The growing-media sector is arguably among the most vibrant, proactive and, yes, even prosperous of any in horticulture today. It claimed to be, on average, 11 per cent up in 2011 compared to 2010 - how many other product areas in UK retailing can claim such growth? Even better, composts are a part of core gardening activity, which has to bode well for 2012 as well.
Part of this surge in use is almost certainly down to the well-publicised target to cease the use of peat by 2020. A by-product of this Government target is research and development into peat-reduced and peat-free lines. These have needed to be marketed, of course, and the spend has resulted in an uplift in the overall use of growing media - good news for both retailers and producers.
One producer, William Sinclair Horticulture, has just released its preliminary statement showing pre-tax profit up 54 per cent, to £3.18m. And it has bullish plans to grow further in 2012.
The company, whose brands include J Arthur Bower's, Silvaperl and New Horizon, says its highlights over the past year include the acquisition of Growing Success and a specialist aggregate business, as well as a post year-end strategic acquisition of the composting business Yorkshire Horticultural Supplies.
Sinclair chief executive Bernard Burns says: "The selling season last year started well with strong consumer demand in March and April, which was reflected by the company achieving record dispatches in each of these months." He adds: "Low stock levels being held by many retailers resulted in a strong end to the selling season."
The sector's positivity is enticing a few new players. Among these is roads and aggregate giant Tarmac, which has launched bagged topsoil and multipurpose compost through its building products division. Product development manager Jon Britton says although Tarmac is known as a supplier of road surfacing and aggregates, it has for several years now offered building products to the home sector.
"We already have a stronghold in the garden centre market for landscaping products, decorative aggregates and mortar, so growing media is a natural extension to this," he adds.
Tarmac supplies product to B&Q and with the economies of scale Britton believes that the firm will be a significant presence in the independent garden retail trade by this time next year.
It is not standing still on product development, either. He explains: "Our existing multipurpose compost is peat-based and strategically we felt that it was right to enter the market with a loved material. We have been careful not to launch peat-free compost until we were sure of quality and results, and this wait is paying off. We expect to launch a peat-free compost within months."
Scotts Miracle-Gro head of marketing Paula Parker says the fact that value sales of peat-free growing media represent just 10 per cent of the overall growing-media market (GfK Retail & Technology UK, August 2011) shows the majority of consumers are more concerned about other attributes, such as using the right product for the right purpose, growing performance and value offers.
"We haven't made a song and dance about the fact that our, new for 2012, Expand 'n Gro is 100 per cent peat-free for exactly this reason," she says. "We support the eventual phase-out of peat, but a massive and costly transition of this kind will probably need Government intervention and support - either in the form of incentives and subsidies to encourage the use of non-peat material or peat taxes."
Parker says non-UK growing media suppliers will also have to be subject to the same measures and/or legislation for fairness and consistency. She adds: "There must be a level playing field for all concerned. This will be the only way to ensure that the UK horticultural industry does not suffer significant damage."
When it comes to peat-free, the question of quality is uppermost in gardeners' minds. Sinclair spokesman Mark Way says: "New Horizon is the most popular and best-performing peat-free growing material in the UK, with more than 30 per cent of the peat-free market."
Way says the product has a quality level that is consistent in any bag bought anywhere around the UK. He claims that this cannot be said for some other peat-free products whose quality standards vary significantly.
"Indeed, we have seen that some products are actually responsible for killing plants. Consequently, consumers who have had a bad experience have switched back to peat-based products. The horticulture industry needs to improve its standards and prevent this happening," he insists.
In terms of trends for this year and beyond, Way is confident. "First, during economic hardship there is a strong trend showing that people are inclined to spend more time in their gardens as opposed to expensive holidays or alternative leisure activities," he says.
"Second, grow your own continues to be attractive for economic reasons as well as organic preferences. And third, the UK's population is getting older and it is the older generation who garden the most. In the UK, the over-50s represent 34 per cent of the population and the number of people in the UK over the age of 65 is projected to grow by 65 per cent between 2008 and 2031."
In the past few weeks Vital Earth, a producer that prides itself on its "ethical, environmentallyfriendly and dependable growing media", has announced a change to its UK sales, marketing and customer service teams. These will now come under the auspices of Bord na Mona UK. The Vital Earth ranges as well as Bord na Mona fuel products, growing media and environmental products will now be handled by the same team across the UK.
Vital Earth sales and marketing manager Maryanne Stokes says: "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. This agreement provides a great base for the launch of further products to the market."
Cutting carbon footprint
Three Soil Association-approved biochar-based products launched for 2012 by Carbon Gold are, according to the firm, set to cut the "personal carbon footprint" of gardeners.
