Yawn

When you're writing a book there are half a dozen times you think you're done. You hand over the whole thing, in one great wodge, and breathe a sigh of relief. What follows though, is a frenzied month of bits and bobs - mostly tweaks to ensure sections are not ending halfway down a page, that the balance of images across the book works well etc, before it goes to the editor. The editor is the person who takes your words and puts order the right in them.



I take most of the photos in the books I write, so when there are a few extras needed to punctuate the lines of genius (thank you, editor) I have to get out there with the camera. Horse poo, creme de cassis and blueberries this week. I'll spare you the horse poo. The blueberry pages have space for another image to go with the fruiting one, so, when they have such amazing flowers, I thought I'd take one while they're in blossom.



Blueberries are as beautiful as they are delicious - later in the year when the fruit comes along, check out the base of the fruit where the blossom formed, away from the stem. This lazily lobed, five-pointed star on each fruit was seen by Native Americans as a sign that the Great Spirit had sent ‘starberries’ to ease hunger in times of famine. They make a mighty fine muffin too. Now's the time they're in flower. Go and buy a plant or two right now.

They like growing in acid conditions, so if you're growing them in pots it's best to use ericaceous compost and to water them with rain water as it's mildly acidic. I had no ericaceous compost to top dress these potted blueberries so Homebase (it's near) were lucky enough to get my custom earlier in the week. I noticed Jamie Oliver has a range of grow your own stuff out - seeds, compost and all that. And for some reason I lifted up one of his growbags to have a look at what was in it. There was no ingredients list, just an indication of the peat content: 60%. I'm still not sure I've read that right...60%...so I will check before I publish this*.

I came home, took the blueberry picture and slunk into the bath. I have a stack of magazines (pipe down, not that kind) just inside my office, that I never get around to reading. I grabbed the top one, the latest Gardeners World magazine. All fine, until I got to the last page. Alan Titchmarsh, much loved, highly experienced and very influential gardener excusing us gardeners and growers who use peat.

The combination of Jamie O and Alan T promoting peat got me all righteous and boring - I grizzled on like I grizzle at the TV when watching Question Time. Then I wrote a really boring and self-righteous blog. This is my attempt to make it less so - I don't think I've succeeded, so you might want to look at the pictures and go make yourself a nice cup of tea instead.

The reason I got all worked up is because Jamie O and Alan T aren't the usual muppets: these are two of the good guys, both highly influential and rightly appreciated for promoting positive stuff. People listen to what they have to say.



Peat usually forms in wet areas when plants and fungi, with a few animals thrown in, are prevented from decomposing completely by acidic and/or anaerobic conditions. It accumulates rapidly when conditions are very wet, less so in drier times. Its character reflects the conditions in which it was laid down - it becomes a prime indicator of historic climatic conditions as well as providing a window into the local ecology of the time. It is a subterranean museum.

Give it a few extra millions years and peat often develops into coal. It is full of carbon, which makes it a valuable fuel in some parts of the world - more importantly peat is a valuable carbon sink, locking up carbon at a time when our atmosphere needs it sequestered. Allow peat to dry out or dig it up and it ceases to be a carbon sink, it becomes an emitter - a cause of climate change.

This isn't a minor issue - it is estimated that, globally, peat stores around twice the carbon that forests do. If Alan T and Jamie O were cutting down the rainforest to line their pockets or raise a few tricky ornamental plants there'd be an outcry.

You might think what we gardeners and growers do is inconsequential in the wider scheme of things: not so. We amateur gardeners use way more peat than anyone else - around 2 million cubic metres of peat a year, or 3 billion litres if you prefer. It has been conservatively estimated that banning it's use in gardening compost would save the equivalent amount in carbon emissions as taking 350,000 cars off the road. Or taking all the motorcycles and mopeds off the road.

We have already accounted for 94% of the UKs lowland raised bogs. The government response: Hillary Benn announced a plan to phase out the use of peat by amateur gardeners by 2020. Not especially dynamic or responsible, especially when you look back to 1999 when the government announced it would eliminate peat from all but 10 per cent of compost by 2010 - it is still present in 46 per cent of the compost sold in Britain.

Peat isn't fertile in itself, but it has the rather handy property of retaining moisture when there is little about and holding on to any excess so that roots don't rot when conditions are overly wet. There's an impression perpetuated that nothing compares to peat. This may have something to do with peat being comparatively cheap for commercial growers. Which? commissioned trials in March 2010 that showed peat-free composts outperforming the best peat-based composts. So we can put that one to bed.



Yet Alan T won't use coir based composts in preference to peat: "those based on coir have, I reckon, used up too many air miles". This is the sentence - and especially the 'I reckon' - that gives me hope: Alan T must be getting poorly advised because in the context of peat and coir the concept of air miles is a red herring.

We are fed air miles as a handy index of a product's carbon footprint but it can be highly misleading. British tomatoes, for example, grown in heated greenhouses have used far more energy and consequently have far greater embedded carbon than Spanish tomatoes grown in the sun and shipped or even flown to us. The only relevant number is the total carbon consumed in the whole process of production rather than the number of miles travelled.

Coir is the outer husk of a coconut. The long fibres go to make coconut matting but the finer covering was incinerated (releasing carbon) before it started being used in compost. Having been stripped from the coconut (and washed to remove salt if grown in coastal areas), the coir is dried and highly compacted, minimising its weight and volume before being shipped. A full 40ft cube container will take 4400 coir bales weighing 5kg each, which when hydrated expands to almost 300,000 litres of coir. It's a very efficient system that minimises the energy required to transport it.

Once here, containers are loaded onto lorries and dispatched to depots and stores around the country: a highly inefficient system. So inefficient that (per tonne) more fuel is used to move the coir around once it reaches these shores than it does to ship it here from Asia.

Only around 40% of the peat we use comes from these shores, around half from Ireland and the rest from Europe. Peat is weighty and mostly transported by lorry at a huge carbon cost.

Air miles, air schmiles.



I'm not sure Gardener's World would have run Alan T's article if he had advocated slashing down rainforests so gardeners could grow a few delicate plants a little more reliably. Carbon-wise, using peat is worse. And I haven't got stuck into the wildlife, ecosystem and habitat issues - I'll leave someone else to be dull about that.

I can only assume Gardener's World and Alan T didn't know the whole picture.

It's hard to disagree with some of the sentiment of the column - many gardeners and growers do much to enhance our biodiversity - but if we want that to be taken seriously we can't ignore our responsibilities.

Alan T's garden is 'teeming with moths, butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, and all kinds of other organisms that I cannot see'. So is mine and I'm not half the gardener Alan T is. I also never use peat. I don't think it's ok for us to say that because our garden 'contributes to the greater good' that we can contribute to the far greater bad because a few delicate princesses might not take to coir. If they won't grow in something other than peat, let's not grow them - garden biodiversity won't be compromised one jot.

It is us, you and I, not the big commercial boys, who account for three quarters of peat consumed. We needn't.



I've gone on too long, as ever, but I have nothing better to do.

It is deeply boring to wave a flag saying "Please Don't" on it. I try not to but once in a while you should. Many are doing it and not all are boringly worthy individuals who are certified organic, are climate change activists, knit their own yoghurt and cycle to work on a tandem. Of the many, Kew have long supported peat-free growing, as have Monty and the National Trust and last time I looked their gardens were quite good.

I'm still surprised that Jamie O and Alan T are promoting something so at odds with what they usually stand for, especially when there are a fine alternatives out there. It must be because they are being poorly advised or are unaware of the implications of using peat.

I hope, if they knew the facts, they’d agree.


*I checked: it is.

*I think I should be awarded bonus points for not writing 'For Peat's Sake' anywhere.

Fruit

The cover for the Fruit Handbook has been finalised....hope you like it



Published 1 August

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D