How to sell soil health

Natural soil stimulants have potential at retail but require imaginative sales approaches, Gavin McEwan discovers.

Plant roots can be treated with mycorrhiza-based products. Image: Flickr/ Quinn Dombrowski
Plant roots can be treated with mycorrhiza-based products. Image: Flickr/ Quinn Dombrowski

With the rise of grow your own has come an increased consumer interest in maintaining healthy soil and in finding alternatives to conventional plant care chemicals.

While natural fertilisers such as horse manure and blood and bone meal have always been with us, a new generation of so-called bio-stimulants, which boost the flora and fauna in soil, have established themselves in professional plant production, landscaping and turf care and are starting to find a market among consumers, too.

However, suppliers report that this is not proving easy. As Squires managing director Dennis Espley told a recent Garden Industry Manufacturers' Association event: "If you come to me and need to explain your product, it is not going to sell."

One company that has made some headway is PlantWorks, which manufactures Rootgrow, a soil additive promoting the development of mycorrhizal fungi filaments around plant roots. These form a symbiotic relationship with the plant, potentially increasing its root capacity many times over.

Educating the market

Company founder Simon Taylor says: "We have slowly educated the market, retail and professional. From a standing start six years ago, we are now in more than 800 garden centres, including Dobbies and the Garden Centre Group, and sales so far this year are up 30 per cent. It's down to knocking on a lot of doors. You have to make friends and offer them a reasonable margin."

The company provides in-store point of sale including video display units for aisle ends and will also train garden centre staff so they are able to explain the product to customers. Endorsement from the RHS, gained two years ago, does no harm. "That has made a difference. It gives the product credibility," says Taylor. "We engaged the RHS from the start and the product is in use at Wisley, where garden manager Colin Crosbie is an advocate."

Even so, he says: "It can be a bit of a leap of faith, both for retailers and their customers. There is a huge amount of science behind it - it's not just muck and magic - but we have struggled to engage the public. I found myself recently addressing a garden centre audience. In 15 minutes, even with visual aids, it's not easy to get across."

Fortunately for garden centres, he says, Rootgrow is an additional line that does not need to displace sales from other products. "By treating plants with Rootgrow when you put them into the ground, they are better able to take up the fertilisers that you are also selling," he explains.

He adds that because the mycorrhizae colonise plant roots more quickly than competing pathogens, it can overcome problems such as rose replant disease, providing another opportunity for linked sales. And just this year, Rootgrow has been included as a coating on a new Barenbrug lawn seed mix, Green Velvet, which is already in around 100 garden centres.

Symbio introduces retail range

Also new this year is a retail range from bio-stimulant supplier Symbio, already well-established in the amenity and turf care markets. The Surrey-based company has taken on an additional member of staff to cultivate this market.

"They are beginning to go to garden centres, but the trouble is, there is a high education quotient," says managing director Martin Ward. "We haven't pushed it to the sheds yet. We need garden centres who offer a certain level of customer service and advice. We have had some success selling through nurseries that are selling high-value plants and trees and will then advise their customers to use them as part of the aftercare."

By contrast, he says: "Most garden centre customers will see 'Rose Feed' or 'Tomato Feed' and buy that, without bothering to look at what's in it. That's a problem to overcome - there's a limited amount you can do in that situation." Yet the firm has achieved "surprisingly high" sales to consumers over the web, he adds. "Those tend to be specialist gardeners who already know what these products are for. But we also get a lot of people asking questions about what they've read on the site."

The company is also trialling designs of compost tea bins to sell at retail. These "brew" a liquid feed rich in soil microbes. In recent years, they have become a regular sight at nurseries and golf courses.

"The 10-litre plastic bucket could serve as a container for the air pump and diffuser," says Ward. "Unfortunately there's very little margin in this - the pump alone costs a minimum of £29. By the time the product has worked its way into the sheds, you're asking people to spend £50 on a bucket."

But given the results already in professional horticulture, he says: "The potential is there. You get significant improvements in difficult gardens on London clay or on builders' rubble or an area that has been trampled down by kids. On allotments, too, someone could get it brewing on Friday, then other allotment holders could use it over the weekend. Already that's being done in the USA and it brings the cost right down to about £1 a jug."

Professional credibility has also helped EcoCharlie, an environmental garden products supplier, which sells organic Wormcast Compost, rich in enzymes and trace elements. "It's a professional product already widely used in commercial agriculture, so the proof is there," says company founder Callum Davis.

Aged just 20, Davis started the company straight from college two-and-a-half years ago and has gone from supplying 10 garden centres in his first year to around 300 now. "Retailers such as Garden Centre Group will take our liquid feeds, but it's still a difficult market. A lot of garden centres still don't know about what we do," he says.

"Customers will pay a bit more for organic products, but they are more price-sensitive in a recession. We have tried to be as different as possible on packaging to make our products stand out on the shelves. We have granular feeds in brown paper bags rather than shiny boxes. We couldn't get the liquids into cardboard packs though, and had to settle for plastic.

"I think products such as these can be a credible competitor to conventional lines. We hope that grow your own will help our products to become more mainstream. We have a credible chance of achieving that."

GETTING SCIENCE ON BOARD

Rockdust, a "soil re-mineraliser" distributed by Binn Soil Nutrients (BNS) of Aberdeenshire, is another product that stands to benefit from greater awareness of soil health, says the company's sales and marketing director Jennifer Cook.

"So little has been done on soil biology - it's a true frontier of science," she says. "We have had the product analysed and it has all the main trace elements apart from iodine. Some of those go straight to the plants, others to the microbes in the soil.

"More research is needed though - what we have is mostly anecdotal. Professional growers are driven by agronomists who are themselves driven by the science. They will want to see trials and we are short of those."

The product's previous distributor, Angus Horticulture, supplied more than 150 garden centres. "Garden centres say it's the same people who keep coming back for it," says Cook. "That shows it works, but we need to do more. Advertising is expensive, but we sold well though mail order suppliers' catalogues, and also their websites where you can do a bit of research first."

The company, which recently gained organic status, will hold a workshop at the Gardening Scotland event in June on soil and compost re-mineralisation. "Packaging and branding are important," says Cook. "Mainstream TV coverage would also help. We've heard Alan Titchmarsh is looking for gardens this year - he should go to the SEER Centre in Perthshire where Rockdust was developed. The things they grow there are amazing."


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