Inflation Gets Right Down to the Real Nitty-Gritty

Baron Faust, of Johnson's Florist and Garden Center, said fuel surcharges for truckloads of bagged soil add up.
Baron Faust, of Johnson's Florist and Garden Center, said fuel surcharges for truckloads of bagged soil add up. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Even dirt isn't dirt-cheap anymore.

At your local garden center, the cheapest dirt, which often goes by the name of "premium topsoil," may cost $4.99 for a 40-pound bag, about a buck more than a year or two ago.

Then there's the gourmet dirt -- the scientifically exquisite potting mixtures, soil enhancers and soil amendments, crafted from special ingredients such as peat moss, bark fines (partially composted pine bark), perlite, coconut husks, and/or "spent mushroom substrate." You can buy a bag of "Bumper Crop," for example, for $14.99 at Johnson's Florist and Garden Center in the District, up two bucks from 18 months ago.

Dirt and its upmarket cousins offer a glimpse of how rising energy prices have caused inflation in the grittier corners of the consumer culture. Products that are cheap, heavy and bulky, such as bags of soil, are particularly vulnerable to rising freight costs.

Moreover, thanks to technology, globalization and changes in consumer preference, a bag of potting mix is now a highly manufactured, meticulously designed product, often containing ingredients from all over the continent and from across the planet.

Pricier dirt is what consumers want, says Bob LaGasse, executive director of the Manassas-based Mulch and Soil Council, which represents soil and mulch producers nationwide. "People have less time. So their garden projects have changed over time. Convenience, time-saving factors, less mess," he said. They want high-performance dirt, so charged with organic nutrients you could serve it as an appetizer.

"It's potting soil on steroids," said Chris Sexton, marketing manager for Fafard Inc., a major soil manufacturer in Anderson, S.C.

He said that an eight-quart bag of Fafard's premium potting mix would have retailed for less than three dollars a couple of years ago, but now is likely to cost four dollars.

"Our input costs are just going up so much," Sexton said. "The peat moss comes from Canada. It doesn't come here magically. It has to come by truck or on the train."

Baron Faust, general manager of Johnson's, said he may pay a fuel surcharge of $100 or $150 for a truckload of bagged soil delivered from a distant supplier. "You eat that as long as you can," he said. Inevitably, the extra cost will get passed to the consumer, he said.

The purveyors of the more elaborate "growing media," it should be noted, never call it dirt or soil or anything so crass.

"We usually call it artificial growth substrate. It doesn't contain any mineral soil in general now," said Kathryn Louis, a technical specialist with Sun Gro Horticulture in Bellevue, Wash.

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