What started as a worry at the end of summer is now vividly clear — growers' peat supplies are well down and even alternative growing media are affected.
According to William Sinclair Horticulture technical marketing manager Andrea Marshall: "Everyone is concerned. Growers should book their requirements as soon as possible."
The company, which sources peat from the UK, says it has enough to get through spring, "but beyond that we are looking for an early peat harvest".
Marshall adds: "We are reducing peat content where we can. But stocks of other growing media are affected too. Good-quality bark is running low because of the slow down in the building trade and that puts pressure on supplies of other materials such as coir."
Northern Ireland peat supplier Clover sales manager Andrew Mather confirms that supplies are limited: "In the past there has always been an enormous supply, but now it's starting to bite."
He adds: "A lot of people are struggling to get supplies and are phoning up and asking for quotes. But our priority is our existing customers. Harvests for the past two or three years have been poor. But if there's a good spring and summer, then we can get back to harvesting and prices will slacken off again. But whether we can start harvesting in April, May or June is down to the weather."
He says of peat alternatives "We also do bark-based products, for which there's now bigger demand. There's also plenty of rubbish out there but for professional growers you have to be able to guarantee the quality of the material."
He adds that inevitable price rises for growing media should not come as a shock. "Until recently they hadn't gone up for 10 years. They have now risen, but they would have done so anyway given the rising cost of haulage, packaging and fertiliser. There's also the weakness of the pound against the euro. Suppliers can no longer buy peat as cheaply from the Republic of Ireland or the Baltic states."
Bark products supplier Melcourt sales and marketing director Andy Chalmers says surpluses are a thing of the past. "We have ample for our customers and most growers will have discussed their requirements last autumn. But if you were going into the market today, you wouldn't necessarily get what you want," he adds.
Adapting to increased demand has been a challenge, he admits. "The recession has affected the UK building trade, which affected our supplies. But we have imported from Spain, too, where the recession has been deeper, so there's not much coming out from there at all - we have had to replace that with other sources." Bark is now better able to compete with peat, he adds.
Coir is another peat alternative gaining ground as a growing medium. Coir supplier Botanicoir director Kalum Balasuriya says: "There are plenty of coconut husks out there, but raw material prices have gone up. Last year we benefited from the rising price of peat, but this year the cost of coir will go up due to rising transport costs.
"Demand is good now, especially in the soft fruit and hydroponics markets. Growers appreciate an environmentally-friendly product that gives good results and can even save them money in the long run because the units can be used for more than one season."
For many growers, the peat shortage has spurred on a reduction in its use that was underway already. Hampshire's Lowaters Nursery has been at the forefront of increasing sustainability in the ornamental sector in recent years.
Nursery manager Charles Carr says: "We set ourselves the objective of reducing peat by five per cent each year. We are already 30 per cent peat-free in production, with the rest made up of wood fibre. In fact, we have got it up to 50 per cent in trials. It can be done and there are people already growing in peat-free. The cost goes up significantly though, and we have to look at the bottom line."
He can envisage "flipping over" to a minority peat medium in future, but already has his peat usage mapped out into 2011.
The commercial pressure from retail customers has relented, he adds. "We used to supply B&Q, which was pushing for peat-free, but no garden centre has pushed us on peat-free."
Despite this, he says the horticulture trade will still have to move in that direction. "The Government's 90 per cent [peat reduction] target [by 2010] was unachievable, but now the industry should say what is achievable."
The relative prices of different media will clearly play a major role in the Government's efforts to reduce peat usage. An ADAS study commissioned by Defra on the economics of reduced-peat growing will be published shortly, with a further ADAS study into the availability of alternative growing media to follow.
Johnsons of Whixley is another grower moving away from peat. "We are okay for peat — ours mostly comes from Lithuania, which has not suffered a bad harvest," says director Andrew Richardson.
"But we use a lot less peat than we used to. We have reduced it by 50 per cent over three years. The bulk of our customers are not that bothered. We could go peat-free tomorrow but overall we would lose uniformity in the plants and quality would be lower. There will never be one medium that suits all plants. Some benefit from peat-free, some show no difference, some really struggle in it."
On the retail side, Johnsons is a major supplier to Homebase. "It got us to do trials on alternative media with a view to moving across, but a lot more work has to go into it," says Richardson. "The demand isn't coming from the consumer but from groups such as Friends of the Earth."
According to Whitehall Garden Centre garden sundries manager Mike Gingell: "There are so many different products now that unless you can encourage linked sales, most people will just opt for the multi-purpose product.
"We offer peat-free as an option — in fact, we have tried pushing it. But it's only ever a small percentage of customers that wants it. Others who have tried it are not happy with the results. Coir has been the hardest to sell — people don't know what it is. There's still a job to do educating people, but we persevere because there will come a time when peat will no longer be available."
FRUIT AND VEG GROWING DRIVES INNOVATION
The fresh produce sector has been generally quicker to take up alternative growing media. William Sinclair Horticulture hopes to capitalise on this with its Fytocell blocks. Inert and biodegradable, they "provide a near perfect air/water ratio at all times", the company says.
"We already have growers using 100 per cent Fytocell in grow bags for tomatoes and strawberry production and are starting to use it as a peat reduction material in ornamentals," says marketing manager Andrea Marshall. "It's manufactured in the Netherlands, but we are looking for a suitable site to begin production in the UK."
On the consumer side, Botanicoir's Kalum Balasuriya believes continued interest in grow your own will drive awareness of peat alternatives and aims to launch peat-free grow bags for tomatoes and other crops in garden centres later this year.
"There are various peat-free products already out there, but coir is very similar to peat — to the consumer, it looks like proper compost," he says. "It will also be competitively priced, which is important for the home market."