Hartley Magazine

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Snowball effect

Some of the drivers behind the peat-free roll-out are surprising and not all are admirable – but that doesn’t detract from the benefits to the gardener and the natural world.

There’s a big shift underway in the gardening world. It’s been a long, tedious and frustrating time in the making, with many false starts, but finally, it’s happening. It’s a shift that will eventually transform the way we all grow plants in our gardens and greenhouses, on our windowsills, in our porches, and down on our allotments. It’s one we could and should have made, as a caring, considerate ‘community’ of gardeners, decades ago – had gardening not become so deliberately distanced from nature by a noisy, selfish few who know how to bring out the worst in us. But this isn’t a single one-off moment that’ll make gardening magazine headlines one week and be media compost the next. This is a shift that will – bar shrill attempts at sabotage – help us ponder how what we do in our gardens affects the world around us.

It will get us thinking more about how our gardening can enrich rather than constantly plunder nature. It will remind us that we can enjoy abundant, beautiful plots without taking more than the living ‘wild’ can afford to give. The future plants we nurture won’t look any different from the ones we grow now, but what we use to sow and rear them in will send positive ripples throughout the natural world. Those ripples will also have beneficial knock-on effects, not least in helping kickstart a ‘green economy’ that’s powered – and financed – by our collective, compost-hungry passion for gardening.

Sphagnum moss
Sphagnum moss lays down just 1mm of peat each year in a healthy, living bog, but peat extraction removes 200mm – two centuries’ worth – during an average annual harvest of a drained ‘dead’ bog.

For signs of this impending potting shed shake-up, we need to look not at what gardeners are up to, but at what commercial growers (of perennials, trees, shrubs, fruits and vegetables) and those that run large public gardens are doing. More and more of them have gone – or are planning to go – peat-free, which means they’re switching to using seed and/or potting composts that contain much less peat, or none at all. And here’s the best bit: they’re talking about it. Some have been growing quietly and successfully without peat for many years, but now we’re getting to hear about it, and so are other growers and garden managers. It would be nice to think that commercial horticulture has finally ‘seen the light’ on peat and the destruction its extraction wreaks on wild nature, but it would also be naive. But whatever the motivation, the peat-free snowball is well and truly rolling – and it’s a lovely shade of green.

A key driver of this leap away from peat is the government’s deadlines for ending its use in England (other countries will hopefully follow): 2015 for peat use in the public sector (e.g. in parks and by local authorities), 2020 for peat used by gardeners, and 2030 for professional plant growers. Although these are familiar – and repeatedly crossed – lines in the horticultural sand, it looks as though they might for once hold firm. Another driver is a long overdue reality check about renewability. Peat in healthy, undamaged sphagnum bogs forms at just 1mm per year, while a typical annual harvest on a drained, ‘dead’ bog removes two centuries’-worth (200mm), meaning that it’s non-renewable (despite the misleading bluster still pervading our gardening press). So commercial horticulture has finally smelt the peat smoke and realised that it needs to find something else to pot up into.

But the most powerful driver is something less tangible: accelerating confidence in growing without peat. No self-respecting business is going to turn away from peat unless the compost mixes that replace it are guaranteed to deliver first-class, commercially acceptable results – which means top-quality plants that you and I will delight in buying. Those greener, more earth-friendly composts are here; you might even have bought plants grown peat-free without knowing it. And what a confidence-booster it’ll be when more growers and retailers pluck up the courage to label their plants ‘peat-free’ (as some already do). Why not be bold and plump for a stronger labelling campaign akin to that used on cigarettes? – ‘This plant was grown in peat-free compost made from genuinely renewable materials that have not destroyed natural habitats.’ It’s a clear, straightforward message that cuts through the misinforming media noise. And for those still to be swayed, why not print a QR ‘smart code’ on bags of peat-based compost, linking to a live feed from the latest faraway, carbon-storing peatlands being despoiled in the name of dahlias.

Peat-free composts trials
Peat-free composts available to gardeners are better than they’ve ever been, as my own garden trials (here with basil, sown 10 seeds to a pot to test germination) have shown.

