Hartley Magazine

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Peat-free rising

It’s time for some citizen gardening: instead of glib media soundbites about using peat-free compost, let’s crowd-source the low-down on what actually works.

This spring needs a gardening health warning: there may be ill-judged and unwise information ahead, and we need to be on the lookout for it. Big, positive things will be happening in the gardening world, sending tremors of change through it. As our life support systems continue to flood and burn, more folk than ever are recognising the fingerprint of our gardening activities (and of the businesses that support them) on both our accelerating climate emergency, and the wider pollution, and collapse, of our life-giving ecosystems.

Teasels romping away in a quality and reliable peat-free compost.

Thanks to the germinating PeatFreeApril campaign, conceived by an experienced alliance of ‘gardeners and writers campaigning to stop the sale of peat-based compost’ (not including myself), the destructive harm done to nature and climate by mining peat to turn into sowing and potting compost will rattle the headlines as never before. By utilising every channel available to warn of the irrefutable ecological downsides of using peat, while simultaneously celebrating the glorious upsides of using nature-friendly peat-free mixes, the truth about gardening’s greatest shame will be sown far and wide.

By giving clear, honest advice, PeatFreeApril will encourage awareness and understanding to bloom where ignorance prevails (the profits of that ignorance keep Big Peat miners in business). The campaign will – if it’s savvy, thoughtful and informed – start to reach that great uninformed majority of compost-buying folk who don’t necessarily see themselves as gardeners, but who nonetheless pop out to buy a few bags of ‘dirt’ each spring – bags which can be up to 100% peat (assuming it even says what’s in the bag). As more folk begin to question the significance of the contents of those bags on sale in garden retailers – or ones they’ve already bought – the answers need to be sound, informative and, above all, honest.

Test peat-frees yourself by sowing 10 mustard seeds per pot.

It’s well meant, but writing, tweeting, broadcasting, vlogging or simply saying ‘Go peat-free!’ is now ubiquitous and ultimately unhelpful advice, made all the more tedious by the inclusion of the ‘!’. It’s also pretty lazy. We can blame the fetishising of ‘choice’ for why ‘Go peat-free!’, although sending out a good general signal, needs fine-tuning to be genuinely useful. Every compost-making company around has leapt onto the peat-free bandwagon; I’ve tested almost 40 different peat-free mixes in my garden trials. Most gave indifferent results, some were shocking duds, and a few excelled (and are still doing so today). My greenhouse was the perfect place to debunk the delusion that greater choice is somehow better for us all; for gardeners – especially those bag-of-dirt-buying non-gardeners – it’s led to disappointment and frustration. Those hope-filled bags labelled ‘peat-free’ have failed our seeds, let down our potted-up plug plants, and crushed our flower-filled dreams. And guess what? The next bag those disappointed folk bought will have contained peat.

There’s a solution to this: we – that’s you, me and everyone who grows peat-free with gusto – need to shout out the names of the composts which we trust and know to work. I’ll kick off: if you want to sow seeds, take cuttings, pot up young plants, move plants into bigger pots – whatever – then Fertile Fibre’s coir-based mixes, Dalefoot’s range made from composted bracken and wool, or the SylvaGrow bark and wood fibre blends from Melcourt are the peat-frees for you. Unsurprisingly, all of them are used by professional gardeners and commercial growers – folk who need reliable compost, because failure is not an option. They’ve performed well for this amateur, too.

Ericaceous mixes exist for acid-lovers, and certified organic, as well as vegan options, are out there. They’ll all probably cost you more than a ‘three bags for £12’ deal on an own-brand peat-free at a chain store; these composts are made up to a high standard, not down to a ‘price point’. They might take a bit more effort to acquire, but they will almost certainly grow plants you’ll be cock-a-hoop with.

Dahlias thriving in peat-free SylvaGrow All Purpose With Added John Innes.

I wish top-quality peat-free compost was piled on pallets at every garden retailer in the land, but for now at least, that’s not the case; this is where being honest kicks in. It’s also where ‘Go peat-free!’ blossoms into, ‘Go peat-free, but be sure to track down a quality mix with a proven track record of giving consistent results, such as…’. I know it’s a tough ask for today’s lazy journalism (or for a 60-second slot on radio), but it’s truthful, fine-tuned advice.

Some other ill-conceived advice that’s crept in of late is that we should always choose the peat-free option on offer (if you can find one), come what may, even if it risks failure and disappointment. This is just as risk-laden as ‘Go peat-free!’. By all means give the only peat-free compost you can find a go, but don’t gamble your dreams on it; put it to the test first. There’s an easy way to do this, and the best time is now – don’t wait until spring’s febrile days to discover it’s a dud.

Sowing peas is a cheap, cheerful way to try out a new peat-free mix.

This is where citizen gardening – our equivalent of citizen science – will help us all to help each other. If we start trying out peat-frees now and sharing our results, warts and all, by the time the buds of the PeatFreeApril campaign are bursting, we’ll have a pretty good feel for which mixes we can – with trowel on heart – recommend as 2020’s good doers. So, citizens, here’s how to go about it.

Get yourself a pot/tray, whichever peat-free you’re testing, and a packet of fast-growing mustard seeds (other brassicas will do, or try peas). Fill the pot/tray, tap it to settle, make 10 holes per pot, or 100 per half-tray, 1cm deep, and sow one seed in each. Tap again, water lightly, label, and put on a warm windowsill. If you want to test it against a compost you already use (peat-based or peat-free), simply repeat. If you’ve room, do several pots/trays of each, but beware: compost-testing is addictive.

Mustard ought to be coming up in five to 10 days. If nothing does, or if the seedlings are sluggish, pale, stunted, turning purple, or a mix of any of these, the signs ain’t good; what we’re after is strong, fast-growing seedlings with two healthy, bright green seed leaves. If all 10/100 seeds germinate, that’s 100% germination (and so on). Next, take a snap (or a video) of your results and share them on social media, preferably on Twitter (there’s a peat-free following on Instagram, too), tagging them ‘#peatfree’ so they’ll drop into the timeline. Remember to say which mixes you’re testing (show the bag the compost came in), put them alongside any compost you’ve compared them with, and chip in your observations.

Compulsive citizen gardening, courtesy of your windowsill, will collectively help to sort the peat-free wheat from the chaff. If we all chip in and do our bit, we’ll end up with bags of honest, encouraging advice. And when future growers look back, 2020 could well be the year that’s recorded in gardening history as the Peat-free Spring.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener