Hartley Magazine

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All in the bag together

Peat-free compost – bought and home-made – is the way forward, so discouraging us from making full use of our own compost is hardly the way to boost sales.

It was impeccable, if ironic, timing. After a few joyous hours of serious riddling, during which I’d rediscovered long-forgotten muscles, followed by some blending and mixing, up flashed the headline. My sweaty head was already clutched in my hands before I realised; garden compost, if you’ve never savoured it, has an earthy, somewhat gritty flavour.

It was ‘Compost Awareness Week’, so I’d decided to honour it by mixing up my own tried and trusted peat-free, ultra-local sowing and potting compost. This is a mix anyone can master. I finely riddle some three-year-old leaf mould, and some of the dark brown worm-churned garden compost from my plastic ‘Dalek’ bins, from which the red wrigglers have long departed. My bins take mostly kitchen and household waste, plus occasional stuff from the garden. The rot is cool and slow; they’re not turned, and compost worms munch their way through anything they can (including odd pairs of cotton undies).

A workout with the riddle produces a heap of fine, crumbly compost that’s been worked over by compost worms, which I mix 50:50 with leaf mould. The trug of won’t-rot-at-any-price is all that gets, reluctantly, thrown away.
A workout with the riddle produces a heap of fine, crumbly compost that’s been worked over by compost worms, which I mix 50:50 with leaf mould. The trug of won’t-rot-at-any-price is all that gets, reluctantly, thrown away.

I then take a level bucketful of the compost, and one of the leaf-mould, and mix them thoroughly on a plastic sheet, folding the ingredients together by lifting each corner in turn to roll the mix around. And that’s basically it; there are no added extras. I use this to sow seeds, to pot up seedlings and plug plants, and to move plants into bigger pots. I also use my ‘50:50’ to fill large pots for greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and so on. Outdoors, I work it into my virgin soil to give it a kick-start. The main imperfection with my home-made mix is its weed seedlings, but I just nip those out. Otherwise, it gives bought composts a run for their money. I can never make enough of the stuff, and so I do what I can with what I’ve got, and buy in proven, good-quality peat-free composts as and when I need them. This is what many of us do: eke out our home-made mix before dipping into a bought bag.

Through the gentle, responsible act of composting, we get to nudge our wheelie bins (and landfill sites) a tad nearer redundancy, build rich, healthy (and carbon-squirreling) soil, grow respectable plants we can adore and/or devour, and harvest a glow of self-reliance by the barrowload. You get a workout too, but there’s no gym fee. The more of us who do this the better; we can’t tackle the interconnected problems of waste alone, but gardeners rotting together can make a decent dent. Cheating landfill gives us a multi-use material that can grow probably the greenest and lowest-mileage plants ever.

Grubby-faced, I looked again at the hyped headline, ‘Garden waste is not a growing medium’. The plants in my greenhouse did a double-take, too. It got worse on finding the source of this odd declaration, on the Bord na Mona website (suppliers of the peat-reduced GroWise composts, and the peat-free Vital Earth range). It contained such gems as ‘… the lovely stuff that comes out of the compost heap is a soil improver and not a growing medium. [‘Medium’ is business lingo for sowing and potting compost.] That means that the compost you make at home is not suitable for growing seeds and plants on its own …’. The tomatoes in my 50:50 and I did a triple-take.

The roots of my ‘Black Russian’ tomato romp away in my home-made mix, which gives the best bought peat-free composts a run for their money.
The roots of my ‘Black Russian’ tomato romp away in my home-made mix, which gives the best bought peat-free composts a run for their money.

Modest redemption arrived, albeit in brackets: ‘unless you’re a bit savvy and know how it can be blended with other ingredients to make a growing media.’ I don’t know where you are on the savviness scale, but mixing a bucket of leaf mould with a bucket of compost surely isn’t just for astronauts. So, according to Bord na Mona, using your own compost to fill containers, and to plant seeds and cuttings, is out, though digging it into your vegetable patch and borders, as a soil improver, is in (and here’s to that).

