Wednesday, 1 June 2011


What bliss to wake on Sunday and see leaden skies.  By 11am, light rain was falling and continued gently until early evening.  Not a vast amount of water, but enough to revitalise, to freshen, to lay the dust and make us all feel better. And now it's deliciously warm and Junesque outside.

I even went out to photograph the mini-meadow in Sunday's rain and this is what it looked like.

Ox eye daises Leucanthemum vulgare dominating the sward of our minimeadow.  Knapweeds, field scabious and meadow cranesbill should follow but I fear that the spotted orchid, Dactylorrhiza fuchsii may have failed in the dry.  (CLICK ON PICS TO MAKE BIGGER.)

PEATIE-TWEETIE   - Sorry  this is a bit long.
I got myself into a slightly intense exchange of tweets about peat and peat-based composts the other day. As usual with such discussions, I suspect that I was the villain and decided to scarper before it got nasty. It's not easy even for normal people to have a serious exchange when limited to 140 characters but with me, it's next to impossible.

When I was informed that if I couldn't propagate without peat I had no right to call myself a gardener, I thought it time to quit.

And as an excuse to duck the issue – in a disgracefully cowardly way – I promised to blog on the subject soon. So here is my contribution to the much exercised, frequently misinformed, often emotive and invariably intense peat debate.

First a few admissions:

1. Behind my garden fence I have several bales of Irish Moss Peat. They've been there for some years. Just thought you should know.

2. When I moved into my current garden, 7 and a half years ago, I dug a sizeable hole and back-filled it with Irish Moss Peat.  I wanted a small, moist zone where I could grow calcifuges.

3. I use some peat free growing medium and some peat-based.  I always prefer peat-based material because it is better in every respect.  But I use peat-free where I feel I can, to reduce my over-all peat consumption - which, currently, is minimal.

4. I will continue to use peat - though sparingly and carefully -  for as long as I can and I'm afraid I'm not ashamed of doing so.  In fact I'm more ashamed of driving down to my relatives in Kent, instead of going by train, than I am of using peat as a growing medium.

5. I would NEVER use peat as a soil improver (2 above was a one-off event and the peat is still exactly where I left it, in the hole.)

So there.  You probably hate me already but I wanted to make things plain.

Why do I continue to use peat?
Probably for the same reason that I drive a car, eat meat, burn oil and fail to grow all my own food: because it's difficult to find convenient alternatives.  And because I know that with modest consumption, all gardeners could continue to use peat without causing extensive environmental damage, and without excessive carbon emissions.

I could survive, just, without doing anything unsustainable.  But in real life, as long as I watch tv,  enjoy lamb stew, go to a restaurant, buy grapes at Morrisons, take a hot bath or dine with friends, I'm leaving a footprint which, to an extent, is unsustainable - if you'll pardon the horribly mixed metaphors.

We all do things that are not helping to stem global warming.  And we condone them, often by passive complicity, but we condone them just the same - often because we prefer not to face life without such things.  We perhaps shouldn't.  But we do.

And as a passionate and active supporter of wildlife conservation, I can assure you that if peat extraction could not take place without threatening important habitats, not only would I never use it, but I'd also be campaigning for a blanket ban.  If peat from non-sensitive habitats is used, and used sparingly, biodiversity need not be harmed.

Peat is wonderful stuff for growers.
It is unique in its ability to absorb, hold and slowly release water.  Without peat, the great revolution from open ground nurseries to modern garden centres may not have happened.

Growing media, right back to the first John Innes formulae, contained peat because they provided that unique habitat for the roots of plants kept and grown unnaturally, in containers.

When commercial horticulture changed, to feed the voracious demand for containerised stock, demand for peat grew massively.  Extraction, as a result, was increased to the extent that local, ie, Mainland UK deposits began to be depleted.  Worse, valuable raised bog habitats were destroyed, many of them before conservation bodies recognised the destruction.  It is a tragedy, that so much was lost before blanket extraction was stopped.

Any extraction of peat, today, needs to be strictly policed and sensitive natural habitats need to be protected.

But peat is widely abundant.  Many peat-rich areas are neither under threat, nor important as wildlife habitats.  In general, they are species-poor and extraction, under strict control, need not cause such extensive damage.

Furthermore, in countries such as the Republic of Ireland, where peat is burnt in power stations, the surface material, previously marketed as high grade horticultural peat, has no other use.  It is therefore wasted -  a bye-product of great value to gardeners.

So, although I appreciate that peat use in horticulture contributes to carbon emissions - though not nearly so much as we're led to believe by the anti-peat lobby;  and although there is strong political pressure not to use the stuff, I remain an unrepentant, though sparing peat user.  And I'll continue to be one until either convinced otherwise, or until the law prevents me from acquiring what amounts to a valuable bye product.

