On 17 December 2001, the then secretary of state for the environment Michael Meacher declared: "We aim for 40 per cent of the total market requirements to be peat-free by 2005 and 90 per cent by 2010." Today, we have a new plan of action to move the industry forward.
The peat debate has rumbled on for nearly two-and-a-half decades. It was back in the 1970s that David Bellamy first drew attention to the link between peat use and peat bog damage. In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of environmental groups lobbied to reduce the use of peat in horticulture and gardening.
Reducing peat use
In the summer of 2011, Defra set out its plans for reducing the horticultural use of peat in its natural environment white paper and included what some might deem an ambitious target of reducing peat use to zero by 2030. It also suggested that leadership be demonstrated through the progressive phase-out target of 2015 for Government and public sector direct procurement of peat in new contracts for plants.
This is followed by a voluntary phase-out target of 2020 for the use of peat by amateur gardeners and a final voluntary phase-out target of 2030 for use by professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants.
To help meet these goals, Defra committed to the establishment of a task force, bringing together representatives from 35 organisations across the supply chain with a remit to advise on how best to overcome the barriers to reducing peat use.
Initially set up to look at peat, the task force had its remit broadened to that of putting horticulture on a long-term sustainable footing by ensuring all the growing media and substrate used in the industry is sustainable. Overseen by a steering group and having met several times over the past 12 months, Sustainable Growing Media Task Force chairman Dr Alan Knight issued his report and draft road map of action this July.
There has been broad agreement that the report is good and one that the industry can get behind. Knight talks of an over-reliance on peat, something growers may feel the impact of because this summer's peat harvest has been poor across Europe. But the important point from the report is the acknowledgment that all growing media must be fit for purpose - tested and complying with performance standards - and the transition to sustainable growing media must be viable economically.
"One of the positive things to come from discussions is the need to assess the sustainability criteria of all growing media ingredients," says Melcourt Industries technical director Catherine Dawson. "Now we will have a scheme where everything will be assessed on economic, social and environmental criteria."
Everris marketing manager Dave Steward agrees that it is an important point. "Assessment has to be done on the final growing-media product so that when the bag is opened it is the same apples or apples, pears or pears type of comparison."
Advances in the science of hydroponics have changed how some crops are grown, while significant progress has been made in manufacturing and using peat-reduced and peat-free products. But these need to be at the right price, without too many costly changes for handling and production processes, and the complete product and the raw materials, sustainable.
All companies are now looking for alternatives to peat-based growing media and the report is bound to accelerate that work, although manufacturers have to be totally sure of all aspects before putting in place the significant amounts of investment required to introduce and supply new products.
"Every company is going to be affected by peat-reduction issues," says Steward. "We are working with different substrates to dilute peat and we are doing work with growers. We do have some peat-free mixes for specific crops but you really have to work on a crop-by-crop basis because each individual crop has its own needs, wants and requirements. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution."
The problem with plant trials is that results are not instantaneous. Plants have to be grown through a full cycle to work out how fertilisers react with substrate, what the effects are on irrigation and all other aspects of management. "Being a supplier of both growing media and fertilisers, we tend to work all those aspects and have trials with a number of growers of different crops," adds Steward.
At Sinclair Horticulture, technical manager Chris Turner believes that the report is good and that it mirrors the work the company is already doing. "The issuing of the report does not alter anything really. It backs up our thoughts and means we will continue with the various peat-free and peat-reduced growing media research and development (R&D) we have been undertaking," he says.
Last year, the Lincoln-based company introduced two new products for the professional market. New Horizon Pro is a peat-free medium based on the company's award-winning Which Best Buy products but adapted for use on commercial nurseries. The mixes are based on wood fibre, bark and coir from renewable, sustainable sources, with an added base fertiliser. Formulations are available for bedding production, nursery stock, hanging baskets and alpines/herbaceous.
The second new product, Sinclair Pro 50, is a range of 50 per cent peat-reduced mixes, using bark, wood fibre and coir but with peat.
