The history of John Innes composts

The John Innes range of loam-based composts has been widely used by gardeners for over 60 years. This page summarises the history and development of John Innes Composts, and the reasons for their continuing popularity.


The John Innes name

The composts were developed at the John Innes Institute, named after one John Innes, a nineteenth century property and land dealer in the City of London. On his death in 1904 he bequeathed his fortune and estate to the improvement of horticulture by experiments and research. The result was the establishment of the John Innes Horticultural Research Institute initially at Merton in Surrey, but now located at Norwich. (See Links page for more information.)


The development of the composts

Before the introduction of John Innes Composts, gardeners generally used a different compost for each species of plant. Usually the soil was not sterilised or heat pasteurised and consequently plant seedlings were often attacked and destroyed by soil-borne diseases and insects. Also the plant foods being added to the traditional composts were usually unbalanced, causing the plants to be either too "soft" in their growth and liable to diseases, or very "hard" and slow growing.

In the 1930's two research workers at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, William Lawrence and John Newell, set out to overcome these problems and to formulate composts that would give consistently good and reliable results. After six years of experiments they determined the physical properties and nutrition necessary in composts to achieve optimum rates of plant growth. They also introduced methods of heat sterilising the soil that eliminated pests and diseases, but did not cause any checks to plant growth.

The result of this work was the introduction of two standard composts, one for seed sowing and one for potting. These "John Innes" composts revolutionised not only the ways in which composts were produced, but also the growing of plants in pots. Now, after being used very widely for over 50 years, the basic formulae remain the same - tried and tested and still popular amongst discerning gardeners for growing the best quality plants with the minimum of attention. Naturally, the plant nutrients have been updated to gain the benefits of improved fertiliser technology.

In addition, there are now JIMA-approved peat-free versions, reflecting the fact that the horticultural industry in the UK and elsewhere is gradually moving away from the use of peat in response to environmental concerns surrounding its use.