Thinking behind the growing media market is being dominated by the Peat Task Force, which is due to issue its roadmap to ending retail peat sales by 2020.
But for the consumer, there is little to worry about this year, with a larger range of peat, peat-free and peat-reduced products then ever available.
Two big launches are Expand 'n Gro from Scotts and Light & Easy from Westland. Both aim to be lightweight and will have heavy TV advertising backing.
Scotts and Westland both say peat reduction is not a big selling point and Westland took mention of peat off the bag in favour of a 'new lightweight blend' logo. For its part, Scotts Miracle Gro goes for the 'expands 3x' branding, emphasising that a small bag triples in size to produce 50 litres of compost after wetting the coir.
William Sinclair Horticulture has the leading peat-free in New Horizon and is eloquent when discussing trade and policy issues.
Chief executive Bernard Burns says a poor harvest and Focus going into administration skewed the market in 2011. The DIY chain had around five per cent of the growing media market and used Scotts as its main supplier, with unsold cheap product hitting the market all year.
But this year, Sinclair retail managing director Danny Adamson warns that smaller suppliers may run out of peat in spring thanks to poor harvests and he is holding some supplies back.
Growing media as a product category has sustained volume growth of 2.5 per cent per annum for more than a decade partly due to the ageing population fuelling the popularity of gardening.
Demographic trends suggest that this will continue for at least the next 10 years.
But the horticulture industry is under increasing pressure from the Government and NGOs to eliminate the use of peat in growing media for environmental reasons. Almost all big retailers involved with gardening have within their corporate responsibility statements a commitment to reduce or eliminate the use of peat in their growing media in the short or medium term.
Amalgamations in the £130m a year business have consolidated supply, according to GfK. Sinclair has taken over Yorkshire Horticulture Supplies and Bord na Mona has taken over Vital Earth's sales and marketing in recent months to include sales in the UK of the Irish giant's Growise peat-reduced product.
While the big players such as Scotts, Westland, Sinclair, Bord na Mona have most of the market, smaller producers such as Durston, Tarmac, Petersfield, Carbon Gold and Bulrush have significant parts of the retail market.
Industry insiders say official figures that put the value of the market at £130m are too low. The whole market is probably worth about £255m at retail including all outlets and the likes of bark and grits. The HTA estimates the market at £300m.
Bulrush national accounts and retail products manager Alex Julien says: "The UK retail market is tough because of the peat replacement side. We're doing a lot of work on that and on the professional side. We're trying to make inroads and consolidate gains made in recent years. What we offer is an alternative to the likes of the big three - Westland, Scotts and Sinclair. They have such a big share some garden centres want something different to their competitors down the road."
Case for legislation
Burns suggests that the only way to stop peat use is by legislation and that the best way is by introducing a 200 per cent VAT tax on peat.
Speaking about the Government's plans for a voluntary end to retail peat sales by 2020, he says: "A 200 per cent tax on growing media that contains peat doesn't stop people using it where it is essential, but it does put the price up. If the cost quadrupled it's an economic issue because germination rates are better and faster in peat. Producing a good quality peat free is more expensive and why offer an alternative if you won't be able to sell it. All the major manufacturers know this is not going to happen while a voluntary code is in place."
He adds: "It is a fairytale that this is going to happen without intervention. The $64,000 question is can you legislate? I believe that the Government can but I don't believe they believe they can. I don't think they can ban peat because of EU rules but there is nothing in the EU stopping them having differential rates of VAT." Defra says the peat task force will look into this.
Burns was announcing improved profits before tax of £3.18m in the 12 months to 30 September 2011, up from £2.06m in the previous year.
The Peat Task Force, set up last year under Dr Alan Knight, has plans for a roadmap to show how peat use can go by 2020 (2030 for growers).
Last year, Scotts, William Sinclair, B&Q and Homebase signed a letter to Defra calling for peat legislation."If a legislative process on peat resulted in vast reduction of use we could put reduction facilities in place over a 10-year timespan. But it will be at least 2040 if we wait," says Burns.
On the 2015 local authority, 2020 retail and 2030 grower bans he maintains that the local authority ban by 2015 "is straightforward" but voices the view of several producers that 2020 is not so easy.
Scotts Miracle Gro UK managing director Martin Breddy says the 2020 target is feasible but the Government needs to recognise the costs. "I don't think market forces alone would be sufficient to get us to 2020," he adds.
Scotts no longer supplies peat to professionals but Breddy says: "It is right the Government target is twice as far away as the consumer target because peat dilution poses more challenging issues for professionals. My interest is in ensuring a level playing field."
At Durston Garden Products, which has recently opened a new peat bog in Somerset, sales director Chris Durston says: "As I understand it, any ban is unlikely to be statutory because that would be unenforceable under EU law. At present, the evidence of sales in the retail market indicates that the majority of the public still favour peat-based products because of their effectiveness and consistency."
Durston does not believes that garden centres will stop ordering peat voluntarily. "If it did happen, it would only be because consumers are driving demand. The demand for recycled materials would escalate to such a level that there wouldn't be enough to satisfy manufacturer demand and growing media would rocket in price."
The firm claims four per cent of the retail market through supermarkets and wholesalers - including own label - and is driving into the garden centre sector.
Burns adds: "I don't think consumers are engaged at all. They go to the garden centre to buy a bag and they expect their plants to grow. What's in the bag only becomes an issue when it doesn't work. A lot of experienced gardeners have tried peat free and had bad experiences."
