PEAT or PEAT MOSS

Garden centres are opening, wey hey!

First though, it’s been a longish old time since I bothered you all with my efforts to persuade you to a greener, less wasteful lifestyle… Apologies if you thought I’d given up on this. But quite frankly, apart from the fact that I’ve been drooping mournfully about the place like an ageing tulip, I’ve also felt somewhat reluctant to foist my blog on a world grappling with this coronavirus mullarkey. Haven’t you all got enough on your plate without me droning on about waste?

And then there’s the constant cloud of discouragement that hovers, ready to consume me. On good days, I get a ton of things done, other days I can’t lift my arse off the chair till 4pm. Then I hurtle about the place, trying to make up for the hours of dazed indolence. Much like many of you, I suspect, I wonder where I’m going to get any energy… and whether it would be any use to have any energy in the first place… and what I would use it for were I to find it…

But there IS going to be a world beyond coronavirus, although it will not be the same as the world we knew a couple of months ago. We need to keep working towards that. The climate crisis isn’t going away, even if it is getting a break while we stop burning so much fossil fuel. So let’s try and look ahead with hope, and plan with determination.

Meanwhile, the garden has been saving me, and as garden centres cautiously open up again, it is to the garden I turn for SYDN inspiration. Lots of you are keeping busy the same way. Heck, my pal Adèle who is not one of nature’s gardeners (and lives in an upstairs apartment) announced that she was planting up pots and window-boxes with gusto. If she’s gardening, it’s a good sign that the rest of the world is too.

So before you start ordering bags of peat, let’s just look at the cons and cons.

(Incidentally, it may well be that you all know that we shouldn’t be using peat in the garden. I thought everyone did, but a quick chat with my nephew’s well-educated and clever wife made me realise that not everyone knows how BAD it is to buy peat. We’re constantly bombarded with information and we can’t take it all in.)

I had to learn a new skill to draw on this photo. Ooh.

Leave peat where it is!

Why?

  • Peat bogs are brilliant at storing carbon, and we are finally beginning to realise that the more carbon dioxide in the air, the worse it is for planet earth and all its inhabitants. This from Natural England – “Globally peatlands store approximately double the amount of carbon that is stored in all the world’s forests, an estimated 550 billion tonnes.” In fact, they store TWICE as much carbon as all the forests in the world put together..
  • It takes many thousands of years for a peat bog to form, and yet it can be destroyed in decades.
  • Peat bogs are incredibly abundant in wildlife which is specially adapted to that particular environment: a complex ecosystem all its own.
  • Peat bogs are essential for managing floodwater. And it rained like billy-oh all winter. It flooded too, and far too often those floods are caused because peat bogs have been degraded. Upland bogs in particular retain water which is then slowly released. This reduces the flow of water downstream and minimises the risk of flooding. I don’t need to remind you that there has been an awful lot of rain and flooding in past years. Wouldn’t it be nice if that stopped!
  • There has been enough destruction and degradation already. Germany, for instance, has drained or destroyed almost all its peat bogs.
  • The National Trust makes the excellent point that peat is a great archaeological resource, keeping “a record of past vegetation, landscapes and people”. Think of all those mummified peat bog people

But I want to grow azaleas!

I know, I know, this is not an azalea, it’s a rhododendron. But it was such a nice photo by Brian Taylor on Unsplash

A good number of popular plants will only grow in acid soil, and peat is acid. Rhododendrons, azaleas, blueberries, camellia… all gorgeous and highly desirable. And even I have to admit that the charm of preserving a dead body for centuries in a peat bog is not as attractive the prospect of planting a glorious rhododendron to hide the gas tank.

So the first thing you should be aware of is that if you live in an area that has alkaline soil (like me), nothing you can do will change that. Even if you’re as rich as Jeff Bezos, you can employ any number of folk with diggers to remove your topsoil and replace it with peat moss – but it will eventually revert. And your lovingly planted camellias will fade and die.

If you’ve moved into a new area and spring in your neighbours’ gardens reveals a resplendent palette of bright rhododendrons, then you can (a) feel safe in the knowledge that you can plant them in your garden too and they will prosper and (b) improve your soil with an excellent alternative, namely coir. More of which later.

My garden. No peat. The hot pink in the centre isn’t a camellia, it’s Cretaegus “Paul’s Scarlet” – yep, common old hawthorn to most of us!

But I only want a couple of bags!

