Recipes for success – Garden Center Magazine

Great soil provides customers with the essential foundation for a thriving garden all year long and keeps customers coming back for a consistent product they know they can trust. Garden Center spoke to three retailers that offer their own branded potting mixes to discover how these custom-made soils translate to customer and company success.

Making your own

Offering a branded potting mix was an easy decision for some garden centers. Northeast Ohio-based grower-retailer Petitti Garden Centers has offered its own line of potting mixes since the ’90s. Company President AJ Petitti says making custom soils was “a seamless fit” and estimates the company produces nearly 500,000 bags per year. According to Petitti, there are numerous benefits to creating their blends.

“I mean, one: you control your quality, so you control what’s in the soil. Margin is a huge advantage. Branding is a huge advantage,” Petitti says. “We’ve got a really good soil blend. Our customers are very loyal to it. We carry [other brands] and then ours, and we outsell ours five to one at least, compared to the other soils.”

Todd Metevia, head grower and general manager at Petitti-owned Casa Verde Growers, says one of the benefits is the freedom of creating recipes and tailoring them to their growing facilities. They’ve made 13 different soil recipes; however, only four are bagged and sold to consumers: a potting mix, a planting mix, a cactus and succulent mix, and a seed starting mix. While they’ve perfected the formula for the Northeast Ohio climate, Metevia says quality assurance testing is conducted two to three times a week to test for any discrepancies in the pH levels of the peat moss.

Making the soil is a process the team has down to a science. First, the growing facility is equipped with bale shavers, where towers of peat moss are placed inside a machine. Then, an elevator pushes it up and grinds it together. Then, the mixture is placed into a hopper. Because the process is relatively automated, it only takes one person to make the soil.

“From there, everything goes through the conveyor belts and as the peat moss goes through, the bark drops on top, then the fertilizer and then it just slowly mixes everything together,” Metevia says.

Noelle Akin, education and training manager, says selling the same soils the company uses at its growing facilities helps customers when they plant Petitti-grown plants at home.

“It behooves the customer to really grow in the same mixture, especially if they’re doing container gardening. Everything is very cohesive. That’s really the reason why we do that — we’ve had such success with growing plant material in our own mixtures. We want to pass that along to our customers, of course, and make them successful too,” Akin says.

Petitti Garden Centers also carries other brands of soil mixes, including indoor, houseplant, African violet, orchid mix and more. In addition, the IGC also offers perlite, vermiculite, peat moss and manure piecemeal for customers who want to make their own blends.

“We work with Espoma and we carry a lot of their products because we want to be able to supply a certified organic line of products to customers,” Akin says. “We are not OMRI certified, so we want to make sure that we have that selection for customers.”

All of Petitti Garden Centers’ soil mixes are made at its greenhouse facility, Casa Verde Growers. The process is fairly automated and only takes one person to manage.

Photo courtesy of Petitti Garden Centers

Branding strategies

Northern Virginia’s Merrifield Garden Center works with co-packers to make and bag its private label soil blends, says Lyndsey Bridgers, marketing director. Merrifield began making its private label products in the early 1980s, first dabbling in blended grass seeds and moving on to fertilizer blends in the 1990s. By the late 1990s/early 2000s, the IGC began creating its soils and potting mixes.

“Most of these came to fruition by working with suppliers we had long-term relationships with,” Bridgers says.

Like Petitti Garden Centers, Merrifield offers both a planting mix and a potting mix for customers. While the IGC sources plant materials from a wide range of growers across the US, it uses these soil mixes in the company’s landscaping division and potting custom-designed containers for consumer purchase.

Bridgers says creating the company’s private label line of soil mixes provides the garden center with an opportunity to promote the brand by showcasing the company name on the bag with a custom-designed label.

Photo courtesy of Bryn Wallace,
Merrifield Garden Center

“Once a customer gets used to using the product, it provides them with a reason to come back to us since we are the only place that carries the product,” she says.

Another branding opportunity is letting the customers know exactly what they’re getting. Depending on the product, many team members are involved in the testing and evaluation so that they’re better able to provide recommendations to customers, Bridgers says.

