We have all heard about the magic "silver bullet" growing media a few times before. Compost companies have been searching for the ingredients for decades ever since it became clear that peat use would become unacceptable to the Government.
The last big innovations were the wood fibre additive in WestPlus from Westland and Forest Gold from Bulrush. Now, William Sinclair has developed technology that pulverises wood fibre to make SincroBoostPlus, a "groundbreaking peat alternative growing material".
The £36m turnover quoted company has not been at the forefront of innovation in recent times. But in the past five years, with the acquisition of 85 per cent of Freeland Horticulture and with chief executive officer Bernard Burns and retail division managing director Danny Adamson in charge, the search for a way to breakdown the truck loads of wood that come into council sites from garden waste collections may have ended.
Green compost is a valuable resource and the Veolia site in Hampshire has a ready supply. The bigger material used to be left in a pile, but Freeland managing director George Longmuir has devised a way to wash and bash it up.
SincroBoostPlus is produced using modern laser and washing technologies and has had metals, stones, glass, plastics, soluble salts, sand and other impurities removed.
At the site, I see piles of plastic, golf balls, grit and other assorted detritus being removed by a line of machines assembled by Longmuir and technical manager Patrick Hudson. The finished product looks like peat and is stable, lightweight and appears to drain and retain moisture like peat.
Longmuir says the Government has not given the industry the R&D cash to replace peat. "The largest single challenge in horticulture is finding a material that works like peat," he points out, adding that the new product is "the closest thing to peat the industry has seen".
Dire peat harvests and rain have not helped and what has been collected is wet and heavy. But SincroBoostPlus is 200g/litre, less than the 350g/litre of peat, cutting transport and retail costs.
Earlier this year, former Defra minister Hilary Benn announced that peat was due to be phased out from garden centre sales by 2020 and the Con-Lib Government is unlikely to change this policy. Although the HTA's Growing Media Association (GMA) successfully fought to keep professional growers exempt from the changes, the environmental lobby has them in their sights.
Olly Watts of the RSPB, who sits on the GMA, was one of several non-government organisation representatives Sinclair invited to Basingstoke to see its product. The company announced profitable winter trading in April with peat-free sales up 44 per cent and peat-based compost sales up one per cent in the six months to 31 March.
Gardening Which? researcher Richard Gianfranco was there. But retailers questioned why the gardening magazine was acting as the arbiter on whether a peat-free was any good - they want independent testing.
Among garden centre buyers who saw the new product was Thompsons Plant & Garden Centre buyer Paul Alford. He says it is good to see money being invested in technology (Sinclair estimates it has spent £1.5m). But he adds that the material needs proper testing, despite Sinclair's evidence from Nottingham Trent University that the product works, particularly when blended at 20-40 per cent with peat.
He says with Sinclair money behind it, SincroBoostPlus has a chance of lasting. But he warns: "As retailers and growers we need to know it is going to do the job. We need to have independent trials." He suggests that the GMA is the body to do this.
Trelawney buyer Wayne Plant asks: "Does it get hot enough (during processing) to get rid of clubroot?" Sinclair assures him it does. Adamson calls the wood waste gold dust and SincroBoostPlus the "silver bullet". Four growers have trialled it, including Hillier.
Recycling garden waste is becoming more commonplace and Sinclair says using waste rather than the trees Westland grows to make WestPlus is an environmental advantage. It can make 50,000cu m in Basingstoke a year and more than that in Lincoln.
One use for the material is at the Olympic Park's bogland garden. The Olympic Delivery Authority cannot use peat, for political reasons, so turned to Freeland for SincroBoostPlus to recreate the environment.
Peter Seabrook said (HW, 21 May) John Innes potting compost has changed formulation during the past century, with some of its sphagnum peat being replaced by peat substitute, including wood 2cm long and 1cm in diameter as well as three-inch thorny Pyracantha twigs and glass.
He warned that gardeners need "safe, reliable products". He suggested that the HTA, RHS and Gardening Which? should combine to test branded composts in January every year because they change formulation so frequently.
IS PEAT-FREE GOOD ENOUGH?
Growing media manufacturer William Sinclair chief executive Bernard Burns has complained (HW, 11 June) that other members of the growing media industry are giving it a bad reputation by selling "crap" peat-free composts.
But he added: "The difference between a good and bad peat-free compost is so big you can drive a coach and horses between them. The industry is doing itself a disservice by continuing to sell crap peat-free. Just look at the results."
Compost and bark supplier Melcourt Industries sales and marketing director Andy Chalmers responded (HW, 25 June) that retail and professional peat-free mixes are very different in expectation and price. He said Melcourt will launch a new peat-free product this autumn.
Vital Earth managing director Steve Harper said: "There are peat-frees out there that don't work as well as they should do. Ours works well. New Horizon is a good product. Even the likes of B&Q have good products. There are some god peat-frees out there." Harper added that Vital Earth plans to expand into a site in the South West.