Two final points:
1. In rescue work, botanic gardens and other institutions are conserving species threatened with extinction in the wild, or which are already extinct.  Some of these plants could not be grown without peat.  Carnivorous plants are examples, but there are others.  It is essential, therefore, that if the government finally stamps out use of peat, those institutions receive the necessary dispensation, so that they can continue their vital work.

2. When you buy compost look at the bag. Many are labelled: 'With added John Innes.'  That is a meaningless expression. Does it refer to John Innes knowhow? To the institute itself, based in Norwich, or that the compost contains John Innes compost within the mix - a compost in a compost.  Which ever way you look at it, it's disingenuous because J.I. composts contain 30% Sphagnum Moss Peat.

My lovely Rosa 'Madame Gregoire Staechelin' got blown out of her birch tree during last week's gale.  I need a ladder and a compliant PG to manoeuvre it back and fix it with wire that won't cut into the tree or the rose.

I'm listening to  - or anticipating the angry comments about to come from the anti peat lobby.

This day in 2010 I arrived, with the PG, in Singapore to help with community gardening projects.  My passport was stolen a few days later, in Melaka, Malaysia.  Singapore stuff here

This week's film was  a TV production of Voyage Around My Father, with Laurence Olivier, Jane Asher and Alan Bates and made during the 70s.  It's a fine piece, and interesting to compare with the recent West End stage production which starred David Jacobi.  Mortimer was a good writer of fast, witty dialogue but he also had an unerring gift for making a bully look vulnerable and, eventually, even appealing.  I think it was one of Olivier's finer TV roles.

A new acquisition from Coton Manor - the fabulously coloured Rosa 'Mrs Oakley Fisher.'  She's plonked in among deep purples and looks a proper madam!

Thanks, if you've read this far!  A more jolly post next week, let's hope.


  1. @ViksterBean has just tweeted me to point out that she disapproves of burning peat. I should have mentioned that I too, profoundly disagree with the idea of peat power stations. But at its height, the Irish power industry burnt over 7 million tonnes of peat per annum. Horticultural peat consumption, meanwhile, was just over 200,000 tonnes of the top peat. Rather less!

  2. Hi Nigel,

    These discussions are intemperate, aren't they? (!) I do think the true believers are a little oblivious to the upset and hurt they cause (if you are right and righteous people should just accept what you say?)..but the result is that it is a brave man who will speak up like this and I applaud you.

    I am trying non peat because apart from anything else I can no longer find a decent compost with peat anyway. They all seem to be rubbish now. The recommended non peat stuff seems to cap over and kind of clog, besides seeming to need an awful lot of watering. Thankfully I don't propagate or grow veggies any more so I can bear it.

    I wonder - should we also stop burning wood - bye bye wood burning stove? - because it then also releases the carbon it is storing. At risk of loads of abuse though, I do intend to stay warm!


  3. I will defend your right to say this, even when I disagree with you because unlike others over the past few days you've managed to write rationally and devoid of personal remarks and swear words.

    I would like to see the pro and anti peat lobbies set out all their evidence in one place so I can then make an informed decision. I believe this has yet to be done - if it has, then please someone tell me where it is.

    Against the bigger picture horticultural usage of peat is indeed small fry, but it doesn't mean to say I want to start using peat. I'm reminded that in order to achieve a goal, baby steps are needed to get there. Trying to find a solution to the big picture in one go rarely works as it's too big a problem.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I too drive a car (a fast car, a car that Jeremy Clarkson approves of so not very green!) I eat meat etc etc, but it does not mean that over all I do not care. I cut down on some things and don't use other things at all. I do avoid peat but I am not evangelical about it, I know I am too flawed to be casting the first stone.

  5. I applaud you for your comments. You have said everything I feel about the peat/non peat issue. Like you, I use peat where nothing else will do. I've been telling my non-peat friends for ages that J.I. contains peat, but just get a skeptical look!

  6. I'm all over the place. Donkeys years ago I saw peat cutting in Ireland and thought of the millenia it takes to create something and how we wiff it away in a moment.

    I don't use peat based compost because . . . just because I heard we shouldn't and I don't depend on my vegetables as my only source of food, nor is the world any less of a place if my plants aren't the best - so it is no trouble to do without.

    I'm shocked to discover how much peat has been burned in power stations. Burning in a hearth is one thing, in a power station - quite another.

    Anne asks about saying good-bye to wood-burning stoves. I thought we had to a degree . . . just like coal . . . and it's all very sad.

    'John Innes with added sand' has always puzzled me.


  7. Well said, Mr C. I'll join you in front of the firing squad, if you'll have me, because I also buy a compost containing peat for seed germination.

