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.)
Leave peat where it is!
- 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!
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.
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 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.
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.