The road map includes a five-year programme to enable growers to benefit from help that R&D can give them, although they are likely only to be convinced once they have seen it on their own nursery and under their own management. There is no substitute for growers' own trials - anything from a few pots alongside their own production to large-scale and detailed tests - and there is no time like now to make a start.
Melcourt's growing-media range Sylvamix is used by the Eden Project in Cornwall and by Duchy College - a supplier to the Eden Project. Duchy's John Ashton says: "We've been trialling Melcourt for six months and we've been greatly impressed with the results - not least in the labour savings achieved by pot-mulching. It dramatically reduces the incidence of liverwort and keeps the plants looking good."
In the future, we are likely to see more developments in reduced-peat and alternative products as well as in the way they are supplied, handled and used. After two-and-a-bit decades of controversy and conflict, the industry at last has a report it can get behind.
The year 2030 may seem a long way off, and to some a peat-free future may continue to seem a commercial impossibility, but the world and horticulture will be very different by then. Will you be ready for it?
Maxi-bales set for launch in the UK
Such has been the high level of interest in Sylvamix from Melcourt Industries, the company is now focussing on Maxi-bales, which are fast becoming the packaging style of choice for medium to large growers.
"Although giving advantages such as ease of handling, less packaging and greater transport efficiency, we nevertheless had to be sure that Sylvamix would bale successfully, so earlier this year a consignment of Sylvamix and Potting Bark was sent to Holland for trial packaging," says technical director Catherine Dawson.
Having been baled successfully, the load was brought back to the UK, where extensive tests were carried out to ensure that the integrity of the product had remained. Some of the bales were sent to a regular Sylvamix customer for assessment of handling on the nursery. As a result, the decision has now been taken to invest in the necessary machinery and Maxi-bales will be available from next year.
Products made available to meet demand for soil-less fruit production
The Everris growing-media portfolio includes Levington, Humax and Shamrock proprietary propagation and tray plant mixes.
In response to a growing demand for soil-less fruit production, the company has invested in mechanical coir-breaking facilities at its Nutberry growing-media production site in Eastriggs, Dumfries-shire, Scotland.
"Many UK and Irish fruit growers are unaware that they are currently benefiting from Everris products because many leading Dutch and UK plant propagators already rely on them," explains Everris business director Stephen Squires.
"For example, Premier Plant Producers in Keyingham employs Levington growing media and Osmocote Exact for five-to-six months to ensure that tray plants get off to the best start. In the Netherlands, Genson relies on Agroblen Total and Agrolution Special for strawberry plant production.
"Now UK and Irish growers can access these, together with other precision nutrition products and growing-media mixes tailored to the specific needs of fruit crops, from Everris."
In brief: manufacturers' latest advanced products
Wood fibre product Klassmann Greenfibre is now RHP-certified. Monitoring features nutrient analysis (testing for active manganese, heavy metals and weeds), nitrogen fixation, phytosanitary testing and investigation of physical properties.
White Moss Horticulture now includes a "How green is this product?" guide on all new growing-media packaging. The traffic-light system runs from green for zero-peat to red for high-peat content.
Along with its latest edition of the Green-tree soil catalogue, Green-tech has launched www.gtspecifier.co.uk to help landscape architects specify materials including soils for applications from tree planting to roof gardens.
Jiffy continues to develop its Born Sustainable principle with all product ranges now featuring peat-reduced and peat-free options including Coir Growbags and Growblocks. For propagation and all production, it offers RHP-certified Tref standard and bespoke professional grower mixes.
Vitax is introducing a grower range of peat-based growing media to cover all crops from bedding to nursery stock and for use in small cells through to large containers. A range of consumer composts - from peat-based through to peat-free - has also been launched.
Westland says it is committed to viable peat alternatives. All its growing media is now peat-reduced - 15-50 per cent non-peat. There is also a full range of peat-free products. This year, the firm has introduced an improved formulation of West+, its peat-replacement ingredient based on Sitka spruce, giving the compost better absorption properties, moisture retention and nutrient content.