04 April 2017

Our interpretation boards mention that we don’t use peat, and we’ve been asked a couple of times why that is. The main reasons are that it’s a non-renewable resource (it takes thousands of years for a peat bog to form, but it can be cleared completely within 50 years); it’s an increasingly rare habitat; and digging it up releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (peat bogs act as carbon sinks as they store large amounts of carbon dioxide; the carbon stored in UK peat bogs is equivalent to about 3 years of total UK carbon emissions).

Peat-based composts (= most types of compost sold in garden centres) only began to be used widely about 50 or so years ago; until then many gardeners just mixed their own. Over the last 50 years we’ve come to see peat-based composts as affordable and reliable, and they were certainly an easy way of providing an adequate start in life for plants. However, there are an increasing number of alternatives as the technology generally has moved on since the 1970s, and more and more brands of peat-free compost are becoming available. There’s still a bit of an urban myth around that they aren’t any good, although this isn’t really true any longer. I first used one years ago just because it happened to be on offer, and found I had far better results than I’d had with anything else. We do also use a mix of garden compost and leaf mould for cuttings and growing on small plants as it’s very cheap, which makes our various projects more sustainable, but we do also use commercial compost. I checked with two local suppliers today – Leighton Buzzard Garden Centre  will have their peat-free compost in sometime within the next couple of weeks, if it’s not already in (when I rang the pallets were just being unloaded, and they weren’t sure exactly what was on those, and what was coming in the next few days); and the National Trust’s Ascott House on the Wing road sells New Horizon compost at a fiver a bag or 3 for £12 – it’s by the kiosk in the car park, and if you tell the car parking attendant you just want the compost, they won’t charge you for entry to the house or gardens!

And one last reason to try and avoid peat – this is what often happens to the roots of plants grown in a peat-based compost when they’re planted out into the kind of heavy clay we have round Leighton Buzzard and Linslade:

There are ways of persuading the roots to move outside the area of its original pot, but we’ve found that the simplest is just to use a peat-free compost. You can also buy plants grown in peat-free composts from some suppliers – we bought perennial wallflowers from the market stall near Peacock’s in the High Street.

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