Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The reason I am a bit narked with Mr T

Now I am not one to preach, but this month Gareners World magazine got thrown through a window and I think I should explain why!
Firstly I guess I should explain the family fondness for a certain Mr Titchmarsh. He's a Yorkshire lad, came from the Ilkley where my mother went to college, and has, until now, very much stood for the gardening prinnciples that us as a family have always stood by, ie, sustainability. Many a garden has been produced and allotment planted on little money and thrifty use of both plants and material.
So imagine, to my abject horror, reading that Mr Titchmarsh is no longer willing to stand with the no-peat faction and is stating that some plants will suffer if grown in peat free compost and that seedlings will not thrive in peat free compost  and so is happy to use compost with peat "in the interests of what I like to think of as "the greater good"".

So Mr T, here's my response to that. I grow on 2 nurseries, one my own and one on which I am employed. My employers use peat, and hard as I find it to take, I totally understand that decision as a commercial one. The nursery stock plants that are mostly grown in 20litre and above pots, many of which are large trees which range in pot size from 160-2000 litres. To buy peat free in this type of quantity is very dificult and extremely expensive. Although peat free is only pence more expensive per litre it weighs more and so is more expensive to transport and also when buying in quantities of 45 tonnes at a time, a few pence per litre all adds up. The use of peat on this nursery has been reduced dramatically but as things stand, it is seen commercially on this level as a necessary evil.
At The Physic Garden we are peat free. All of our stock has been germinated in peat free compost and there has been no issue with germination, including the Ammi majus pictured above. As we are producing much smaller stock which is destined for a completely different market we have made the conscious decision to be peat free from the start, as well as chemical and manmade fertilizer free.
So who is right and who is wrong? Well I believe that people such as Monty Don, Alys Fowler and Kew Gardens can't be far wrong and none of the above use peat in their gardens. In fact Kew has been peat free since 1992, which is quite amusing as MrT was trained there! I also believe that gardening is about leaving as small a footprint as possible, and peat bogs are such an amazing carbon sink, and special environment for wildlife, that surely we must protect them. Digging them up so that we can possibly have slightly better Busy Lizzies in a hanging basket seems bizarre to me and hardly ethical or sustainable. But the answer is not to ask people to side with their favourite celebrity gardener but to make them aware of peat and its habitats, and educate them. So why is this not happening?
It appears that peat free compost is not that easy to come by if you are the average gardener buying from garden centre chains or DIY superstores, as although it is available it is around twice the price of peat based compost and often not readily available in store. Reduced peat compost is often available, but reduced by how much is not addressed and certainly no one has any information in store. Presumably the stores, which let's be honest, are run for profit not ethics, make money on peat based composts, selling them in quantity and therefore are not going to see any good from telling people about peat bogs and the devastation caused by the compost industry to them. The gardening press addresses the peat issue occassionally, but never to any true conclusion and generally it always ends with so and so does but so and so doesn't, again leading people to just follow their favourites.
So  maybe people may be surprised to hear that by 2020 the government intends to phase out peat use by the amateur gardener. Considering that 70% of the peat used in this country is used by the amateur and it is now 2011, this is a massive undertaking and one that needs addressing now, in garden centres, by allotment and horticultural groups and by the small nursery owner who actually is the grower and so can talk with knowledge on the beat way to grow without peat and offer good advice which will work. So to all you gardeners out there, ignore the last page of Gareners World this month, find your local small nursery and go and talk to the grower there. If the National Trust, the RHS and Kew Gardens can all go peat free then quite honestly so can you!

The photo to the right is of the white garden at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, a National Trust garden and so peat free. Could this look any better with peat-I think not!
The reason for this picture is not peat though. I have just finished reading Adam Nicholson's "The Smell of Summer Grass." It tells the story of him and Sarah Raven buying Perch Hill Farm in Sussex and setting up Sarah's gardening and cookery school and the farm surrounding it.
As always with Nicholson's work it is a brilliant piece of writing that speaks of the place and its meaning within its environment. It explains perfectly that beauty can be the reason to do something, and that can be an achievement in itself without having to produce an end product, Beauty is the end product-something us gardeners should be able to understand. So if you're looking for something to read over Easter, try this. Oh and the reason for the Sissinghurst picture is, if you're not already aware, Nicholson's grandmother was the Grande Dame herself, Vita Sackville West


  1. Hear, hear! Peat free is easy for amateur gardeners, and the use of peat is unnecessary.

  2. Cracking article, well said. The pursuit of profit above all else will be one of the saddest legacies of our generation...

  3. Well said and most apt post as we approach Earth Day. Someone described our Alan T as ubiquitous as Russian Vine - I went off him before the peat issue.

  4. You might like to add this German badge to your sidebar

    Torf toetet

    with an image that turns my stomach each time I go to her blog.
    A frog stabbed open by a garden trowel, for the sake of gardening with peat!

  5. Yeah! Good for you. I can't believe how short-sighted people can be, and I'm glad you're taking the long view!

  6. A well written article and well spoken against the use of peat. I work with a nursery and they do not use peat, but had one bale sent as a product sample. I did use it this year in my garden, but do not use it normally. I mixed it in with my homemade compost and manures. Like so many natural products needed kept where they grow, I was glad to read your article and see that you practice what your preach.

  7. I couldn't agree more. In all good conscience I can't use peat. It's rather unfortunate that Mr. Titchmarsh isn't using his celebrity to help advocate for peat free gardening. I would honestly think that the amateur gardener (and miniature scale farmers such as ourselves) would find it to be unfathomably simple to go peat free. We have brought in topsoil here as our soils are lacking, but our soil amendment is simply compost that's generated on site, or from materials sourced from a local stable. Most households can easily generate the vast majority of their own compost...presuming they're growing and eating fresh food. Shame shame Mr. T., I would have expected better from you.

  8. I thought there were environmentally Ok peats that are harvested in a sustainable method. Am I totally naive? Most of what is used in US gardens comes from Canada. I can join the band wagon if necessary. What about coca fiber, same problems?

  9. Well put, I run a small retail nursery propagating a lot of my own plants. Have been moving to peat free over the last few years. I don't have a problem growing most things and need to experiment and learn a little more to grow the rest. will get there i am sure.

  10. We stopped using peat free (rather than multi-purpose) with this present garden. Some of the peat free alternatives gave poor results in terms of growing from seed. I just planted more. The one of the newspaper gardeners recommended a peat free compost. It is only for sale in 2 outlets in Scotland. Fortunately one is fairly near us. I have asked the large centres and they don't want to know. I wonder what they'll do by 2020?

  11. Great blog post - I too got very cross when I read that piece, a ridiculous attempt at justifying an unnecessary act of environmental vandalism. It is greatly reassuring to know that professional growers like yourself don't find peat necessary.

  12. I agree 200% with you as i try my best to garden with out the aid of buying any compost only what i make as it's free and dose not cost a penny and if i did it would be peatfree for the sake of the animals that need it

  13. A very enjoyable and informative article. Previously I've been able to use our local council's compost, made from the borough's green waste. They've had to stop production this year though because the people living near the production site (in Enfield, London) complained about the smell and it was closed down. I've struggled to find a suitable alternative for filling pots etc but have fully utilised the manure beds at my local City Farm!
    P.S. Thanks for flagging up Adam Nicholson's book; I didn't know of this one but thoroughly enjoyed Perch Hill: A New Life.