    On the issue of gardeners having to stop using peat I sadly feel this is another useless bit of lip-service to the God of Green Issues. In the great scheme of things the amount used by home gardeners is minimal (I exclude the wider hort. industry from my thinking). We are, however, an easy target - it's the same with hosepipe bans in summer. How stupid is that?

    Why isn't there a ban on deep baths, power showers and endless dishwasher & washing machine use? Because those things cannot be identified and targeted but gardeners can.

    I recently saw a new product from (no affiliation, bla bla bla) using bracken and sheep's wool. Hurrah, someone has finally found a use for bracken ... well, I suppose there had to be one. Will be trying it out when I sow autumn seeds. (Made in the Lake District, not that I am a little biased!)

  8. Thanks, all, for such rational comments so far.

    Anne, Esther - on burning wood:
    We have 3 highly efficient Clearview wood stoves which enable me to keep heating oil consumption to an absolute minimum. The wood is renewable and carbon-neutral. For example, coppiced ash can produce copious firewood on a 9 year cycle. Oil, like coal and peat, is not renewable and are fossil fuels, adding to CO2 production. Therefore, I'd say that wood stoves are great, provided the wood is also regenerated.

    VP - if only there were more rational, reasoned debates, in these issues, instead of entrenchment so strong it amounts to puritanism.

    Arabella - I'm moved to tears of joy!

    Ozhene - well said. I think we're all selective about what we chose to do, to reduce footprints.

    Bilbo - that product sounds interesting. I'll give it a try. Bracken and sheepswool - one would wonder whether to fill pots with it or wear it.

  9. What a great blog Nigel. Thanks. But I am afraid that the Peat Police might be planning to visit you. Seriously I find the way in which we are constantly being told we are bad people for practically anything we do these days very upsetting. Most people have fragile self esteem as it is. We don't need more guilt. It's deeply self destructive and makes me angry when I see it happening constantly in every aspect of our lives.

  10. I don't have any objection to people using peat in small quantities as their growing medium of considered choice for some plants. I don't use peat, but that's because I've decided to try managing without it and it has proved easy. I still drive a car, use oil for some of our heating needs and by some imported foods (etc. etc.) because these things seem much harder to stop completely.

    We all appear to be in agreement that it would be better if peat use was reduced, rather than increased, assuming the alternatives have a lower environmental cost. No-one is arguing for an increase in peat use.

    Given my liberal approach to personal choice, I am not an active anti-peat use campaigner. But informed choice is key and there have been two points in the peat debate where I have felt I wanted to stick my oar in.

    The first was the generalised impression given by Alan Titchmarsh that he can't garden successfully without peat. In his influential position as the nation's most famous gardener, this suggests to gardeners that they should choose peat to increase their growing success. But I know that gardening without peat is easy, the only tricky part is avoiding buying it.

    The second is the wide use of the phrase 'perfect substitute'. As you've mentioned, Nigel, natural peat habitats are species poor. Peat is not what most plants want to grow in and for most gardeners it's tricky stuff to manage, becoming too wet or too dry if your turn your back for 5 minutes. And perfection at any price? So the holy grail quest for a 'perfect substitute' for peat is to aim for the wrong target, in my view. The aim should be an excellent medium for plants to grow in, at an acceptable environmental cost. This product may or may not look and feel like peat.

    Personally, I think what I now use is pretty close to ideal and I feel happy to carry on using it.

    PS - Nigel you are completely right about the 'Added John Innes' tag on bags - it's a misleading bit of brand association nonsense and should be stopped.

  11. Nigel, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    I recently found a bag of compost that specifically stated it was peat-free. Therefore I assume that all the others contain peat? Until then I had thought I was already gardening peat-free. I wonder how many others have been similarly duped and would change their buying habits if the contents were differently labelled?

    If I dont *need* to use peat then I'd prefer not to at the moment. If it turns out that there's no harm in it later then that's fine with me. I also wonder how much this is a generational issue?

  12. Just a little one - someone above mentioned Alan Titchmarsh 'giving a general impression'. Would just like to say that none of us can be held responsible for 'general impressions' we may create.

    Sadly people do not read carefully and often jump to conclusions or react emotionally to what is not actually said. Useful to remember this.


  13. OK Anne. I was trying to avoid getting into quoting this or that, and also trying not to assume that anything quoted in the Express was actually what he said.

    But here's the extract, as published:

    “Do I use it in compost? Sometimes. The great advantage of peat is that it is stable and lacking in any kind of plant toxin.
    “Should I stop growing plants that will only survive in compost-containing peat? I would rather not.

    “When sufficient funding is poured into discovering a perfect substitute for peat, I shall use it.”

