/Homebase has stated it is moving from own brand to named brands and will be competing aggressively on price with the likes of DIY giants B&Q and Travis Perkins, who will be set to match any offers Bunnings come up with. Westland is a long-term Homebase supplier.

Responsible sourcing

Most retailers have stuck with their suppliers, though the discounters such as Aldi and Lidl
are likely to shop around for any good deals. The Growing Media Association launched the responsible sourcing calculator, developed by the P4 group which was set up following a recommendation of the Sustainable Growing Media Taskforce (SGMTF). This group was tasked with developing a tool that could be used to assess the environmental values of growing media. The result is this calculator that enables manufacturers to measure and score seven criteria for the key materials used in products. 

The seven criteria are energy usage, water usage, social compliance, habitat and biodiversity, renewability, pollution and resource use. These scores are combined and weighted to give an overall score for the product.

GMA chairman Steve Harper said responsible sourcing is moving forward and auditors are being appointed for early 2017 to help lead to benchmarking of product.

He said harvests had been average. Harper added that exchange rates will "no doubt affect business" and there could be some movement in prices but "nothing radical", adding that prices had changed little in the last 15 years.

Harper said Irish manufacturers would have to get "cuter" on price to combat exchange rate issues.

Meanwhile, Westland launched 100-litre Gro-Sure Smart Ground Cover, billing the product as a  "a revolution in mulch that is weed-suppressing and has the appearance of freshly dug soil".

Bord na Móna expanded its Growise growing-media range and will launch the Bord na Móna Growise brand in the fertilisers category.

A new urban gardening range

At Glee, Scotts launched a new urban gardening range through Hawthorne Gardening Co, consisting of Black Magic 20-litre potting mix compost and one-litre liquid fertiliser in early 2017 – products that were originally pitched at the marijuana-growing market in the USA.

As a range inspired by Hydroponics as step 1 in to Urban & Hydro the UK, Black Magic Compost is made of a high-grade material to create a base for potting soil. Rich seaweeds are incorporated to boost taste and yields. "The new and specially formulated technology balances out the soil structure and maximises water retention to sustain lush growth for any plants," say Scotts.

Some 15 new growing media and soil improver stock keeping units (SKUs) will be on the Bord na Móna UK stand, including specialist blends such as Cactus & Bonsai and Orchid & Citrus, never previously available from the company


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