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Designer Dirt Sprouting Brisk Sales

Boutique soils, at $4 or so a bag, fuel a growing market.

April 16, 2002|ADRIAN HIGGINS | WASHINGTON POST

As consumers flock to garden centers this spring, they will find an enticing array of brightly colored, prominently displayed packages of

Shelling out $4 or so for a bag of soil might seem lunacy, but in this age of bottled water and boutique coffees, the green industry is counting on dirt becoming the next product fad. Designer dirt, that is.

The hunch seems to be paying off: The largest player in this field, the Scotts Co. of Marysville, Ohio, reports vigorous consumer response to its national brands of potting mixes, garden soil mixes and mixes to repair lawns.

Other companies have added to this lucrative market, including Pursell Industries, which sells the Sta-Green brand; Premier Horticulture, with Pro-Mix, and Schultz Co., with products bearing its name.

The transformation from dirt as a commodity to dirt as a premium branded product has created a virtually new market of about $400 million a year, said Keith Baeder, Scotts' vice president for growing media.

"It's the fastest-growing category" of consumable lawn and garden products, he said, which includes fertilizers, grass seed and pesticides.

Until relatively recently, dirt was sold as an unbranded loss-leader commodity made regionally. In the 1980s, a company called Hyponex began buying out local producers and created a national brand. That company in turn was purchased by Scotts.

Scotts, the biggest supplier of lawn-care products and seed, began its own brand in the mid-1990s.

But most of the market growth came after Scotts and Miracle-Gro merged, and the company launched the Miracle-Gro Potting Soil line in 1998.

The first products in the boutique dirt arena were potting mixes, used for house plants, plants in pots and containers, hanging baskets, window boxes and seed-starting trays. Then came boutique garden soils, used for in-ground plantings of annuals, vegetables, perennials and other ornamentals.

Baeder said sales of potting mix have grown 13% a year, and the Miracle-Gro brand now accounts for 35% of a market of about $320 million. The garden soil category, another $80 million trade, is expanding at 25% a year.

Gardeners can make their own soil concoctions, but the new branded mixes do serve a need for weekend gardeners who put a premium on time and who need small quantities.

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