    Alan is influential and widely admired by the general public. Any amateur gardener reading this would get the message that if Alan feels he can't do without peat, especially having tried without and gone back to it, then neither can they - and nor should they worry about it. If anything, it's much more than a 'general impression' it's closer to a statement!

    Do I object to him using peat sometimes? No. But I don't like the phrase 'perfect substitute' as noted above. And some people in some roles have no choice but to accept that every time they speak they give a general impression because so many hang on their every word. Oh, to have such power.... :-)

  14. Hi Nigel
    This is an argument that will run and run especially as VP says there is no one place were the key facts are presented unbiasiously side by side. We see this time and again: GM crops, MMR etc.

    Personally I havent used peat for a few years. I use New Horizon and it works well for everything with none of the capping off people mention. I don't take a moral standpoint on it unlike some who try and force feed their opinions its just something I prefer not to use. Just as I prefer to garden without chemicals if possible although I will use slug pellets.

    As I frequently say moderation is always the answer and it seems to me that we are increasingly a black and white world with each side shouting its views at the other and not listening to opposing views. Sometimes people get hold of a few 'facts' and take them as gospel and the media doesn't help.

    Well done for standing up for your opinion and sorry about the droopy rose

    Helen (PG)

  15. Interesting stuff.I know that our little nursery not using peat isn't going to save the planet, or any peat bogs, but on a personal level we felt that we should investigate other options. A lot of growers say that it doesn't work, but it seems to for us, though I do admit to using a John Innes seed compost. On a commercial note, we find that using peat free is a good selling point, though I think we do have to work a bit harder on the repotting front. Of course, if that really bothered us, we could always use plant growth regulators! Some how I don't think so.
    I've always thought that woodstoves are "sound":I hope they are, as they are our winter heat source, using mainly coppiced ash and hornbeam.
    It is still damn dry here in Kent-the grass looks like August, and I've given up being surprised by the size of the cracks in the clay.

  16. A small correction to BilboWaggins comment :

    "In the great scheme of things the amount used by home gardeners is minimal (I exclude the wider hort. industry from my thinking)."

    Actually home gardeners account for something around 70% of UK horticultural peat usage, so if reductions are to be made, amateur users are a softer target than professionals.

  17. I agree with your arguments whole heartedly - I do what I can (and I am sure it is a lot more than the average person) to be green and earth friendly; however I am not going to apologise for my few transgressions.
    On a lighter note, I was looking for an apricot rose that was a little more unusual and Mrs. Oakley Fisher fits the bill. Thank you!

  18. Gnman - thank you. However, I didn't mean UK only. The amount used by the hort industry in Holland must be staggering, then we could start on Ireland and peat burning, bla bla bla.

    You are totally right that gardeners are an easy soft target ...

  19. Dear Nigel, just to re-open the peat issue, if it has ever been closed, I would like to make a comment from my point of view as a peatland ecologist, and a gardener and allotment user.
    I have worked on a number of projects studying both undamaged bogs, and sites that have been extensively milled for the horticultural peat industry. Undamaged bogs are incredibly beautiful places that support a wide variety of wild animals and plants. They are also often the only places left, in the UK at least, that are truly wild and untouched, as they are generally too wet and nutrient poor to be used for grazing livestock.
    Furthermore, in many cases they have taken up to 7000 years to grow. This in itself is an incredible thing to contemplate; I liken them to an ancient cathedral, being both beautiful, a physical reminder of the immensity of time, and a vast repository of historical information in the peat itself.
    Because of this, I believe that it is extremely important not to damage these places, and there is absolutely no question that industrial peat extraction causes the destruction of bogs and their plants and animals: they are converted from splendidly hued havens for wildlife, to dense brown featureless expanses of dry peat.
    I'm afraid that it is disingenuous to say that your peat is sourced from non-sensitive habitats. Most of Britain's lowland peat bogs have been damaged or destroyed, and much of this destruction has been caused by the demand for peat for use in horticulture. Of great concern is the fact that peat is now often sourced from once-pristine bogs in other countries in Europe, and beyond, that have less concern for conservation. I have visited sites in eastern Europe that are now being dug up to fill compost sacks destined for Britain's garden centres.
    Whilst I love gardening, I can see that it is a luxury. I'm able to grow plants in non-peat based composts; okay, they may not grow quite as well as they would in peat-based composts, but they still grow. I wouldn't like to think that my desire for a luxury pastime was contributing to the destruction of such wonderful, wild places.
    I do urge every gardener to reconsider their use of peat very carefully. Whilst banning the use of peat in horticulture may not 'save the planet', there is no doubt in my mind that it would help to save a great many wild places and the wildlife that depends upon them.
    Best wishes
    Dr Phil Eades