Yeah, you and thousands of others. According to Dianna Kopansky, the UN Environment peatlands expert, the world has lost 35% of its peat bogs since 1970. I can do no better than quote from the UN website itself.

When drained or burned for agriculture (as wetlands often are) they go from being a carbon sink to a carbon source, releasing into the atmosphere centuries of stored carbon. CO2emissions from drained and burned peatlands equate to 10 per cent of all annual fossil fuel emissions.

https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/peatlands-store-twice-much-carbon-all-worlds-forests

And the brutal truth is that the horticulture industry – both here and in the rest of the world – still relies far too heavily on peat as a valuable addition to their growing mediums. Amateur gardeners account for about two-thirds of the peat consumption in the UK. Commercial agriculture (eg. mushrooms, lettuces) and landscaping account for the rest, golf courses in particular…

And peat use is sneaky. You’ll find it in some of those bags of topsoil you buy, and in some of the bags marked ‘compost’.

Only if the bag is marked “PEAT FREE” can you be certain that you’re not contributing to the degradation of our peat bogs. Which brings us neatly back to the subject of…

COIR!

Look, no plastic! And a 5 Kg bale will expand to 70 litres when rehydrated! I call that a bargain. (And great IT skills for drawing on the picture.)

Coir is the waste product of the coconut industry. Once the delicious coconut ‘meat’ has been harvested, the long fibres are removed to make matting, ropes and excellent little scrub pads. This leaves the short fibres and dust which, for centuries, coconut workers piled up into great mounds, unused – until one day someone had the bright idea that this waste product would make an excellent compost.

And it does. It absorbs water more quickly than peat, and does just as efficient a job at helping to break up heavy soil.

Of course, it isn’t without problems of its own. One thinks of the travel miles, the plastics used to bag it up, and the heart sinks. Really, nothing is better than your own home-made compost but that’s not always possible and coir is at least renewable and thus sustainable.

(Incidentally, it’s not the only substitute for peat, but this is not a gardening blog and you can search for these things yourself.)

But just in case you’re tempted to plant azaleas in coir-filled pots all round your garden, I have to warn you that they won’t prosper as coir is a perfect pH – neither acid nor alkaline. For more about the benefits of coir, this is a very useful article from finegardening.com.

Frankly, if you want some drama in a pot, roses are a much better bet. They flower when you are likely to be outside having a barbecue, unlike azaleas which are very dull once they’ve finished flowering in spring.

I swear to you, I grow this rose in a pot. It’s called Fellowship, and it’s the divinest thing you ever saw. Move over, azaleas, this beauty flowers in June and July.

Thanks

To you for reading this, especially if you pass it on. And please stay safe and stay healthy.

And thanks also to Tomas Robertson from Unsplash for the photograph at the top. This will be mystifying to those of you reading this in email form. For some unknown reason, WordPress sends the emails without the top picture. Ah, the vagaries of technology! Anyhow, if you’re interested, it’s a beautiful and evocative picture of a boggy Scottish landscape with a ruined croft. And huge thanks to Unsplash for providing free pictures, without which this blog would be unaffordable.

Finally, my dog, Piper, declined to be photographed as we are in mourning for Nigel.

(For readers in other countries, Nigel was a hugely popular golden retriever who faithfully padded after his friend, Monty Don, week after week on Gardener’s World. His sudden departure this week made the national news and me cry.)

So here’s a picture of a Great Spotted Woodpecker that came to my birdtable.

How beautiful is he!

23 thoughts on “PEAT or PEAT MOSS

  1. Thank you Dillie for this useful article/blog/vlog or whatever.

    I shall copy and paste some of it to put on the two local community FB sites that have appeared in lockdown. They are quite dull for most of the time but recently a man who has a horse, an emu, a dog and a Harris Hawk called Horus reported that Horus had flown off for a holiday. In fact she had about 3 weeks of freedom and was being sighted all over a few square miles nearby. I understand that Harris Hawks are really very bright American buzzards and therefore good for falconry. The owner wasn’t called Harold but if he had he would no doubt have been Harold on his ‘orse with his ‘awk ‘orus in his ‘and.

    Clive

    Like

    • Thanks Clive. Delighted to enliven your community FB sites, if enliven is the word we want. Just one request, that you credit me and add the link to the page? Thanks so much! Meanwhile, I do ‘ope that ‘Orus the ‘awk ‘appens to ‘ear that ‘Arold is ‘unting for ‘im and ‘overs ‘appily ‘ome.

