Garden Retail - Testing times for growing media

Recession, peat harvest and politics are testing suppliers. Matthew Appleby reports on the challenges and asks what's new for 2013.

Peat products: growing-media sales dropped in 2012 and prices are now on the rise due to a peat shortage - image: HW
Peat products: growing-media sales dropped in 2012 and prices are now on the rise due to a peat shortage - image: HW

Scotts Miracle-Gro general manager Martin Breddy recently warned a gathering of industry leaders: "We need to plan extremely cautiously because we don't know how consumer behaviour is affected by the economy." Describing the current economic conditions as unprecedented, he said that after three "pretty good years", 2012 was a letdown.

Speaking at last November's All Party Parliamentary Group for Horticulture and Gardening's annual reception, he stressed: "We are facing really tough times and the harsh economy is here to stay."

The bad weather in 2012 certainly did not help, causing compost company sales to drop by up to 15 per cent during peak season. But the rain also means there will be a peat shortage in 2013. Breddy says this will increase the rate at which peat substitutes are used. This will help the cause of Defra's Sustainable Growing Media Task Force, which spent most of the year working on a peat-elimination plan for the industry. Defra is due to report back early in 2013, but peat producers and many garden centre owners hope that phase-out deadlines of 2020 for retail sales will be scrapped.

The European Peat & Growing Media Association, which represents companies and associations in Europe, says last year's average Europe-wide peat harvest was down 50 per cent. Some smaller suppliers suggest peat prices are up by 20 per cent and supplies down by up to 70 per cent thanks to the wet harvesting season.

Clover Peat Product sales and marketing manager Andrew Peers describes the peat harvest as "dire". He adds: "It's been the worst since 1947 and there's nothing we can do until the sun shines. We're going to struggle to supply our customers with their full requirements. I don't know when we're going to start harvesting again, but if we do get on in March we might just make it."

Ireland's Erin Horticulture managing director John Molloy says: "We expect to survive for another year, but everybody is low this year. We are struggling and trying to help each other."
He adds that Erin will continue to work closely with neighbouring giant Bord na Móna, which only harvested 37 per cent of its usual peat harvest in 2012.

William Sinclair Horticulture has lost the use of its leased Chat Moss bog in Salford after a ruling by local government minister Eric Pickles following a public inquiry. The company had sought permission to continue extraction for another 15 years.

Pickles said: "The Government's view is that the use of peat in horticulture is unsustainable and it has also to be set against the consequences of peat extraction on climate change and biodiversity."

Coir and bark producers are prospering because of the peat producers' struggles. Horticultural Coir managing director Tom de Vesci says turnover has more than doubled over the past couple of years. Bark producer Melcourt says it is not being affected by the availability of peat, its prices are steady and availability is good for the foreseeable future.

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