Peat Free Compost

Apparently this week it is National Compost Awareness Week. I’d like to think there is never a week when I’m not aware of my compost, but I nearly let this momentous occasion slip so I thought I better write about something! And that something is about peat free compost.

Our garden is beginning to look both beautiful and productive now and I like to think we have gone about creating it from its awkward niche on a north facing slope without disturbing or negatively impacting on the wildlife around us. It is certainly teeming with life – a good sign. All gardeners want their gardens to look beautiful and I think these days the majority of gardeners would be sad to think their little patch of Eden has been created thanks to the destruction of another beautiful habitat – in this case the peat bog.

Peat bogs replenish themselves at a rate of about 1mm per year, the spit of my dainty ladies’ border spade is about 20cm. Two hundred years just to replace a spade’s depth of digging up. Of course, nobody is using anything as dainty as my border spade, peat simply isn’t a sustainable resource. More importantly of course, peat bogs are unique habitats supporting a range of wildlife that is increasingly threatened. Peat bogs also play an important role in carbon storage, dig them up and allow them to dry out and you contribute directly to CO2 emissions.

Amateur gardeners are responsible for 70% of all peat based compost use. Many may not be aware that the multi-purpose composts they buy contain peat or know of the damaging effects of mining peat. And there are also gardeners who can’t imagine living without peat-based composts. Current UK legislation seeks to phase out peat based composts by 2020, so we are all going to have to get used to it.

So what are the alternatives to peat-based composts? Visit any garden centre and there is a good chance you can buy three large bags of peat based multi-purpose compost for a tenner. You could also buy a smaller bag of peat-free compost for five pounds. It doesn’t exactly encourage gardeners to do the right thing. Many gardeners have complained that peat free compost doesn’t perform well and has an unpleasant stringy or lumpy texture or that at the very best the quality is variable. I’ve got to admit my experiences of peat-free have been similar, although I’m pretty certain many variables are at play when it comes to plant performance. And how well do plants have to perform? I usually end up with far more seedlings than I have room for. At the end of the day I grow stuff for fun not for survival, economic or otherwise. Do amateur gardeners need to be this demanding? In truth some peat free composts are better than others – if you are not a fan of peat free composts try Eco-Charlie’s worm-cast enriched peat free compost, it might well convert you.

The best alternative however, is to experiment with making your own potting mixes. Armed with a rake, a soil sieve and a dainty ladies’ border spade I’ve managed to make some fairly good potting mixes using sieved topsoil, leaf mould and garden compost from the bins. Texture wise these feel lovely and haven’t inhibited seed germination. The flip side is they also inevitably contain weed seeds, I haven’t worked out how to get round this yet other than good recognition of seedlings or with unfamiliar crops to sow in straight lines (or at least predictable patterns) so that I can recognise which emerging seedlings are mine!

Despite the promises of rain, it hasn’t done so yet here so I’m off to water my leaf mould cage in the hope of having plenty of material for next year’s potting composts.  How aware is that?


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3 comments to Peat Free Compost

  • Most gardeners probably curse the falling leaves in autumn, but I find I never have enough of them! I wish my neighbours would plant more trees – leaf mould is such wonderful stuff :)

  • goo

    Tsk, tsk! Who could possibly curse a falling leaf! I agree Emma, there is no such thing as too much leaf mould. However we must remember to collect from ‘domestic’ (for lack of a better description!) trees only as woodland trees and even small copses rely on their leaf fall to replenish their growing environment. In fact we are thinking of establishing a small forest garden to this end, to create a self sustaining system of supplying resources both for ourselves and wildlife.

  • Hi goo,
    I know this post was months ago (I’m wandering around here enjoying your site for the first time) but just in case you’re still bothered by weed seeds in your potting compost….cook it!
    You really don’t need garden compost for seed starts, the seed itself contains all the nutrients required except sun and rain so plain old garden soil is plenty rich enough. If you bake the soil first in a roasting tray to ‘sterilise’ it, you will have no viable weed seeds either!

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