      Like

  2. My husband makes me save the leftover vinegar from used jars of beetroot/pickled onions. He adds it to his azaleas’ water. They are quite splendid too.

    Like

  3. Lovely to have you back ranting again. Seems a long time since you entertained us in Monmouth.

    Of course, if you kept a few goats, then every time you clean them out you could spread the straw and poop on the garden. Or find someone whole give you the stuff.

    Which makes me think – why not just dig in straw? It’s only about £2 a bale. Or am I missing the point?

    Keep ranting.

    Mik

    Like

    • Hi Mik… Gawd ‘elp us, it is an AGE since Monmouth… our second last gig – we played Cheltenham the following night and then the world we knew collapsed. Ah well. Re straw, it takes quite a long time to break down, much longer than you think, because it’s coated with a kind of natural varnish which takes for ever to degrade. And the goat poo would be too strong when straight from the bum, if you will pardon the earthiness of the language… Thanks for writing. Makes me happy to hear from readers.

      Like

  4. One of the things I worked out quickly with Lockdown (or le confinement as we call it here) was that I needed to manage my constraints early one. No local tip for the green rubbish. So, on top of the two compost bins, I started mulching (at least what I call mulching!). Lawn cuttings mixed with leaves, turned over regularly, make a lovely mulch in 3-4 weeks. I have two separate lots on the go, so that I can put one lot out when it’s ready while the next lot starts the Chemistry. The roses seem to love it anyway!

    And a top tip. Don’t put four wheelbarrow loads of rotten apples into a compost bin in autumn and expect them to compost down on their own over the winter… You’ve got to cut ’em up and mash ’em first! But I learnt, and had to dig them out of the bin after 6 months… Not a smell I’ll forget quickly, but now the compost is coming along lovely!

    Like

  5. Hello Dillie Thank you for again sending a lovely, informative and interesting post. 

    I (*shamefaced*) did know about the peat, but had forgotten.  Thank you for the reminder. Your garden is beautiful.  Thank you for the picture. I’d hoped to see you in Cheltenham this year, but not to be 😦 Keep well, keep safe, and keep your sense of humour 🙂 All the best, Dena

    Like

    • Thanks Nigel. A few points raised by your very interesting comment. I didn’t come across that piece during my research but having read it since, I don’t think it matters as its target audience seems to be commercial users of peat, and frankly I don’t imagine that the various industries that use peat as fuel are going to be reading my blog, let alone be influenced by it! The purpose of this blog, amongst other things, is to discourage frivolous use of resources, and given the number of alternatives that gardeners can use, I do think that horticultural peat should be phased out. So I am careful to write for a readership that I think is out there, namely people like me who want to use resources more responsibly. There’s actually a very trenchant body of opinion in the commercial world that vigorously defends the use of peat on the basis that they only harvest a tiny fraction of what’s there, but I can’t cover everything and my pieces tend to be over-long anyhow. I am wary of boring my readers! And yes, I did come across the information about the peat fires – and now I can’t think why I didn’t include it because if that is the case, then using peat for your garden is even more frivolous! Thanks very much for the contribution, I do hugely appreciate it when people like yourself alert me to things I might not have come across.

      Like

  6. Cheers, Dillie for the points made. I am always an optimist and enjoy the challenge of growing blueberries in our limestone hills here on the Welsh borders. But I am now a dab hand at collecting the pine needles off our trees and plonking them in the big pots as a mulch to keep the pH something like. Seems to work quite well.

    Like

    • That’s a good wheeze. The amazing thing about pine needles is that when they fall from the tree, they are quite acidic, but after composting down, they have a nearly neutral pH. Ain’t nature astounding!

      Like

  7. Good post Dillie. It’s a shame that so many developed countries still rely so much on peat as a fuel source. Although the use of peat in horticulture is significant, at least it doesn’t have the double-whammy of reducing areas of carbon capture AND releasing carbon dioxide when it’s burned.

    Still, we have reduced our consumption in many areas. When I was at school, I took a holiday job at a Tate & Lyle plant near Greenwich which manufactured cattle feed. We used hundreds of tons of peat every day, mixed in with other ingredients, to produce concentrated feeds. I don’t think it’s used any more, at least not in the UK.