“During the process of making our own soils and mixes we’re evaluating each ingredient and the percentage of each used,” she says. “This process results in the highest quality output for the conditions in our area. We want our customers to know the testing, evaluation and research that’s gone into the process of making them the best product for their garden.”

She says that Merrifield Garden Center also works with various suppliers to offer customers different choices for gardening soils, potting mixes, grass seeds and custom blends.

At Merrifield Garden Center, rigorous soil testing is conducted for the highest quality output and consistency, providing customers with transparency while building brand loyalty.

Supply chain

For Petitti Garden Centers, making soil helps cut freight costs. In addition, due to the compressible nature of the materials — peat moss and HydraFiber, a pulverized pine blend the company introduced to its mixes in 2022 — they can fit more materials on the trucks. “We’re making our own soil versus buying things in, so that’s a huge savings for us,” Metevia says.

However, now operations aren’t entirely immune to the ongoing supply chain issues. Bridgers notes it’s one of the main challenges for sourcing ingredients. “Turnaround times and raw material availability make producing the product more difficult. The costs of producing the empty bags, which often comes with pretty high minimum runs, and the time and attention it takes to design and implement the program are also a challenge. But at the end of the day, we feel the benefits outweigh the challenges,” she says.

Design with customers in mind

With six locations in Wisconsin, Jung Garden Center partnered with Purple Cow Organics six years ago to offer customers a premium, high-organic blend of soil designed specifically for raised bed gardening.

Raised bed gardening is popular among locals because they can plant in 4-by-4-foot plots. In addition, this type of gardening is a huge space saver for the city’s urban area dwellers, says Nathan Zondag, president of operations at Jung Seed Company and Jung Garden Center.

Jung Garden Center and Purple Cow Organics developed a raised bed mix specifically with Wisconsin gardeners in mind.

Photo courtesy of Jung Garden Center

Sourcing issues with a previous vendor led Jung Garden Center to seek out a new partner, so the IGC turned to Wisconsin-based company Purple Cow Organic to help them make it. The partnership was a natural fit, Zondag says, because Purple Cow is a local and reliable source. The company also includes Jung as a retail outlet online.

So after testing the soil in their test garden for a season, Jung Garden Center moved forward with its plans for custom soil blends with Purple Cow.

“We designed the bags, purchased the bags, and then delivered the bags to their location. They fill them for us as we need them and then ship them to our central distribution warehouse here in Randolph,” he says.

Jung Garden Center offers a raised bed mix and a seed starting mix, but Zondag notes their soils are suitable for potting, containers, raised beds, baskets and vegetables. Over the years, their soils have become very popular — their mixes are the most popular soils sold, he says.

“Any plant grows really well in this soil. It’s a mixture with a high amount of compost in it, and vermiculite or perlite, depending on what’s available. Vermiculite is what we use in it because it’s organically certified and it works basically the same. It gives good drainage and holds water,” Zondag says.

Getting started

For retailers thinking about making their own, there are a few things to keep in mind. According to Bridgers, whether it’s Merrifield Garden Center’s private label soils, potting mixes, grass seeds or fertilizers, the steps for sourcing the material to make them include:

  • Find the right supplier.
  • Formulate and test the right mix for each product.
  • Determine the sizes and pricing parameters.
  • Design the artwork for each product.
  • Merchandise and market the product when it arrives.
  • Train team members on each mix, how to use it, benefits and other relevant information.

Finding and filling a need

Another thing IGCs should note is the importance of listening to customers and filling their specific needs, Zondag says.

“If you have customers coming in and asking for something very specific, and if you can’t find that from one of your vendors, that would be where I would first start looking into it,” he says. “[Customers] wanted something for their container gardening, and when we couldn’t replace what we were getting, we started working with Purple Cow to create it for ourselves.”

Petitti strongly encourages grower-retailers to make and bag their own soils, noting it’s just one more piece to add to their operation. However, for garden centers that aren’t grower-retailers, he advises it’s something to evaluate, case by case.

“If you’re a grower retailer, it’s a win-win all the way around, from margin to your brand to customer experience. It’s just a great thing and it’s definitely a worthwhile thing to be doing if you’re not doing it now,” he says.