Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Cool compost

So this month’s topic is compost! I promise that I’m not about to come over all ‘Monty Don’ on you and suggest that you create three giant bins in your garden for this purpose. Whilst making your own compost is to be recommended, few of us with town gardens can do this with any real conviction. Whilst our garden may be larger than the average urban backyard, I don’t want to lose valuable planting and green space to compost making, so I’m afraid that my attempts are limited to a council supplied bin which, in fairness, takes a lot of our green kitchen waste and, about twice a year, enables us to give a new plant a decent start in life.

Compost bin with cat on top

Compost bin camouflaged by cat (c) Elizabeth Malone

No, my focus this month is on the compost that you are most likely to be buying in the garden centre, supermarket or DIY store, usually labelled ‘multi-purpose’ which covers a multitude of sins. It was the Easter weekend, when the national news was dominated by the Extinction Rebellion protests, that I found myself getting on my soap box and starting to preach about making sure that you are gardening ‘peat free’. On Easter Saturday I walked into a garden centre which was proclaiming its extra special holiday deal on multi-purpose compost which is was proud to shout was ‘100% peat’. I stared in horror as the woman next to me started loading her trolley. “You do realise”, I found myself saying, “that it’s 100% peat, don’t you?” The look she gave me either said “what planet are you from?” Or “OK, local nutter, move away now.” It made me realise that, as a keen amateur gardener, I’ve been reading the horticultural press for the last couple of decades and watching the experts on TV, probably Geoff Hamilton being the first, advising me to avoid using peat-based composts at all costs. But what if you’re not a keen amateur? What if you just garden occasionally in the spring and summer when you fancy a bright hanging basket or a pot outside the backdoor? That afternoon I tested my theory out on my osteopath (who once famously cut all the flower heads off a peony thinking it was a rose that he’d forgotten to prune!), and quite right he asked, “Why shouldn’t I use peat?”

Plant pots in greenhouse

Potting up for the summer – make sure it’s peat free (c) Elizabeth Malone

Peat bogs are to the UK what the rainforest is to South America, they are our carbon cupboard and, as such, can do an enormous amount to protect us from climate change. They also help prevent against flooding and they are a vital habitat for our wildlife. Scarily we have lost more than 90% of the UK’s natural peat bogs. If you want to read more about this, Friends of the Earth have an excellent article.

I began tinkering with gardening about 26 years ago. In the beginning I almost certainly bought standard peat-based compost but I quickly abandoned it. Thinking back, this was almost certainly because of Geoff Hamilton on Gardeners’ World who was an environmental campaigner way ahead of his time. When Alan Titchmarsh took over the helm of GW, he was quickly under pressure to move towards peat-free gardening. The fact that I remember this makes me convinced that we had already converted.  Whilst I am no expert gardener, I feel that I have gardened very successfully in my own way, without peat for more than 20 years.  I once had a conversation with a chap at a garden centre who saw me buying peat-free and told me that it wouldn’t be much good for seed-germination, but I was happy to tell him that I’d never found this a problem.  Something like this might be a stumbling block for commercial growers who need a very good success rate but for us amateurs, I think we can afford a few seeds to go amiss.

Newly germinated seedlings

Cosmos germinating (c) Elizabeth Malone

Part of my annoyance on that Easter Saturday stemmed from the fact that Westland, a giant horticultural company, have bought the ‘New Horizon’ brand whose ‘peat-free and organic’ compost I have been using for donkey’s years. In another local garden centre, the familiar green bags had been replaced by bright red ones. Peat free yes, but no longer organic. I bought a couple as a stop-gap to get me through the weekend but a week later I was delighted to discover that another local garden centre had now begun to stock a peat-free, organic compost from Melcourt, endorsed by the RHS. This may well become my ‘go-to’ compost.  The great thing about this particular garden centre, and here I will give a shout-out for Adrian Hall’s, is that they stocked Melcourt peat-free and organic, Melcourt peat-free only and the New Horizon peat-free, thus giving the customer a choice of several peat-free options amidst the non-peat-free.  This is definitely progress as most garden centres, even if they’re not shouting ‘100% peat’, still leave you hunting for the one peat-free brand they stock.  I’ve just done a quick google search for peat-free composts and have been surprised to discover that all the big chains claim to stock them.  However, it strikes me that it’s just not very visible when you walk into the store and an awful lot of people will just by the first thing they see, particularly if it’s on special offer.  So I think that we, as gardeners, have a responsibility to educate our friends and to make sure our garden centres and DIY stores understand the importance of what they stock and also how they stock it.

French bean seedlings

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Saving what peat we have left is something we can all easily contribute towards. Next time you go looking for a bag of multi-purpose compost, just make sure it says ‘peat-free’. If it doesn’t, find one that does and, if the garden centre doesn’t have a peat-free option, take your business elsewhere.

White geranium phaem

Cerinthe and Geranium Phaem Alba – self seeding and avoiding compost altogether! (c) Elizabeth Malone