The evolution of the Swedish Gardener with Pia Holmberg
“I still remember when I graduated from my masters in Horticulture and took the job at Hasselfors Garden. I thought ‘Growing media, how boring, I will stay only a couple of years and then try and find something more fun’ and here I am 30 years later. Turns out it was a lot more fun than I thought”
Tell me a bit about Hasselfors Garden and what you do there?
So, my name is Pia Holmberg and I look after the product portfolio for Hasselfors Garden. I’ve been with the company since 1989, back then it was part of an old industry group based in the tiny village of Hasselfors and we were the gardening horticulture sector. Peat was the main raw material and main product that everything was built around and was the core of the business. Many people don’t realise but the company dates to 1603. Of course, nowadays our selection of products has grown, and our office moved to Örebro.
What would you say is the biggest changes you have seen over past decade or so?
I think it is quite exciting with the change and transition right now. Just look at peat, we have plenty of peat here in Sweden and there hasn’t been particular “peat discussion” but it is coming. 10 years ago, no one asked what was in our substrates, they were only interested in its functionality but now we get queries about the raw materials, their sources and how environmentally friendly they are.
Is sustainability becoming a big factor in consumer choices in Sweden?
Absolutely. People in Sweden are more interested in making environmentally friendly choices which has led to a massive increase in demand for organic growing media, though this comes with its own challenges.
What would those challenges be?
Right now, it is about pesticides and certain herbicides which are not good for plant growth. The farmers use herbicides on their crops and then feed those crops to the chickens whose manure we use as fertilisers.
These residuals are far more widespread in the system than we first thought and there is very little knowledge about it as the levels giving plant damages are far lower than the limits for human consumption. We are trying to identify how common these residuals are, how to measure them and to find out at what level they cause damage to plants. To offer reliable products has always been number one for me.
Are there any interesting projects you are working on now?
Product development is always ongoing to help hobby gardeners. It is big business here in Sweden and to make the future happen for hobby gardeners we need more sustainable products as well as products for non-experienced gardeners and that can be a challenge. To find the right products and tell their story. I even dabble in marketing sometimes, just to make sure that we are describing our products correctly.
What do you mean when you say, “the right products”?
Yes. I am fighting for quality and functionality of the product, that is the most important thing to make sure that even beginner growers can cultivate successfully. I like to say I am the voice of the plants in the company with my background in horticulture. If you don’t know how plants work, you cannot make these products. But it is also essential to understand the user.
What kind of challenges are you facing regarding sustainable growing materials?
I think the role of peat has to be highlighted. It’s a slowly renewing growing media constituent and very good for growing everything due to its purity, but people just don’t know enough about it. Besides my job as a product manager, I also work at the peat association here in Sweden as the chair. We are trying to have meetings with politicians and tell the story about the importance of peat in both food production and fighting deforestation (growing the young tree plants) as well as growing media bringing joy and wellness to everyone. Swedish peat is produced in a responsible way but we are in a small industry and growing media is not on top of mind.
Most people don’t care much about peat or don’t know anything about it so we have to fight to spread correct information. People think you can just replace the peat and there are loads of materials out there but that is not true. There are no magic compost piles out there that you can just buy.
We’ve talked a lot about challenges, what are the up-and-coming opportunities?
The pandemic has shown how much people want to grow as they have the time and energy for at-home hobbies. The climate threats as well I think have led to more people wanting to be a bit more self-sufficient. We’ve seen a massive uptake in people wanting to grow their own food as well as wanting to know more about how it works and how food gets to their plates. This brings a lot of opportunity as people are showing a thirst for knowledge.
What about consumer trends in Sweden?
I think the next generation of growers are shifting the market. You see a lot of young people wanting to grow which means an uptake in hobby gardening in apartments. They tend to buy more potted plants for decorative purposes, but they also grow themselves, not necessarily food but just plants in general with maybe some herbs. It’s also interesting to note they grow all year round thanks to LED lighting, they will be growing bean sprouts in the middle of winter. And, of course, they are incredibly environmentally conscious with a higher portion of vegans. Two years ago we even released a vegan substrate, it’s not a huge market but it is there. The real trick is to make the growing media vegan AND organic.
Could I ask what you do when you are not helping the hobby gardeners of Sweden?
Well, I live in the countryside outside Örebro (between Stockholm and Oslo) and have a few houses, a horse and a stable, so there is always work to be done tending the land or the animals. I love it.
Learn more about Hasselfors Gardens here.