Peat Free Composts

A report by Rosie Hall for Hollin Lane Allotment Association

A report by Rosie Hall for Hollin Lane Allotment Association

Background

Peat only started to be used in garden composts in the 1950s with the rise of popular gardening. Humans have used peat for centuries as a fuel, a building material, for animal bedding and, more recently, for horticulture. In the UK, gardeners and commercial growers get through 3.5 million cubic metres of peat a year. To meet this demand, areas of lowland bog are being stripped of their peat, destroying valuable habitats both here and abroad (65% of our peat is now imported). Because peat bogs take so long to form they are an unsustainable resource. If we continue to destroy these peat habitats we will ruin a vital part of our natural heritage, lose many rare plants and animals, and valuable information about our planet’s past.

While some of our remaining peatlands are protected, there are many in other European countries that aren’t, and it is these which now supply most of our garden peat.

Peat in the garden

Peat has three uses in the garden: as mulch, as a soil improver and as a growing medium.

Mulches
A mulch is a layer of material spread on top of the soil to keep down weeds, conserve moisture and insulate the earth. Peat-based mulches do a relatively poor job as they break down quickly in dry conditions and often just blow away. Better mulches are based on bark, leaf mould, recycled wood waste, spent mushroom compost or garden compost.
Soil improvers
Peat adds no nutrition to the soil. Better products for this are manure, compost, spent mushroom compost (though this is of variable nutritive value)
Growing media
All growing media should be peat free by 2020 according to Government targets.  Growing media do not have to be based on Peat. They can have the following as a basis: composted bark, coir, leaf mould, garden compost, screened green waste and screened composted manure

Peat-free Products

Clearly we need different grades of media for different jobs in the garden; the differences in water retention are also very important.

In researching the available peat free products it is clear that one product will not fit all. Multipurpose works all right up to a point, but often the products are far too coarse for seed sowing.  In looking at available products I have tried to take the following into account, but there are sure to be other factors- it is a huge task!

  1. Have the products been tested by reputable trials?
  2. Are products available locally? How much do they cost?
  3. Do we know what the products contain?
  4. Are the companies involved in production of peat-containing products? I added this as something we might like to consider.
  1. Have the products been tested by reputable trials? The Royal Horticultural Society has some useful pages on peat free gardening. The main points for my purposes were:
    • In their trials they found that there was very little information on the main components of the composts.
    • They found considerable variations in quality between batches.
    • The more expensive composts tended to perform better.
    • Water management is critical.
    • How best to feed was a subject for further research.

    Other trials:
    Which? Test scores for 2010 as a percentage of germination in the following peat free composts:

    • New Horizon Multi-Purpose: 80% (also top in 2011)
    • Westland Multi-Purpose: 80%
    • J Arthur Bowers Multi: 74%
    • Levington Multi: 74%
    • Vital Earth Multi: 74%
    • Murphy Multi: 73%
    • Vital Earth Tub/Basket: 70%
    • New Horizon Growbag: 65%
    • Shamrock Multi: 63%
    • B&Q Tub/Basket: 53%
    • J Arthur Bowers JI no. 3: 50%
    • B&Q Multi: 49%
    • Westland Earth Matters: 48%
    • B&Q Peat-Free Multi: 46%
    • Westland Multi: 43%
    • Westland Container/Basket: 39%
    • Miracle Gro Peat-Free: 28%

    The previous Which? Score put B&Q multipurpose and New Horizon organic and peat free growbag along with B&Q sowing and cutting compost as top 3 for sowing composts. They suggested that Homebase multipurpose and Vital Earth were not worth buying as the germination was< 40%. (Compare with results above)
    A report in The Ecologist suggested that Petersfield and New Horizon both scored 90% germination.
    The trials are difficult to interpret. They do seem to illustrate that there is sufficient variation between batches to lead to variable germination rates, all else being equal.

  2. Are products available locally? How much do they cost?
    • New Horizon Multipurpose Peat Free is widely available; High Trees would deliver any amount for £18; a bag costs £5.99. Garden Goodies (Bingley) would deliver eg 30 x 60 litre bags for £186+VAT including delivery.
    • Moorland Gold (see below) from West Riding Organics priced as follows: 20-64 x 40 litre sacks £5.34 each (individual price £7.99), full pallet £4.79 each (max 65 sacks) delivery £42 + VAT
    • Knotford Nook (Lancashire) bulk loads up to 5 tons (£40/ton -£60/ton depending on whether screen size and whether manure based)equivalent to a builder’s 1 cubic metre sack) £40 delivery + VAT
    • Petersfield which received good reviews, is based in Leicester so is not considered further here.
    • These are the ones I enquired about as a ‘taster’. Most on the Which? list are available locally.
  3. Do we know what the products contain?
    • New Horizon Peat Free: bark, timber residues, green waste, limestone, hoof and horn, rock potash, Vinasse (?) bone meal. Will need more watering then peat, and extra feeding after 4-6 weeks.
    • Moorland Gold: This is not peat free, being made of a mixture of entrapped peat from water purification + sharp sand. It is therefore a by product using a waste material, so not reliant on peat extraction. It is Soil Association Certified.
    • Knotford Nook: There are various types based on either green waste, mature compost or farmyard manure. They are screened to 40/30/20/8 mm, so suitable for different purposes.
  4. Are the companies involved in the production of peat containing composts?
    • New Horizon makes peat-containing composts. Since all compost will have to be peat free by 2020, this is going to change the picture considerably.

