When it comes to choosing growing media, garden centre customers may have been slow to pick up on the peat reduction message. But with the Government announcing a target to eliminate horticultural peat from retail in less than a decade, the major growing-media suppliers are all investing in peat-free and peat-reduced alternatives.
However, one supplier - Derbyshire-based Vital Earth - appeared to be heading in the opposite direction last year when it announced that its range of peat-free organic composts was to be supplemented this year by GroWise products from Ireland's Bord na Mona (literally "peat board").
Managing director Steve Harper explains: "It means we can match the ranges of other suppliers while avoiding duplication in our own range. GroWise is peat-reduced and the peat share is declining year on year. But some customers will still be looking for peat in the mix."
He believes it is better to gently nudge such consumers and retailers away from peat over time. "This provides a planned and manageable route to peat-free for everyone, including those resellers who have found an immediate and complete switch difficult to achieve," he says.
He agrees that it is Defra rather than consumers that is driving the move away from peat. "The Government plans to reinforce that message this year - in which case we'll be in the pound seats," he adds.
As to the quality of green waste-based media, he points out that the company's peat-free Multi-Purpose and Tub & Basket were declared "best buys" by Which? Gardening last year over peat-based competitors.
Meanwhile, the drive to produce consistent, sustainable and affordable alternatives continues, with wood fibre-derived products leading the way. Forest Gold Plus from Bulrush is a sustainable, timber-derived alternative to peat originating from sustainably managed forests, impregnated with nutrients that the company claims promotes superior root growth for bigger, healthier plants.
According to Bulrush marketing manager Alex Julien: "Bulrush is committed to finding economically-viable alternatives to peat that are available in sufficient volumes and are capable of performing in a wide range of growing conditions with a range of plant types.
"This year we have made further improvements to our Forest Gold Plus additive, after successfully adding it to most professional mixes in 2010. We have found that our 30 per cent peat-free mix actually gives better results than 100 per cent peat mixes.
He adds that bark-based media tends to suck nutrients out, making them unavailable to plants. This problem has been overcome by using wood fibre, which is better able to make nutrients available to the roots.
While many retailers worry about the impact of the VAT rise this year, Julien says the price of transport and packaging is a greater concern. "Plastic accounts for a large percentage of the price of compost, so it's bound to have an effect," he insists.
William Sinclair Horticulture has also put considerable efforts into producing wood-derived growing media - the result being its Super Fyba range, launched last year. But marketing manager Fiona Carrington says: "The work on the Olympics site is swallowing most of the material."
However, the company is targeting the retail market with two new specialist peat-free products tailored for situations where alternative media have struggled to gain acceptance - on young plants and ericaceous growing.
Carrington adds: "Both composts have been developed over several years and rigorously tested to ensure that they perform well in growing the types of plants that have historically been less successful in peat-free growing media."
Westland, traditionally a horticultural peat specialist, is also investing in wood fibre processing facilities at its Dungannon, Co Tyrone, headquarters following the launch of its West+ range of wood fibre-based growing media.
Scotts Miracle-Gro, the consumer arm of the Scotts Company, sees grow your own as a sales driver in the growing media category and has launched three new products aimed at luring in marginal gardeners with their ease of planting and feeding.
Placing the two products together provides an ideal opportunity for mixed sales, particularly to more marginal gardeners, the company explains. The Gro Your Own range is supported by tailored point of sale and leaflets ("It's Gro Time"), reinforced by national advertising.
DIY chain Focus aims to capitalise on this, according to horticulture manager Gerrard Smith. "Grow your own is expected to continue its momentum this year," he says. "At Focus, extra emphasis for promo lines will be placed on products that support grow your own ambitions, with Scotts' range of lines being especially prominent."
Bulrush also has a new compost aimed at the fruit and vegetable growing market. Its Grow Your Own Fruit & Veg is a peat-reduced mix with added nutrients, selling in 50-litre bags. "If it works, we will broaden the range," says Julien.
Vital Earth continues to supply growing media tailored for grow your own, including peat-reduced growbags, tomato and fruit and vegetable planters and the brand new potato planter.
Harper says: "Grow your own is still in fashion and has a few more years in it yet. The recession will help, as will increasing food prices - as people think: 'I could grow that myself for less.' And peat-free organic growing media are more appreciated by gardeners growing food."
He anticipates the overall market size remaining stable this year. "We aim to make Vital Earth a bigger share of it," he says. "So much depends on the weather though, particularly between March and June."
NEW PRODUCT ROUNDUP
The Miracle-Gro Gro Your Own Herb Planter from Scotts aims to make home herb growing as easy as possible, both indoors and out. Not only does the eight-litre box serve as a container, a pre-mixed herb fertiliser - Gro Your Own Herb Pour & Feed - offers ease of feeding. Suggested retail prices are £3.99 for the planter and £3.49 for the feed.
New Horizon Seed & Cutting Compost from William Sinclair Horticulture is a fine-textured, peat-free organic compost made from recycled resources with lower nutrient levels to suit very young plants and improved moisture retention for less watering. It is available as a 20-litre pack and retails at around £3.99.
New Horizon Ericaceous Compost is an organic and peat-free compost made from recycled renewable resources and formulated without lime to suit the needs of lime-hating plants. It is available as a 35-litre pack and retails for a suggested price of £4.99.
Westland has introduced a new line in its West+ range offering added convenience for home growers. West+ Multi-Purpose Compost includes a controlled-release feed for potand container-grown plants that lasts for four months. It contains perlite to improve compost structure.
New to Westland's Surestart range is Surestart Lawn Seeding Soil, aimed at gardeners sowing or repairing lawns. It claims to deliver 25 per cent thicker lawns than standard soil and has added seaweed to boost germination.
The GroWise range of peat-reduced media from Bord na Mona, supplied in the UK by Vital Earth, includes Multi-Purpose compost and a selection of specialist blends. Each contains a minimum of 20 per cent green compost.