The media is not helping the process, says Burns. "Alan Titchmarsh admitted using peat and was pilloried in the press. There is only one politically acceptable opinion to hold in the media but the consumer doesn't care. And you can't tell whether it is peat in the bag once it's in there."
Organic gardener Bob Flowerdew received the same treatment after advocating a licensing regime for peat sourced from managed and sustainable sites, like Forestry Stewardship Council certification for sustainable hardwood timber. But NFU horticulture adviser Chris Hartfield argues: "Flowerdew should be congratulated for making some of the most sensible comments about peat use in the press for decades.
"This issue is not about a race to being peat free at all costs. This issue is about providing British gardeners and growers with composts that are reliable and grow seeds and plants really well, and about making sure the ingredients are as sustainable and responsibly-sourced as possible.
"The obsessive pursuit of peat free will lead to poor results and loss of confidence for gardeners and significant damage to growers' businesses. Gardening commentators need to stop blindly demonising peat and start usefully guiding the public with correct information about composts that are good for the gardener and the environment."
Peat free tests assessed
East Malling Research (EMR) has received a £78,000 grant from Defra to fund quantitative analysis of compost samples. The department wants to identify a method for investigating whether compost samples contain peat to ensure that all bagged compost is peat free after 2020.
The year-long project got underway this month with a literature review of current testing methods. After discussions with Defra, EMR will develop techniques to assess which methods work best.
Defra wants a cheap and easy-to-administer test that will help ensure manufacturers are not including cheaper, lighter peat in bags of growing media.
EMR project leader Jean Fitzgerald says: "We are looking to determine a method to detect and measure the peat content in a bag of growing media." While she says she cannot pre-judge which method might be best, carbon dating and molecular tests were options.
Burns adds: "If the drive to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of peat in horticulture is to be credible, then being able to detect and prove the presence of peat in a mixed compost quantitatively is a prerequisite."
Stockbridge Technology Centre will be holding a conference on Growing Media for Gardeners on 16 February. The event will cover trial results, products, issues of green composts and a debate on the way ahead - are gardeners eco-vandals or biodiversity champions? To book a place, call 01757268275. Also see www.defra.gov.uk/peat-taskforce/work/programme.
Who supplies who in the £130m-£255m a year retail market?
PEAT FREE PROGRESS
Peat-free sales to consumers can only rise through the introduction a quality standard, according to Defra's Peat Task Force chairman Alan Knight and Westland managing director Edward Conroy.
Peat-free sales were 12 per cent of the market in 2000 but only 11 per cent in 2010-11, according to GfK.
Westland says it is 45 per cent peat free and aims to hit the Government 2020 target by using more wood fibre, bark and coir but not "unreliable" green waste.
Technical director Jamie Robinson says research shows consumers do not understand the Growing Media Initiative. He suggests using Knight's quality "stamp" instead.
Light & Easy is dyed to look like peat and is a product of Westland's new £3m machinery, officially opened in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, by Diarmuid Gavin last autumn.
The machinery extrudes Sitka spruce to make it lighter than West+. Light & Easy also includes coir and slow-release four-month fertiliser. It is being promoted as 60 per cent lighter than green waste peat frees at 8kg a bag.
UK AMBITIONS FOR IRELAND'S BORD NA MONA
Bord na Mona UK is to expand its operation by taking over the sales and marketing resource of Vital Earth and its own Growise products.
Commercial manager Tommy Gill says: "We are in the process of building a customer/consumer-centric business in the UK, and this has reached a critical stage where we need a local team of talented and ambitious people to deliver and drive success. This agreement provides just that and provides a great base for the launch of further products to the market."
Under the new arrangement, Bord na Mona UK will sell a range of growing media and bark products across the Vital Earth and Growise brands. Additionally a range of fuel and ignition products will be available building on the recent launch of the FireMagic brand. The combined salesforce will be focused on developing new customer opportunities as well as giving continued service excellence to existing customers.
"In the UK, very little is known about Bord na Mona and those that know us associate us with Shamrock and as a peat company in essence," says Gill. "But we moved on years ago. We're an exciting Irish company and we want to get that message across. We have a EUR400m turnover and are 95 per cent state-owned.
He says Bord na Mona now operates wind farms, electricity, landowning, waste recovery, landfill and rainwater harvesting businesses among others.
The UK growing media market is very important to Bord na Mona, Gill stresses, with customers including B&Q plus 120 more outlets.
Its fuel products are potential add-on within garden centres, he says.
Vital Earth does not have the critical mass to move forward fast, he adds, but he hopes to double sales of the peat-free brand in 2012 to independent garden centres.
He says Bord na Mona is ready to move whichever way Defra goes on ending peat use: "We're more prepared than a lot of our competitors in the UK in peat free, peat reduction and using coir and green waste."
Vital Earth GB managing director Steve Harper says: "I believe that this agreement will bring a new excitement to the horticulture market with a company of Bord na Mona's size and stature being able to drive the Vital Earth brand to new heights."
"It has the critical mass to move forward and can invest significantly. We manufacture and they distribute. Bord na Mona has been trying to grow its UK horticulture and fuels market and this gives them a bigger platform." He adds that Vital Earth expects 40 per cent growth in 2012 and for Growise aims are for 100-200 per cent growth. He expects sales to UK garden centres to double in 2012."
On the move to peat free, Harper admits: "The Government has other things on its plate ahead of the green agenda but I don't think they are going to back away. Too many companies have made too much investment."
Gill adds that Bord na Mona will not import peat from Ireland to the UK after the growing media is phased out from retail use in England in 2020: "It's not in the spirit of what we're trying to do," he says.