Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Let's not get bogged down..........

Potting some seedlings the other day, I was reminded again how the quality of potting compost has has declined in recent years. This bag of Levington Compost was full of wood fibres and chunks of timber that would make good kindling. I have to say that I had been a fan of Levington Compost for many years and still feel that peat-based composts are superior to any of the modern peat-free composts. Many years ago, when I first left school I worked at Fisons research station where they were just developing Levington compost. One of my jobs involved batch testing samples from the production line. I had to grow seedlings of tomato, antirrhinum and Brompton stock in each batch of compost to ensure the quality. I also happened to be on duty the day they took promotional photographs and my hands sowing seeds, adorned their early advertising. Since then I have used Levington compost in most of the places I have worked and until recently found it to be a top quality growing medium.

The current move to outlaw peat seems to have taken on a somewhat evangelical fervour that is not necessarily based on fact. The Royal horticultural Society and organisations such as the National trust have taken strong stands on the issue but without presenting all the facts. The RHS website on peat is pitifully poor on facts. Over recent years the RHS have carried out various trials using low peat and peat-free composts and the results have been published in The Garden. However in each case the pictorial evidence shows a comparison between the various peat-free composts used but no control. In any scientific trial there should always be a control and in this situation it should be to compare the results with plants growing in an established peat-based compost. I would guess that if the RHS did use a control, that the results of plants growing in a peat-based compost was so superior, that it would defeat their purpose in trying to promote peat free composts. Let's hush this up!

I also strongly object to TV presenters such as Monty Don who suggest that using a peat-free compost is the only way to grow certain plants. Listen to him next Friday and I guarantee whatever he is propagating, he will state potting in a peat-free compost. This is not the only way to grow whatever it might be but it's purely a matter of choice. Can you imagine a TV chef cooking a Boeuf Bourginon and listing amongst the ingredients a glass of red grape juice instead of a hearty Merlot? It would be preposterous, but amazingly the parallel seems acceptable for gardening. In all my books I have suggested organic alternatives to various growing practices to let the reader choose.

If any of you are sitting there fuming at my Neanderthal attitude and lack of environmental awareness, I suggest you read some of the background arguments on the other side of the peat debate. If you check out this website linked to the Glendoick Nursery, there are some very interesting facts. Whilst it can be accepted that many lowland peat bogs have been depleted and should be protected, in the UK nearly 50% of Scotland is still covered with peat deposits. In the last 50 years, whilst 500ha of peat bog have been used for extraction, some 95,000ha have been drained for forestry purposes. Much of our peat is also imported. On the worldwide basis, approximately 2% of peat is useful horticultural purposes. Most of the peat extracted is still used as a fuel and this still happens at a domestic level in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Finland has vast sources of peat but the majority is used as a fuel to supply power stations. In Russia 1.5million tons are used for fuel.

Shatura Power Station in Russia - the largest peat burning power station in the world.

The government is in a mess on this.  Dare we say - bogged down? 'The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force' is currently under is dispute on the basis that no-one has really defined what the problem is. Defining this was assigned to the Friends of the Earth organisation who have not delivered a response. Whilst undoubtedly there would need to be control over the use of a product such as peat and a need to protect the natural environment, it would seem to be clear that stopping the use of peat for horticulture is a minor issue compared to harvesting for fuel and draining for agriculture and forestry.

I hasten to add that the above are just a few facts on the matter and certainly far from definitive but it makes you think!


  1. Peat based poting soils are about the only potting mixes you can get here in Sweden and Sweden is promoted as one of the most Eco-Green of poster childs for all that is environmental. Which in reality it is not, though it attempts to be so.

    There is so much mosss it that in spring it is actually the dominent weed in most lawns until the weather warms and grasses are able to shoot through.

    I was actually looking for a good cactus potting soil here and even it has peat in it. My experience in living in the southwestern USA is that most cactus soils are pretty much nothing more than sand or any type of Decomposed Granite, even Adobe soils. I brought back a beavertail cacti pad from our trip to Tenerife in February in hopes of having a reminder of the SW - USA.

    Nice post

  2. This was informative, for sure. I've heard since college (1988) how we are destroying the environment by using peat in the landscape industry. But none of the information you are presenting was made, either.

    Every so often, someone has the magic formula for growing something better, that renders past formulae obsolete. Thanks for getting past the pitchmen!