It’s hard not to be cynical when the ‘campaign’ then exhorts, ‘… you should be buying a specialist peat-free or peat-reduced growing media, which … has the perfect texture and blend of nutrients to make your plants happy and productive.’ I rather like the feel of my 50:50, and my plants are invariably aglow – just as they are when potted in Vital Earth’s compost. Together with a few other ‘savvy’ mixers, I took to Twitter to let Bord na Mona (@greenergardener) know they’d made rather a gaffe by launching a puzzling campaign telling gardeners not to even try making their own low-impact compost mixes. As I’m a huge fan of Vital Earth, with oodles of respect for what they’ve achieved in developing quality, reliable peat-free composts derived from ‘green waste’, highlighting their shot in the foot was an odd call.

In the resulting lively but good-natured chinwag, Vital Earth’s chief composter explained that the campaign was all about ‘raising awareness’, and that only savvy souls go to the trouble of mixing their own sowing and potting composts. His argument was that most folk new to gardening have no idea of what’s in a compost bag, despite slowly-improving labelling, and that some might think they can use garden-made compost in the same way, with disappointing results. There’s doubtless plenty of truth in that; it exposes the chasm that needs filling with much better information, both in gardening publications and when we buy compost. But how I wish gardening businesses would talk to gardeners more, and hard-sell a little less; it might just help head off future forks through the foot. What a campaign this could have been if its focus had been on making the best use of the free as well as the buyable renewable resources that we can all tap into, with clear, straightforward advice at its core.

Last summer I grew all of my tomatoes in my own 50:50 mix, and they flourished. I plant one ‘Lemon Gem’ tagetes to each pot to ward off whitefly.
Last summer I grew all of my tomatoes in my own 50:50 mix, and they flourished. I plant one ‘Lemon Gem’ tagetes to each pot to ward off whitefly.

One promising thing has come out of this, which could prove a winner for gardeners and ‘green’ compost manufacturers alike (not to mention the natural world). Gardeners often have leaf mould and garden compost to hand, but loads of one and too little of the other. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could buy a bag of peat-free ‘home compost booster’ to mix with our own leaf mould or garden compost, or simply to use as an extra ingredient to make home-made mixes go further? A booster to blend with an equal amount of leaf mould – which contains few plant foods – would be a sure-fire winner, in every sense (even Vital Earth’s chief composter agrees, so watch their space).

No compost manufacturer or seller need fret about losing out due to gardeners mixing some of their own to sow and pot in; helping us out is simply good business. The sooner we grasp that we’re all in it together when it comes to making and using compost, whether it’s from our garden or from a composting plant, the greener – and savvier – we’ll become.

Text and images © John Walker

  • yorkist34

    So why, in your last post on the subject of peat free composts did you give a free puff to SylvaGrow – [which, as far as my research went,though peat free, is not a compost acceptable for organic gardening or easy to buy retail. I wasted quite a lot of time searching it out] Is it preferable to Vital Earth’s products (not mentioned there as far as I remember) or even comparable? Presumably it isn’t better than the home made mix either? And could we know how long your own home made compost takes to mature to the state you describe (mine takes a year to do this in a cool bin)? Love your blogs but sometimes left confused/thinking the subject may be a bit more complex than mad out, in fact…

    • John Walker

      Thanks for your comment. I used Melcourt’s SylvaGrow as an example of a professional-grade peat-free compost that’s now available to gardeners. It doesn’t have any organic certification, but that may come in time if demand exists. If I only recommended peat-free composts that are certified as organic, the range of options is fairly limited (although in my experience they can be top performers, too e.g. Carbon Gold and Fertile Fibre). This isn’t really about whether one peat-free is comparable to/better than another. I am trying encourage gardeners of all levels of experience (including those who have been put off by poor and scaremongering journalism) to give modern, quality and reliable peat-free composts a try. There are some excellent products available (which have been around for some time). SylvaGrow is just the latest, and in my experience this season, one of the best.

      Vital Earth were mentioned in this article because of the gaffe they made in suggesting that home-made compost isn’t suitable for sowing and potting. My own experience as well as that of many others is that this simply isn’t the case. Vital Earth also produce a range of quality and reliable peat-free products.

      I find that my home-made compost can perform as well as bought peat-frees. I have to nip off any weed seedlings, but it’s a small price to pay. The ‘cool compost’ element of my mix takes around 6-18 months to mature before it’s ready for sieving.

  • Tommo

    I really like Melcourt’s products – Sylvagrow may not be organically certified but their ‘Sylvamix Natural’ is, and gives excellent results.