Biochar is a form of charcoal produced by heating woody plant matter using low-emission technology. It permanently captures up to 70 per cent of the carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere if the wood were burnt or allowed to decay.
Carbon Gold has used this technology to formulate GroChar Biochar Complex soil improver, which enhances biochar with mycorrhizal fungi, seaweed and worm cast. This combination of ingredients encourages healthy living soil structure and fertility.
Company founder Craig Sams says: "Biochar will change the way we garden. Independent evidence clearly shows its ability to lock in carbon dioxide - even acting as a magnet for it when used in gardens. Biochar also reduces soil nitrous oxide emissions.
"In a society where reducing our impact on global warming is increasingly important, these products offer gardeners the dual benefits of improving soil fertility naturally while reducing their personal carbon footprint."
Sams, a former chair of the Soil Association and co-founder of Green & Black's, says Carbon Gold does not want the garden centre buyers to regard the firm as "another peat-free outfit".
"We have moved the whole debate about peat forward to a much higher level. The Government and, increasingly, consumers want to reduce the use of peat and we are the only UK company to have a horticulturally-proven technology to achieve this. We are not peat-free or even peat-reduced, we are 'peatless peat'.
"Even in tough economic times, consumers will choose products they are familiar with and trust to perform well. And it is evident that they are also willing to pay a bit more for that reassurance."
New products round-up
GroChar All Purpose Compost contains coir, biochar, mycorrhizal fungi, worm cast, seaweed and a mix of beneficial nutrients. Can be used in conjunction with GroChar Soil Improver. Available in 20-litre bags, with an RRP of £8.99.
GroChar Seed Compost has the same components as GroChar All Purpose Compost but a finer mix of ingredients. Approved by the Soil Association, GroChar Seed Compost is available in eight-litre bags and has an RRP of £4.99.
New Horizon Tub & Basket Compost from William Sinclair Horticulture is organic and peat-free, with added nutrients. A water-retaining agent makes it suited to container gardening. The 35-litre bag is set to retail at £4.99.
Miracle-Gro claims its new Expand 'n Gro expands up to three times - when watered, each small bag makes 50 litres of compost. It retains water for longer, feeds for up to six months and is 100 per cent peat-free. It has a suggested price of £9.99.
West+ Light & Easy Multi-Purpose Compost contains no peat but has feed for four months. Westland Horticulture claims that the bags are "super lightweight". Available in 20-litre (RRP £3.99) and 60-litre (RRP £6.99) bags.
Vital Earth has added a Multi Purpose Compost with added John Innes Peat Free for 2012. Suitable for seed sowing, potting and containers, it contains sterilised, weed-free soil for extra staying power. The 60-litre bags have an RRP of £5.99.
Mobile pallet wins display award
At the end of 2011, Scotts Miracle-Gro won a Gold Award at the annual Point of Purchase Advertising International (POPAI) Awards, taking the Sustainability Award with its Tomorite and Expand 'n Gro Pallet Bridge system.
Head of marketing Paula Parker says: "The Pallet Bridge creates a practical and mobile solution to promote Expand 'n Gro and Levington Tomorite products that are displayed on pallets.
"It takes up no additional shop floor space and it's cost-effective, representing a good return on investment. It improves green credentials over disposable card and correx options."
The POPAI Awards cover every retailing sector, not just gardening, so Scotts won against the big boys of the retail market, beating contenders from the likes of Cadbury, Homebase, National Tyres and Nokia.
RHS's peat-free issues
"The RHS has already achieved 97 per cent peat-free in its gardens," says head of science Dr Roger Williams, who sits on Defra's sustainable growing-media task force. "The remaining three per cent applies to growing certain plant groups and for horticultural procedures for which peat is currently the only appropriate medium. But we are looking into suitable alternatives."
There are three key issues that need to be addressed before the 2020 target date, Williams argues, if gardeners are to fully embrace the peat-free culture:
- Performance variability of peat-free One solution would be a performance standard backed-up by strict quality control, so that gardeners have some assurance that their plants will grow and develop as expected. At the moment, it can seem to be a case of pot luck.
- Water retention RHS research shows that depending on the key ingredients used in peat-free media, approaches to watering need to be tailored carefully and the ability of different materials to redistribute water, in particular, varies considerably between products. More research is needed to improve advice for gardeners and grow their confidence in the use of peat-free products.
- Labelling At the moment, there is little standardisation of what is printed on the packs, so gardeners are unaware of both the origins and the constituent parts of the growing media they are buying. With more details about contents, consumers will be in a far better position to make an informed choice and, hopefully, achieve better results in their gardening.