I’m obsessed by chain reactions – especially when the last link lands up in my garden. Every time we buy something and bring it onto our plots, it’s the end of a long chain of events tailing off into the fog of manufacturing, transport and, all too often, environmental degradation. Buying something sends a ripple down the chain saying that we want more of the same. I certainly crave as much leaf mould and garden-made compost as I can get my mitts on – but obtaining both of those is chain-free.
The seemingly most innocent yet most destructive gardening chain reaction of all is triggered when we buy peat-based compost. It leads directly to the draining (i.e. ecological death) and open-cast mining of sphagnum peat bogs, which are then damaged beyond revival. This chain extends way beyond our own shores, out of sight, into Ireland and Europe. The only way to break it is through market forces – by putting our powerful gardening pound behind modern peat-free composts.
I’ve enjoyed peat-free gardening success for yonks, but last year had me going up a gardening gear when the range of quality peat-free mixes on offer hit a new high. After my own trials with flowers and vegetables – testing them every which way – I’ve whittled down a shortlist of the best doers.
Top spot goes to SylvaGrow, new in 2014 and based on a bark/coir mix that professional growers have been using for many years (there’s now an ericaceous mix too). Carbon Gold’s All Purpose is based on coir (it also contains biochar), as is Fertile Fibre’s Multipurpose, and both are organically certified. Miracle-Gro All Purpose is a chunky mix based on wood fibre, stocked by B&Q, as is Gro-Sure Peat-Free All Purpose, handily sold in many Co-operative stores. Vital Earth Multi Purpose busts the myth that ‘green waste’ from gardens can’t be turned into cracking compost. Wool Compost has an impressively modest chain, being made from composted sheep’s wool and bracken, both Cumbria-grown.
I love testing new peat-frees, but I’m also always experimenting with my own mixes using chain-free materials. My basic DIY mix is a 50:50 blend of three-year-old leaf mould and worm-worked compost from my ‘cool’, slow-to-rot and unturned plastic bins. It works a treat for most uses. A few weed seedlings pop up, but none do if you top off your pots with 13mm (1/2in) of a bought mix and sow into/onto that.
One slight drawback of my DIY mix is its lightness as the compost dries, which makes pots prone to toppling. Rather than buy grit (which has its own chain reaction), I’m plundering the local old slate quarry workings, sieving my haul to remove the larger pieces. The fine, sieved shards of slate, their edges smoothed by time, make my mix more heavyweight without hampering performance. I’m also trying different combos: 80:20 leaf mould and slate works well for fast-paced seedlings that need a low-nutrient springboard; a well-drained 50:50 mix works for cuttings. The shards also make a great moss-deterring topping for pots of slow-germinating seeds. I lay the bigger sieved-out shards onto compost to slow evaporation, or use them for path-making.
gardenhealth.com (Gro-Sure Peat-Free All Purpose)
greenergardener.com (Vital Earth Multi Purpose)
dalefootcomposts.co.uk (Wool Compost)
lovethegarden.com (Miracle-Gro All Purpose)