Anyone watching television this spring is likely to see an unusual advert - part of a series by Scotts. In addition to products such as Miracle-Gro fertiliser, the firm will be using its £6m campaign to promote the virtues of its composts.
Growing media have always made an important contribution to garden retail sales. They have traditionally been sold cheaply in large bags, stacked up on pallets in open yards. Now a great deal more thought is going into the category. New products are being developed and retailers and manufacturers are looking at more exciting ways of selling.
Van Hage has three garden centres. The company has an annual turnover of £17.5m, of which just over £300,000 comes from growing-media sales. Cost is still a major factor. Van Hage's large centre in Great Amwell has one stand dedicated entirely to compost. Van Hage has four very popular lines - 40-litre bags of Multipurpose Compost with John Innes, 35-litre bags of topsoil, 50-litre bags of farmyard manure and 30-litre bags of seed and cutting compost.
Over the next year, these will be sold at £12 for four bags. "These are very big sellers that are in demand from dedicated gardeners," says horticultural buyer Ben Stephenson. "We allow people to mix and match so they can buy any combination of four bags for £12. This covers most of their needs.'
Trend towards smaller bags
In addition, there is a trend towards selling smaller bags - usually 10 litres. These are particularly popular with older people, who don't want to carry large packs. "We'll do about 10 lines of the small bags," says Stephenson. The composts are specially tailored to different types of plants and different styles of growing. The firm encourages linked sales, placing small bags of compost next to the relevant plants and planters.
Van Hage is also looking at some premium products. "We've got big hopes for sales of Westland Planting Magic, which we sell in 2kg pouches for £7.99," adds Stephenson. "This contains a fertiliser feed as well as soil conditioners and we think it should be an easy link sale."
Sales of compost slipped in the poor gardening year of 2012 but bounced back after spring in 2013, thanks to better weather. Last year, sales at Van Hage were up 12.5 per cent on all composts. Sales of smaller 10-litre bags grew by 8.5 per cent. "We do really well on seed compost but less well on compost for houseplants or orchids," says Stephenson.
The market for growing media is dominated by just a few big players. Scotts, which produces Miracle-Gro and Levington Composts, is particularly well known. This year, it is spending heavily on promotion. Representative Geoff Hodge explains: "As well as the TV adverts, we've got new point-of-sale material and new bags. Our bags will show the attributes of the compost and there are peat bars - a special graphic illustration to show the percentage of peat used in the mix."
In addition, Levington, the firm's best-selling multipurpose compost, is being made more widely available to amateur gardeners. Previously it had been supplied primarily for professional use.
William Sinclair Horticulture is also looking at its marketing strategy. "We're aiming a lot of products at the less-experienced consumer," explains marketing manager Fiona Carrington. "We'll be promoting the Growing Success range, which contains feed so you don't need to add fertiliser. The market for grow your own has stabilised but there are always people coming into the amateur gardening market so we want them to have a good experience - if their plants don't thrive, they won't bother to grow things next year."
The firm is also spending money on the appearance of its products. "We're using thicker plastic on our bags," Carrington points out. "We want to make the point that we're selling premium products."
Westland Horticulture, one of the market leaders, is also pushing new products. These include a Gro Sure Compost aimed at the entry-level gardener. It contains four months of feed to give plants the best chance of success.
Bord na Mona, the Irish firm that produces the Vital Earth and Growise ranges, is also hoping to expand its offering. It is sponsoring a show garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show that will use a newly developed Vital Earth peat-free compost. The firm hopes that the new formulation will be on sale in retail outlets by 2015.
Carbon Gold is producing soils that are intended to be used around the base of trees. Although they were initially aimed at a trade market, the Tree Protector, which contains phosphates to protect against honey fungus, is proving popular among domestic gardeners.
Firms are looking seriously at peat-free products. Government regulations mean that peat will have to be phased out by 2020 - although some analysts believe that the deadline might be delayed. The regulations mean that firms are introducing new ranges of peat-free products. Scotts has developed its own trademarked Fibre Smart potting mix, which it expects to launch in 2014. The company has developed a special system for treating hardwood so it holds air and water and has comparable qualities to peat.