    I don’t understand why people insist on growing acid-loving plants in areas of alkaline soil. The odd thing is, if you go to some areas, the soil is perfect for them, but people don’t grow them! There are swathes of North Surrey and North Wales where Rhododendron ponticum is a weed out of control!

    Like

    • And in the West of Ireland and Cornwall too, it’s a positive pest! And it always reverts to the same lilac colour. Nice to hear from you.

      Like

  8. Great blog Dillie. I did know we weren’t supposed to use peat in the garden but never knew why. Now I do, I won’t ever use it again. You are right about the azaleas too, they are stunning when in full bloom but there are nicer shrubs that flower much longer.

    But never mind all that ….. poor Nigel! He made Gardner’s World for me, a beautiful specimen and the sad thing is that dogs just don’t live long enough for us hoomans. Condolences to Monty and Mrs Monty.

    Like

    • Actually, I adore azaleas and have very happy memories of spring picnics in the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park with my aunty Dawn who introduced me to the place. If you’ve never been, it’s STUNNING and so worth a visit. Thanks for posting, Jackie. Stay safe.

      Like

  9. Hi Dilly

    Glad to hear you are alive and very clearly kicking

    I share your sentiments entirely – wake up people, it is time to let go of old ways and embrace new ones

    The reason for writing is my current bug-bear – supermarkets. If this period of social abstinence has taught us anything, it is how quickly we can tip the balance back towards helping mother earth and environment. The improvement over the last few weeks has been staggering. Quite bonkers

    So why supermarkets? Perhaps – and I am conscious I am treading on hallowed ground hear – it is time to accept that we all don’t need to go to the supermarket to buy food. On any typical cul-de-sac/street there will be 30-homes (I know some will be more and some will be less, but lets go for a ‘norm’). That’s 60-journeys by car to and from the local supermarket. Whereas if everyone did internet shopping, it is just one journey by a van to everyone.

    Much less CO2 in traffic

    Much less traffic

    Much better for us – more time at home doing stuff

    Much less need for supermarkets

    If we follow the logic that everything then comes from a warehouse, CO2 improves further. Less trucks rolling from the fulfilment factory (the sexy name the industry calls these behemoth tin boxes storing stuff); fresher food as it is making one journey less; less packaging as everything can be put in cardboard boxes there are left with the customer and returned at the next delivery.

    And it’s all contactless transactions.

    There will be jobs lost at supermarkets as with this method everything can be done by machine. It will make the food retailers more profitable so they will make it so.

    Surely, we don’t need to ‘feel’ each tin of beans we buy. Ok when we walk down an aisle we might get inspired to try something new or different. But do we really think this cannot be accommodated? Amazon suck us in all the time.

    If we get with this, then maybe local farmers might be able to serve their local community again. Better profit for them and fresher food. Maybe even Blockchain transactions tie-in who knows.

    So what about the jobs?

    Again, it’s time to think again.

    Business has to change. The reason to be in business cannot be about money anymore. It needs to shift to be about employment. You have a business because you want to employ people. More even salaries. More people employed. More ideas. More service centric business = caring.

    It’s the banks that don’t do cards skew everything. Because dealer bankers earn silly money (and why – they are only glorified bookies betting on horses/dogs) their bosses demand bonkers+ salaries to manage them. Result, all CEOs demand salaries matching it.

    People, time to reshuffle the deck

    Thanks for listening

    I’m off to wrap my head in a towel, before the van arrives to take me to the Tower

    So what about the jobs?

    Regards

    Steve Elkin

    07758 690 322

    Like

    • Wow! What a marvellous post, I do hope people read it and there’s a lot to think about it. You’re right, things really do have to change. But I’m not sure delivery is the full answer… Whilst I agree we don’t need to feel the can of beans nor the packet of rice, I hate it when the food arrives and the carrots are a bit past their best and the bananas a little bit old, and the rusk-free sausages have been substituted for a brand that does contain rusk, or the mangoes haven’t arrived at all… It’s difficult to plan if you don’t shop yourself. And it still seems to arrive in dozens of plastic bags, none of which are filled up because regulations insist that the fish, the meat, the cleaning products, the dry goods and the bread must all be kept separate… So what is the answer? More small shops that we can walk or bike to? Interesting. Thanks so much for posting. Stay well, Steve.

      Like

  10. I haven’t used peat for about 35 years now….so glad to see this blog which may help encourage others not to use it either. Cheers, and thanks, and keep strong! Betsy

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.