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Panning pesticides

GREEN EFFORTS Home Depot’s organic lawn care, shown above in an Atlanta store, has enjoyed double-digit growth in 2008, the company said.

When RONA, Canada’s largest hardware and gardening retailer, with $6.3 billion in annual sales, announced Sept. 10 that it will stop selling synthetic pesticides for cosmetic use in all its stores across Canada beginning July 1, 2009, it was another major step toward chemical-freegardening north of the border.

This statement from Boucherville, Quebec-based RONA came on top of Home Depot’s announcement in the spring that it will voluntarily stop selling traditional chemical pesticides and herbicides in all Canadian stores, replacing them with green alternatives as more of that country’s communities ban these products for residential cosmetic use.

“Consumers generally want to adopt environmentally friendly practices, but they often lack the information and alternative solutions to do so,” said Normand Dumont, RONA’s executive vp-merchandising. “By stopping to sell synthetic pesticides for cosmetic use and introducing alternative solutions, we’re encouraging responsible consumption.”

Home Depot’s voluntary phase-out includes a total of 60 products in such categories as herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, slug baits, moss control and lawn fertilizers with weed control. In Canada, there are more than 55 municipalities where the residential use, but not sale, of pesticides is banned. In Quebec, Home Depot stores have already stopped selling pesticides.

“We are going above and beyond government regulations by working with our suppliers to develop pesticide alternatives that are environmentally friendly and produce excellent results on lawns and gardens,” said Annette Verschuren, president of Home Depot Canada and Asia, when the company made the announcement.

Here in the United States, the transition to environmentally friendly lawn and garden products is happening at a much more leisurely pace, but it is happening. Scotts Miracle-Gro, which already sells an Organic Choice lawn fertilizer, says it will launch a full U.S. line of natural lawn products as soon as 2009, complete with weed and pest controls. The current Organic Choice lineup includes plant food, garden soil, potting mix, bone meal and blood meal.

“We anticipate we’ll be able to launch [the full organic line] next year,” said Keri Butler, director of public affairs for Scotts. “The emerging technology is extremely encouraging.”

Home Depot spokeswoman Jean Niemi said that at this time Canada does have “more stringent laws” regarding pesticides, adding that all pesticides for sale in Home Depot stores in the United States comply with local, state and federal laws.

“Through our Eco Options line of products, the Home Depot offers a variety of organic and natural lawn care products, including fertilizers, plant food, potting soils and biodegradable pots and refuse bags,” Neimi said. “Our organics have performed very well, showing double-digit growth in 2008.”

Keith DeWolf, manager of the True Value division Home & Garden Showplace—the largest independent garden center buying program in the United States—agreed that these products are becoming more popular and making double-digit sales gains annually. But, he said, they still remain a small percentage of the overall market.

“Clearly, environmentally friendly products are getting a lot more visibility, but the manufacturers have yet to produce products that can compete in price point,” said DeWolf, who sits on a Garden Centers of America (GCA) task force to discuss the proliferation of natural products. “And with chemical products, you spray weeds, and they’re dead in 24 hours. They haven’t produced products that provide instant gratification. They work, but they take a little more time to work.”

Michael Butts, manager at Mahoney’s Garden Center in Winchester, Mass., agreed that organics are both more expensive and take longer to work. Yet these two factors have not slowed sales of these products at his store. In fact, after making up about half the product mix from 2005 to 2007, organics have now surpassed chemical products and make up 60 percent of sales.

“People are concerned about the environment. They’re hearing about it in the news more and more, especially with the election coming up,” he said.

Butts said most customers come in asking not for a specific brand of organics, but “something with corn gluten in it.” So he tells them about the four lines he offers with this organic weed control suppressant, and they make a decision from there.

He also said while organics do cost more, the price gap is closing; plus, several companies are offering rebates on their products. As for the “instant gratification” aspect, he said he explains to customers that because organics contain live funguses, it takes the soil awhile to “recognize” the products.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t expect to get results in the beginning.’ The first year, they’re going to have weeds,” he said. “They have to change the way they take care of their lawns. They can’t cut the grass as short. It’s a learning curve.”

Chris Wood burn, manager of hard goods for Echter’s Garden Center in Arvada, Colo., said that his store still sells 60 percent synthetics versus pure organic and organic-based products. “The number of products claiming to be organic has grown by leaps and bounds, but in terms of sales, I’d say they’ve shown 10 to 20 percent growth each year,” he said.

Wood burn agrees that price will become less of an issue, especially since the hike in oil and freight costs associated with synthetics promise to raise their retail price points by 20 percent to 40 percent, making them comparable to organics in 2009.

Wood burn also said that organic products tend to be more popular with the 20- and 30-something customers than with older customers. As is happening in Canada, he believes that the U.S. government legislation will eventually push the whole market toward natural products.

As for a timetable, he said, “Just watch California, and wait five years.”