It is also using Expand 'n Gro, a range of treated coir that can be added to compost. Scotts is now producing peat-reduced products with as little as 40 per cent peat content, although most of its products have significantly higher levels than this.
Westland is launching a new composted bark product for the more experienced gardener. Representative Emma Rogers explains: "This is aimed at committed gardeners who are confident in their own abilities."
Small firms offering specialist products are also dipping their toes into the general retail market. Horticultural Coir, which traditionally sells to professional growers and larger compost suppliers, expects to produce a retail product next year. Managing director Tom de Vesci says: "I'm trying to cook something up for next year." He points out that dried coir is relatively easy to pack - it is very light and expands enormously when soaked. It is an easy product for supermarkets to stock, unlike bags of peat that have to be kept moist in perforated bags. De Vesci also suggests that because of its extremely light weight it would be relatively easy to sell over the internet. "It's very easy to post."
Melcourt, which specialises in bark-based products, will be selling its Sylvagrow range to the retail sector. Technical director Catherine Dawson has helped to produce the marketing strategy. "We're marketing it as 'sustainable' because 'peat-free' is a negative label," she says.
Sylvagrow is aimed at serious gardeners, often in slightly older age ranges. Because of this the packaging will be muted - browns and greens rather than gaudy displays of blooms - and it will be supplied in 30-litre bags that are easier to carry. There is also a website (www.sylvagrow.co.uk) that will be used to promote the product, although Dawson stresses that it is under construction and currently only has a holding page. "Sylvagrow is a very versatile product," she adds. "It can be used for seedlings, cuttings, propagation and patio use."
Peat-free products may be viewed with favour by the bureaucrats, but they have to be approached with caution by garden retailers. Stephenson says: "We get a lot of negative feedback on peat-free. It doesn't seem to sell well. People seem to want a quality garden compost with peat."
Peat-free suppliers take issue with this. De Vesci says: "If coir is properly buffered and the particle size is right, the results are at least as good as peat."
Previously the industry went through a rough patch, partly caused by problems in peat extraction. William Sinclair, for example, posted small losses of £400,000 in its interim statement. It lost the use of Chat Moss bog in Salford and has opened new sources of supply in Scotland. To fund developments, including new works at Ellesmere Port, it has had to raise more than £8m of loan financing.
The weather was also a major problem. The wet conditions made it impossible to dig the peat for long periods, leading to shortages in supply. However, all that has now ended and the weather has been relatively favourable for digging peat.
Bord na Mona, the large Irish peat producer, points out that last year peat extraction was 150 per cent of the target figure, meaning that supplies are secure for the immediate future. All the other major firms were able to confirm that they have sufficient supplies for foreseeable needs.
All of which means that 2014 is likely to be a good year for sales of growing media. But as with so many aspects of retailing, the trick will be picking the right products, putting them in the right place and letting people know how to find them.
Ongoing work to promote sustainable sourcing
The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force continues to progress towards workable responsible sourcing schemes to launch in 2015, when peat will no longer be allowed to be used by local authorities, says the HTA.
Project 4 was established to deliver the task force promise that "all growing media are made from raw materials that are sourced and manufactured in a way that is both socially and environmentally responsible". ADAS has been developing decision trees that will evaluate all growing media materials against seven key criteria - habitat and biodiversity, energy use, water use, social compliance, pollution, renewability and resource use efficiency. These will be finalised in January and then tested by manufacturers on existing products.
Project 7 is developing the methodology for a minimum performance standard to ensure that multipurpose composts are fit for purpose. Stockbridge Technology Centre will make recommendations in January. The Growing Media Initiative will then mould the outputs of Projects 4 and 7 into a scheme for manufacturers to benchmark the credentials of their growing media.
Others include the landscape sector working group's scheme for public sector procurement to ensure that responsibly sourced growing media is used throughout contract growing and a Horticultural Development Company project to deliver research and development, knowledge transfer, demonstration trials and best practice dissemination for the professional sector.
Major topic this year
HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin says: "Growing media is big this year. The first project (project 4) of the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force is reporting at the end of January.
"The next step is a consumer labelling system. The issue is now not so much about peat, it's more about sustainability - the debate is moving away from peat. Coir can be just as environmentally bad as peat in some cases. It's about rating sustainability."