Deadlines, dawning reality and increasing confidence might be pushing the peat-free snowball along, but there’s been a catalyst at work too. The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force (SGMTF) was set up by the government to break down the barriers to reducing peat use. Its job is to bang together the heads of all those with an interest in composts: manufacturers (peat and peat-free), industry lobbyists, big retailers, commercial growers, and non-government bodies. Sadly, it chose to sideline the most important ‘stakeholders’ from the skull-banging process – gardeners, who are responsible for 70 per cent of the peat used in the UK, most of it imported from those faraway lands. By keeping its discussions effectively closed, the SGMTF has also ensured that its mostly valuable work is ignored by the gardening media (which still, however, prints obsolete, pro-peat opinions). Who would have thought it? – the most significant shake-up for decades to the basic ‘fuel’ we run our gardens on, and its positive knock-on effects for nature, still go largely unreported.

But there is one SGMTF suggestion that needs reporting because it demands stiff resistance. Through its deliberations, the SGMTF has concluded that gardeners don’t really care what’s in a bag of compost, as long as it works; that the ‘peat-free’ label is actually a ‘barrier to sales’; that further educational campaigns will have little effect in persuading us to go peat-free; and that millions of compost-buying gardeners can’t be a driver of positive change in the compost market. So rather than build on the ever-growing awareness of the multiple ‘wins’ of going peat-free – for the gardener and the commercial grower, and for the natural world – the SGMTF ‘solution’ is to ditch existing awareness, stop labelling composts honestly and accurately, and ‘edit’ our choices for us. Who would have imagined it? – in an age when transparency reigns (mostly) supreme, and just when we’re hearing more about how peat-free composts are fuelling successful horticultural businesses, the issue risks being thrown under a cloak of opacity. If ever there was a backward-stumbling blunder, this is it. By stripping away awareness, knowledge and choice, the SGMTF risks not only insulting savvy gardeners, but also stifling huge potential for ‘green growth’. Not telling us what’s in the bag will of course get the thumbs-up from vested peat interests.

Anyone can make a peat-free compost, but making one that grows great plants, consistently from bag to bag, takes dedication and skill. Most of the peat-frees available to us gardeners give results equal to if not better than composts made with peat (as my trials with nearly 40 of them showed). Companies such as Carbon Gold, Melcourt and Vital Earth have gone the extra mile to blend peat-frees that commercial growers now trust enough to fuel their livelihoods with.

Tree bark being graded
Tree bark being graded for use in Melcourt’s range of peat-free composts for professional growers. Gardeners will soon be able to buy their new peat-free ‘Sylvagrow’, made to the same high standards.

Melcourt, who’ve been perfecting their professional peat-free range (based on tree bark, coir and green waste compost) for 30 years, aren’t a familiar name in the gardening world, but their new ‘Sylvagrow’ will change that. They can see the potential market of millions of informed gardeners looking to buy reliable, planet-friendly composts made by the same folk who supply the UK’s forward-looking growers. If that’s not a reason to put ‘healthy compost, healthy planet’ labels on compost bags, to inform gardeners more, not less, about what they’re buying, and to drive a nature-protecting shift to peat-free gardening by using market forces, I don’t know what is. Imagine all those emergent ‘green’ businesses as the peat-free snowball rolls gently on, and more and more gardeners choose truly renewable composts over finite, nature-wrecking peat. Think of all the sustainable (and secure) jobs that would be created, and how they could make efficient use of local and renewing green waste compost.

It’s ironic that it’s commercial horticulture’s success which will ultimately drive the shift in confidence among gardeners on going peat-free. It could all have been very different. If we had had a mature, less polarised debate around peat use, if gardening journalism had done a proper job by challenging the myth-makers’ spin, and had spent fewer column inches demonising those calling for nature’s protection, and more encouraging gardeners to support a planet-friendly approach, more peat bogs would be intact, and our gardens would be a whole lot greener. Gardening would have been imbued with more mindful, beyond-the-gate values, we’d have created real green employment along the way, and positive ripples would have spread out across the natural world long ago.

Despite the setbacks, we’re well on the way to becoming a caring, compassionate community of gardeners who understand that beautiful, abundant gardens go hand in hand with revering rather than ravaging nature. Who would have thought it would be market forces, so often responsible for the degradation of our natural world, which would – eventually – drive us there?

Text and images © John Walker