- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Welcome to the developing world of designer dirt and dirtless gardens.

For many people, common garden-variety soils just aren’t cutting it anymore, given our fast-paced lifestyles: too much work for too few rewards. Not enough instant grower gratification.

“You can’t grow a darn thing in backyard soil the way it is,” says Steve Titko, director of technical services, growing media, for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. “Either you commit to improving the soil or doing containers,” he adds during an interview at Scotts’ large growing-media plant in Lawrenceville, Va.

Native soils are compacted easily, and when that happens, the packed particles don’t drain well. They also may be nutrient-poor. Soil degrades over time; it’s never finite, Mr. Titko says.

Commercial mixes renew the vigor in vegetable gardens and landscapes and add life to plants in indoor pots or outdoor hanging baskets. Things simply grow faster and bigger than they do when started in normal soils.

Most of the premium mixes include varying combinations of pine or hardwood bark, slow- and quick-release fertilizers, animal manures and processed food wastes, lime, sawdust, peat moss, sand, ash, coconut husk fibers and a great deal more.

“We mix four levels of nutrients, each serving a different purpose,” Mr. Titko says. “A handful of soil has a billion organisms in it. These microorganisms are a living, breathing product. That includes bacterial fungi.”

The extra-strong bags in which the mixes are packed let these ingredients build, he explains.

“We’re making the products more potent so you can go with less. They’re also easier to use. They wet and work into the [native] soils better. … Consumers want more results for their time.”

Many of the specialty mixes were introduced a decade or so ago, and it didn’t take long for gardeners to buy into the idea and the product.

In fiscal 2005, sales for growing media as a whole were up 14 percent, says Scotts spokeswoman Su Lok. The comparable figure for last year was 18 percent.

Still, the premium blends have had their growing pains. A problem costing more than $500,000 developed at a number of commercial greenhouses and residential properties around Georgia in the early 1990s. Bedding plants yellowed and died. Trees dropped their leaves shortly after being transplanted.

The epidemic eventually was traced to soilless potting mixes that contained too much fertilizer and an over-the-top pH. Without any point-of-purchase soil information, many growers simply threw more fertilizer at the problem, adding to plant mortality.

The Georgia General Assembly responded quickly, enacting landmark legislation requiring growing-media manufacturers to register their products and list all the ingredients in their potting mixes.

The Mulch and Soil Council, the umbrella group for the growing-media industry, addressed quality-control issues rather than wait for government to do it for them. The organization established product certification standards, suggested uniform labeling language and created model legislation. About 40 states have enacted safeguards since then based on the Mulch and Soil Council models, Mr. Titko says.

“Certification doesn’t guarantee you can’t run into some problems with the product, but it outlines the process the manufacturers had to go through and the changes they made so problems like those [in Georgia] are greatly reduced.”

Joe Sable is director of production for Cantigny, a 500-acre privately owned garden open to the public in Wheaton, Ill. Cantigny is the former estate of the late Col. Robert McCormick, longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. It includes two museums, two championship-quality golf courses, picnic groves, hiking paths, a large greenhouse and other growing sites.

“Forty or so years ago, we were adding peat moss and vermiculite and other natural things as conditioners, but as the really good natural soils became more scarce and mention was made about what they contained, people switched over,” Mr. Sable says. “All our greenhouses now use a commercial mix. We use it exclusively.”

They use one kind of potting mix for seedlings and another for larger plants.

Despite producing a number of weed- and insect-control products, Scotts, like other lawn care companies, isn’t ignoring the sizable “green” or organic side of the consumer market. One of its corporate objectives is eventually to create a product line that is 50 percent “naturally derived.”

“In total, we use about 7 million cubic yards of materials [per year],” Mr. Titko says. “About 5 million of that is what we recycle or divert from the waste stream. These are largely organic materials such as agricultural manures, food waste products, green waste, paper and sawmill wastes and byproducts.”

Being organic (once living animal or plant material), these materials are composted before they are used, he explains. The other 2 million cubic yards comes from mineral or mined products.

What can you expect to see underfoot in the next few years? How about aromatic soil mixes — with the scent of evergreens or citronella carried into your home by a soft morning breeze?

Or perhaps composts that don’t lose their brown or reddish colors after just one season’s exposure in the landscape.

“It’s all about choice,” Mr. Titko says.

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