Hartley Magazine

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The path to peat-free

2020 has been set as the target for completely peat-free gardening – but we need clear directions if we’re to get there in time.

There are four years to go. Sixteen of our increasingly blurring, juddery seasons left. And then we gardeners – and the businesses that profit handsomely from us – will together make gardening history. We will be filling our trays, pots, hanging baskets and containers with something that supports life in, but also way beyond, our gardens, rather than impoverishing it. Our gardens and greenhouses will be replete with signs that this historic, nature-saving change has happened. Seeds will come up, buds will burst, fruits will swell and ripen, and none of it will denude our fragile natural world. As gardeners we’ll finally be in sync with ecological reality – not bumbling along with our heads stuck two spits deep in our compost heaps. At the dawn of 2020 we can raise a trowel and rejoice, because gardening will have gone completely peat-free (in England at any rate, though there’s no reason why the rest of the UK can’t muck in).

Based on a peat-free mix used by professionals, SylvaGrow with Added John Innes grew some of the best dahlias I’ve ever grown, from sowing to potting. It has just bagged a Which? Gardening Best Buy for sowing seeds.

That, according to the voluntary target set by the government in 2010, is the plan. This will be a history-making moment because gardening is responsible for 70 per cent of the UK’s peat use. Most of this peat is imported, meaning that we simultaneously export environmental destruction. When demand for mined peat, mostly from sphagnum bogs, has fallen by 70 per cent – which should have happened by 2020 – it will in all likelihood simply become uneconomic to dig peat up. Our greatest terrestrial carbon stores will finally get a break, and our passion for plants won’t be eroding diversity or helping ramp up climate chaos. Pro-peat pundits, who’ve spent careers urging us to stick it to nature, will gag on peat-free pie. By 2020, even they’ll be tapping into proven, sustainable and renewable peat-free mixes.

The date is set, but what about the four-year horticultural road map required to get us there? Where are the compelling, persuasive initiatives to inform, educate and inspire millions of gardeners and – even more crucially – non-gardeners to transition to using the modern and reliable peat-free composts our top growers pot up in? What schemes involving influential gardening celebrities and the print and broadcast media are taking shape to help us, collectively, to bring this dark, damaging side of gardening to an end? Who is co-ordinating the effort that will recast the businesses that comprise Big Peat – should they survive its retirement – from environmental vandals to champions of nature-friendly gardening?

Where, what and who, indeed. As 2016 takes its last gasps, the only ‘plan’ on the table appears to be the entirely voluntary target (‘voluntary’ usually translates as something that’s as moveable as it is meaningless) of phasing peat out of gardening by 2020 (with commercial horticulture, the minority peat user, following by 2030). Unless I’ve missed it, the when – ‘by 2020’ – is all we have.

As we’re deep in the season of goodwill, I want to offer my own gift of tips and pointers to anyone charged with plotting the path to 100 per cent peat-free gardening four years from now (I’ll take ‘by 2020’ on good faith). If you’ve suggestions of your own, you can pop them in the comment box below.

‘Use a peat-free compost’ is meaningless unless it carries a recommendation. Here two good doers, SylvaGrow (top left) and Fertile Fibre Multipurpose (top right), are compared with two duffers, Lidl Grandiol Peat Free (bottom left) and Poundland Multi Purpose (bottom right).

My first and possibly most crucial tip is to remember that it’s non-gardeners that need to hear the peat-free message most loudly. It’s not most folk watching Gardeners’ World, or reading gardening magazines, that need informing and persuading, but those rolling up at garden centres and DIY stores to buy a ‘bag of dirt’. Whether it’s a nature-wrecking pure peat compost, or a bag of the finest, most ecologically sustainable peat-free mix, matters barely a jot to them. What most folk are buying is a bag of brown stuff, and that bag is most likely to contain peat-based compost; it’s those towering pallets of bagged-up peat bogs, often on a ‘buy three for £12’, that still rule. It’s here, among those who enjoy growing things, but who probably don’t see themselves as gardeners, that the educating and informing desperately needs to happen, and fast.

We also need a step change in how we talk about peat-free compost. This lesson needs learning quickly by people like me, who put pen to paper, but also by those who put face to camera or voice to microphone. Part of the lesson requires running lazy journalism out of town. ‘Use a peat-free compost’ just doesn’t cut it any more – it’s a cop-out that implies that any bag with ‘peat-free’ on it will perform just as well as any other. It won’t. We know there are a small handful of quality, modern peat-free composts that give excellent results from bag to bag, year after year. We need to spell out which they are, to sift them from dismal bandwagon products (let’s name and shame them, too). Imploring your reader, listener or viewer to ‘go peat-free!!!’ is meaningless unless it’s backed up with a solid recommendation – no matter how many exclamation marks you use!

My own recommendation for a peat-free 2017 is SylvaGrow (already used for decades by professional plant growers), or Cumbria-made Wool Compost (who deliver to your door). Both have proven to be excellent doers in my garden and greenhouse compost trials. SylvaGrow comes with the added assurance of having gained (so far) three Which? Best Buys, and is endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Their professional gardeners use it too, and it’s stacking up in more and more garden retailers. As I write, SylvaGrow with Added John Innes (which contains sterilised loam and horticultural sand), a newcomer in 2016, has just bagged a 2017 Which? Best Buy for sowing seeds.

Made with composted Cumbrian wool and bracken, Wool Compost is a top performer for me, helping me sow and raise sturdy, floriferous dahlias from seed.

I’d love organisations such as the RHS to get their creative, cross-pollinating caps on. Working on the basis that the proof is in the potting, we need a rolling programme of ‘open access’ weekends (think Open Farm Sunday), linking up gardens, garden centres and nurseries, big and small, where anyone with an interest in growing things can go along and see modern peat-free growing in action. Compost-makers could join in, and on-the-fence celebrities could come along. Surely, in the name of turning gardening credibly green, it’s not beyond the wit of garden centres to actually start trying out the quality peat-free composts they flog. They could display the plants they’ve grown next to the compost they’ve used, and their customers, imbued with renewed confidence in peat-free mixes, would, er, buy it. Now that’s responsible, persuasive and profitable selling in action. Wince at ‘Peat-free on Parade’ weekends if you must (I did), but you get the gist.

And just think of the enormous potential of our national flower shows to become peat-free persuaders. Multi medal-winning peat-free plant growers are already part of the fabric of RHS shows such as Chelsea and Hampton Court, so let’s tap into that, by showcasing potted proof that you don’t need peat to bag a gold medal. This is no time for peat-free nurseryfolk to be meek about how they grow – we need you to roar.

We gardeners must join in, too – but hang on a sec: we’re already harnessing the power of social media, especially via Twitter’s #peatfree hashtag. We’re sharing results and spreading the word about modern peat-free gardening, connecting mindful growers with eco-friendly gardeners, while demolishing outdated pro-peat myths, one gentle yet powerful tweet at a time.

The path to ecologically sustainable, peat-free gardening by 2020 is already sown with the seeds of opportunity. All we need now is the vision and determination to make sure they grow.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener