Amateur gardeners confused over peat and its alternatives

Future Growing Composts for Gardeners conference sparks debate over Government's peat plan.

Information on the merits and benefits of peat alternatives conflicting says Christine Walkden - image: HW
Information on the merits and benefits of peat alternatives conflicting says Christine Walkden - image: HW

Plantswoman and broadcaster Christine Walkden has said it is too difficult for amateur gardeners to get the information needed to understand the issues surrounding peat and its alternatives.

Speaking at last week's Future Growing Composts for Gardeners conference at Stockbridge Technology Centre, she said: "I question why we're moving away from peat in the first place."

She added: "The information conflicts. It's incredibly difficult as an amateur to get a balanced view. Why can't we have transparency? Are we really destroying peat bogs? Why are we looking at alternatives?"

She said it was unlikely peat would disappear completely, but that there were a number of alternatives available. "What we care about is putting the seed in and getting good germination, and then getting good growth," she told the information conference.

"There is a tremendous amount of waste material that could be used for growing media and we should be looking at them. But we've also got peat. Manufacturers are trying to get a material that blends the qualities of both. Particle size is fundamental and to get the right particle size for a particular plant is not easy. We need to understand what it is manufacturers are trying to do and why you pay more. Composts are relatively cheap in my opinion."

Like the move from John Innis compost 40 years ago, the task was difficult for amateur gardeners, she said. "At places such as RHS Wisley, they are reducing peat and using peat-free, but they're professionals. They understand about air movement, conductivity and particle size. We just bung it in a pot. We need to think more."

She said that inconsistency of growing media was a problem. "Whatever material we end up with, it has to be consistent. Often if the amateur doesn't get results, he won't buy it again. Read the bag when you use compost. It will tell you how to use it. Keep a note of what you're buying and of the results and feed it back to the manufacturers."

She added: "It will take time before a universal standard is introduced, but that's what we need. Before we get to that stage we're going to have a rocky road."

Trial updates - Peat-free advances

The conference included an update from STC agronomy director Julian Davies on trials of commercial growing media, which had seen big improvements in peat alternatives.

Vital Earth research and development manager Arnie Rainbow spoke about processing green waste, while Association for Organics Recycling technical manager Emily Nichols explained the organisation's quality standard for green materials, which aims to ensure composts are of good quality.

STC science director Martin McPherson spoke about the risks of some herbicide chemicals surviving the processing of green waste into growing media and distorting the growth of plants.


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