With the wettest summer for a century, 2012 caused major challenges for the UK and Irish peat harvest, while the dry conditions of last summer helped ensure a good harvest. The inconsistency of our weather means growing-media manufacturers are thinking ahead and considering sources further afield while also looking for new raw materials to meet requirements for peat-reduced and peat-free media.
Everris is one company that has built on its peat-reserves strategy, ensuring that it has sufficient time to react to changes in the market and to enable the supply of a more consistent product through a better delivery service and with a more stable price platform.
"Growers want a consistent growing-media product year on year," says Everris sales manager Adrian Thirtle-Watts. "We have our own supply of quality UK peat as well as sources of high-quality imported peats. We are well positioned close to other raw materials and have secured supply of quality wood fibre, bark and professional-grade coir."
With increased storage facilities and logistics, all Everris's stocks are held at the company's production facility in Nutberry, Dumfries and Galloway. Thirtle-Watts says this enables Everris to quickly react to peaks in demand.
Transportation is a major cost when it comes to growing media. In a bid to minimise this cost, Everris has invested in new equipment to maximise loading - the latest ProBaler from Logitech and new technology to compress growing media in bulk bags, which alleviates bulges and optimises lorry loading.
"Fast throughput is essential at busy times of the year, such as production peaks in the spring," says Everris technical manager for growing media Dr Jim Smith. "Our new ProBaler quickly compresses the growing media into stretch-wrapped bales and has significantly improved production efficiency as well as the compression, stability and uniformity of bales."
He continues: "Our bales now have straighter sides, helping to avoid damage during transport and making them easier to load into breaking machines on the nursery. All bales are weighed automatically to calculate volume and are capped with hoods to ensure they are wind and waterproof."
Reporting brisk business and with new customers, Petersfield Growing Mediums has also made significant investment in its production lines. The company reports that, with Toresa-type wood fibres being more widely available and cost-effective, it is now looking at replicating and adapting mixes that have been used on the continent for many years and is exploring the benefits with customers. It says the results are interesting.
"There are many potential benefits but the one that stands out is that it seems to make the mixes more forgiving and less reliant on the peat grade or watering etc being perfect," sales and marketing manager Neil Williams explains.
Everris has its own version of wood fibre, Fibragro, produced to exacting standards and treated to ensure stability in use, consistency and flowability. "Wood fibre is increasingly used as a growing media additive and is the most sustainable alternative to peat while being almost as economical," says Smith.
"It is possible to use up to 25 per cent wood fibre in mixes. On their own the fibres can collapse, but mixed with peat particles or professional-grade coir for peat-free mixes, the wood fibre helps open up the mix. Wood fibre is inert, so it doesn't buffer fertilisers, so it is important to use a good controlled-release product such as Osmocote."
Coir is also used by Everris. Its inclusion in growing media helps to reduce the moisture content of the mix to aid flowability. It also reduces weight, saving on distribution costs. Coir can have a beneficial effect on rooting, particularly of young plants. Everris continues to supply 100 per cent peat mixes on request.
At Melcourt Industries the perception is that sustainable growing-media products are really coming of age and that for many of the company's customers, growing without peat has become as normal as growing with it used to be. The firm also reports a move from being a niche choice to being a growing-media range that can hold its own against others, not just peat-free.
Having heavily invested in plant and machinery over recent years, including now being able to offer maxi-bales - with all their associated savings in packaging and transport costs - Melcourt says sales are building well. Varying uses also continue to grow.
"The diversity of applications for which our professional growing-media range is being used is demonstrated no better than by the five of our nursery customers who achieved gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, exhibiting exotics and succulents, herbaceous perennials, trees, nursery stock and heucheras," says Melcourt technical director Catherine Dawson.
"Add in the largest flowering plant in the world - Arum lily with a corn size of 35kg and pot size of 750 litres - at long-term Melcourt customer the Eden Project and the many normal nursery activities of raising seeds and cuttings through to potting and containerisation, and the scale of the possibilities becomes clear," she explains.
Bark-based media have long been popular with nursery-stock growers and, together with the herbaceous sector, form the biggest customer base at Melcourt. But according to Dawson, the company's products are also becoming the choice of many bedding-plant growers.
"We were delighted with the quality and scope of the bedding grown at Earley Ornamentals for Darlington Borough Council this year and the hanging baskets of Bournemouth are, for the second year running, looking fantastic in Sylvamix Hanging Basket, boding well for their quest to repeat many previous Britain in Bloom successes," adds Dawson.
She also points out that while the company makes no claims about pathogen suppression, anecdotally one factor Melcourt customers frequently mention is the cleanliness of their plants - being free from low-level infection.
Another factor repeated by growers is the need for consistency. "So often we hear reports of the difficulties experienced by growers if the growing medium is not consistent from batch to batch," says Dawson. "So in addition to a big spend on machinery, we invested in rigorous quality-control systems that ensure uniformity as well as confidence for our users and for us."
Rapid turnaround times are also demanded by growers. In the case of Melcourt, turnaround is typically between five and seven working days, but it can be quicker if required, and it is coupled with information about delivery times.
Manufacturers developing facilities and products to improve performance
William Sinclair Horticulture
Leading growing-media, fertiliser and chemicals producer William Sinclair Horticulture has combined its retail and professional sales teams into a single "superforce" that it claims will bring service and logistics benefits to all customers as the company commissions its new £15m growing-media production facility at Ellesmere Port.
Commercial director Richard Carr says Sinclair's new integrated Ellesmere Port hub makes a unified supply chain not only possible but also highly advantageous in terms of efficiency, flexibility and service levels as the company gears up to ship a raft of major new products for 2015.
"With many of our customers buying retail and professional products from us, and those products soon to be made and shipped from a world-class supersite, an integrated sales team will help them and us," he explains. "In many cases, we will be able to ship retail and professional products on the same lorry so logistics benefits will accrue from a more dynamic and efficient supply chain."
Jiffy is participating, at the seedling stage, in the Futagrow project - a sustainable soil-less cultivation system that uses oxygenated water with nutrients as a substrate. After germination in a mini Performa plug, selected tomato plants are transplanted into a bigger Performa plug, a Jiffy system called "Plug In Plug", providing a uniform and strong plant ready for entering the Futagrow system.
The system offers the possibility of growing several crops a year on movable gutters. As a result, two continuous crop stages are present in the greenhouse. The project has so far shown the airy and high-quality Performa plug providing superior results over other media in the Futagrow system. The relatively small Performa plug in the gutter makes the system flexible and economical.
Jiffy is also involved in part of the Teabag Technology bedding-plant revolution launched in the UK by Coletta & Tyson nurseries earlier this year. The new packs were rolled out into 360 B&Q stores under the programme called "Easy Grow with Teabag Technology". Each plant pack consists of a newly developed tray containing coir growblocks enclosed by a biodegradable "teabag" made from corn starch.
Claiming to set new standards in the global coir substrate market, Cocogreen is the first and only coir manufacturer to be fully accredited in quality, environmental and social areas of its business across all sites.
Supplying the soft-fruit, glasshouse salads and ornamental sectors in 40 countries across the world, Cocogreen's international sales headquarters is based in Manchester.
Green-tech and Lytag have joined forces in an effort to further increase environmental credentials by working together in a supply agreement around the Hortag brand of lightweight secondary aggregate - a key constituent in Green-tech's Green-tree roof garden substrates. This year marks the 10th anniversary of a joint partnership of soil manufacturing between Green-tech's soil division, Green-tree, and Yorkshire Water.