Interview - Chris Durston, sales director, Durston Garden Products

Durston Garden Products has a 150-year history as a Somerset peat producer.

Chris Durston, sales director, Durston Garden Products - image: David Titchener
Chris Durston, sales director, Durston Garden Products - image: David Titchener

Recent developments have seen it install a state-of-the-art packing line and invest in research to develop Gro Boost, a substrate sourced from Viridor to reduce peat use. The firm supplies four per cent of the retail market through supermarkets and wholesalers (including own label) and is driving into the garden centre sector.

Q: How has the season been for you so far?

A: Very good. We've secured substantial business for 2012 and predict continuing expansion. We recently opened up new peatland and are continuing to expand production of Gro Boost. Using Gro Boost recognises the aspirations of peat reduction but also enables the life of existing peat resources to be extended.

Q: What mix do you use in your compost?

A: Sedge peat, Irish moss peat and Gro Boost. I think we have the right blend of peat and non-peat materials. The addition of Gro Boost has improved the structure at the same time as reducing the peat content.

Q: What was the inspiration behind Gro Boost?

A: The whole industry has had to take on board Government aspirations for peat use reduction and we have invested heavily in producing a quality alternative.

Q: How difficult is it to source the green compost?

A: For our current needs we don't have a problem, but if we doubled our requirements there may be. The industry is consuming ever larger quantities of these materials and it is an unanswered question whether there will be enough material in the long run to satisfy demand.

Q: You have a new peat bog. How difficult was it to get permission to use it?

A: Very, very difficult. It took 13 years and was a very expensive process. We had to carry out groundbreaking technical research into the permeability of peat and agree to detailed conditions to make sure it was not going to affect neighbouring properties. We had to make sure of sensitive land restoration work after extraction ends and be sensitive to local wildlife. Permission for extraction runs for 20 years. Somerset County Council minerals department is charged with issuing planning consents and has to consult bodies such as Natural England and the RSPB.

Q: What is special about Somerset sedge?

A: Sedge peat is much darker than sphagnum moss peat. It has very good airand water-holding properties as a blend and the ability to retain nutrients in available form.

Q: How much Gro Boost do you use and how much could you go up to?

A: Up to 25 per cent of content. Our scientific advisers have worked with us to achieve the optimum recycled content. We are reticent about using higher levels until we're convinced it doesn't affect the quality of our products.

Q: What about the Government's plan for a voluntary ban on peat use in retail growing media by 2020?

A: As I understand it, any ban is unlikely to be statutory because that would be unenforceable under EU law. At present, the evidence of sales in the retail market indicates that the majority of the public still favour peat-based products because of their effectiveness and consistency.

Q: What if garden centres stop ordering peat voluntarily?

A: There's no indication that's going to happen. If it did, I believe it would be because the consumer is driving demand, and at present that isn't happening. The demand for recycled materials would escalate to such a level that there wouldn't be enough to satisfy manufacturer demand and growing media would rocket in price.

Q: What is behind your recent strategy to extend your presence in the market?

A: We recently engaged Papillon PR to help increase our profile in the garden centre sector. We have redesigned our product and packaging to give maximum impact in the market and always put emphasis on the quality of our products.

Q: What is the company's background?

A We're a family-run business. My brother Steve and I are fifth generation. It started off with my great great grandfather Aquilla Durston in 1860 cutting fuel and selling it on a horse and cart. In the mid 20th century, when we acquired more peatland, we went from selling fuel peat and dairy farming to producing horticultural raw material for other companies. In 1989, my brother Steve and I decided to put our own factory in and over the past 22 years we have expanded our range using the most sophisticated automated packing plant in the UK.

CV

1965: Joined Durston Garden Products

1989: Developed factory in Street, Somerset

2010: Introduced state-of-the-art packing line and Gro Boost supplement

2011: Marketing drive to reach garden centres.


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