Conclusions

  • It would be good to encourage the use of peat free composts on the allotment site.
  • We should invite comments on this report from the plot holders.
  • We should consider buying a bulk load of compost or a couple of bags of several types to do our own trial.
  • Making our own means allocating an area , collecting leaf mould etc
  • We should make sure that every plot holder is helped to produce garden compost for use in mulching, soil improving and as a growing medium.
  • We should try to make Hollin Lane Peat Free as soon as possible

Pea and Bean Weevil

The pea and bean weevil is hard to spot, but its damage to peas and beans is easy to see …

The pea and bean weevil is a horrible little creature called Sitona lineatus. It is quite small (5mm) and hard to spot, but its damage to peas and beans  is easy to see:  neat half-round notches cut out of the edges of the leaves of young plants.

Pea and bean weevil damage
Damage from pea and bean weevils.

They overwinter in the soil near peas and beans (and winter tares), and come out in warm weather.  They lay lots of eggs on the host plant during May, June and July, and the tiny larvae then find their way into the soil and feed on the roots.  They are annoying, but don’t usually cause serious damage.  The best advice seems to be to keep the young plants well fed so they can outgrow the danger, as the weevils don’t climb very high.  Rotating your crops helps, too.

Joe Foster

Make Your Own Seed and Potting Compost

Make your own seed and potting composts …

You can make your own organic, peat-free seed and potting composts using leaf mould, garden compost and loam. You can make it up as you need it, in large or small quantities. Leaf mould needs to stand for two years. Loam is basically just good garden soil. If you are bothered by weed seedlings you can pasteurise the loam at 80 degrees C for about half an hour. I just pull the weeds up.

The recipes are by volume: shovel-fulls, scoops, or whatever.

  • Sowing compost: 1 part sieved leaf mould + 1 part sieved loam.
  • Potting compost: 1 part sieved leaf mould + 1 part sieved loam + 1 part sieved garden compost.
  • Tomato compost: 3 parts loam + 1 part leaf mould + 1 part garden compost or manure.

Joe Foster

Compost Heaps

Gillian North’s recipe for success!

Use lots of nettles or comfrey to activate and provide extra nutrient in the form of trace elements. Layers of shredded bark also aids decomposition. Intersperse with grass cuttings.

Gillian North

Potatoes

Extend the season for earlies and avoid blight on maincrops…

Plant just one short row of earlies as soon as conditions allow in order to get your first new potatoes of the season. Then plant maincrop and second earlies so they have a long growing season before blight strikes. Continue with the rest of the earlies, staggering the planting so not all are ready at once.

Gillian North

Sowing Seeds

Gillian’s ‘three for one’ planting tip…

Sowing: It is necessary to sow three seeds, or plant three plants – one for the slugs, one for the weather and one for yourself. If the first two survive, they can go to the annual bring and buy sale.

Gillian North

Onion Sets

Gillian’s tip for getting the most from your onions and garlic.

Always buy twice as many as you think you will need and either plant all closely or plant half in a separate bed one inch apart. Thin out or pull when large enough to use as spring onions from late April or early May onwards. Continue using as large spring onions and young ‘green’ onions. Delicious at any size and much sweeter and juicier than fully ripened onions. Also, start using some garlic young and green in late June. This is when it is at its best.

Gillian North

Eating Nasturtiums

Yes, really!

The Nasturtium is said to have sprung from the blood of a Trojan warrior. The blossom symbolised his golden helmet and the round leaf his shield. It is a close relation of watercress, which explains why its leaves make such a tasty addition to salads. The seeds of this creeping, twining plant when pickled make a good substitute for capers.

Gillian North

Slug Slime on Fingers

Next time you get slug slime on your fingers try this…

Yuk! Even soap and water won’t shift slug slime on your fingers. Next time try rubbing the slime with something mildly acid: rhubarb juice, gooseberry juice, lemon juice, vinegar. Magic!

Joe Foster