It’s Time To Have Your Peat-Free Say On ‘Towards Sustainable Growing Media’

The chair of the government’s Sustainable Growing Media Task Force (SGMTF), Dr Alan Knight, has now published his chair’s report and draft ‘road map’, Towards Sustainable Growing Media.

You might well be wondering why we actually need a map, when a growing number of gardeners have already found their way to using reliable and consistent peat-free composts with growing success.

Towards Sustainable Growing Media is the culmination of the SGMTF’s ongoing work to date, which, as I’ve already highlighted, has been constructed behind closed doors, in isolation from gardeners, and without any scrutiny by the UK’s gardening press. Here in the UK, gardeners are responsible for using two thirds of all the peat we consume – most of which is imported from peatlands in Ireland and Europe.

Calendula and cosmos growing in West+ Light & Easy peat-free compost.

Pot marigolds (calendula) left, and Cosmos ‘Sonata Mixed’ thriving in new West+ Light & Easy peat-free compost.

Both the report and road map can be read online (as a PDF file, which can be downloaded and printed out – it’s a marathon screen-read). Marathon or not, if you have any interest in or concerns about the ecological sustainability of gardening, both in the UK and overseas, I urge you to read the report, because Dr Knight (and, effectively, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) finally wants to know what we gardeners, based on our hands-on collective experience of gardening without peat, think (well, I’m assuming he does).

The horse bolted some time ago on this, so to speak, and all gardeners have been badly let down by our gardening media, of which I’m a part. But this is at least a chance for gardeners, who’ve been deliberately excluded from this entire process, despite being the major stakeholders, to have their voices heard. As the saying goes, you have to speak up to be heard…

This is the invitation:

“The Chairman is inviting feedback from all interested parties, whether Task Force members or not, by 30 September 2012. He would like your views on any part or all of the report and would particularly welcome details of specific actions that individuals or organisations would be willing to undertake that can be added to the roadmap. There are no specific questions to be answered and this is not a Government consultation.”

Feedback should be sent by email to the Secretariat: growingmedia@defra.gsi.gov.uk

In effect, this is an open invitation to give SGMTF chair Dr Alan Knight whatever feedback you wish, whether it’s about how the SGMTF process has been conducted, what it has or hasn’t achieved, what you do or don’t like about its direction, or if there are other key issues it still needs to address. What might be most potent of all is letting Dr Knight know that you’re among an ever-growing band of gardeners who are enjoying successful, beautiful, productive and more earth-friendly gardening, without the need to use peat.

Kicking us off

One successful peat-free gardener and tweeter Jon ‘Jim’ll’ Knight (@GreenJimll), has already responded to Dr Knight’s report and road map. Jon’s response makes some excellent points, so with his permission I’ve published his comments below (he’s rather stole my own thunder on this, so I’ve let him kick us off).

Salad leaves in New Horizon Organic and Peat Free Multi-Purpose compost.

Baby salad leaves grown in New Horizon Organic and Peat Free Multi-Purpose compost.

If you’d like to build on what Jon says, please either leave a comment below (it’s simple and painless) or email your thoughts to me at john [at] earthfriendlygardener [dot] net and I’ll graft them onto Jon’s here (please include your name and contact details, and if you’d like me to publish them, or not). Or, you could just email me a copy of what your own response to Dr Knight (and a note as to whether it’s OK for me publish it or not).

In any event, I’ll email both the Secretariat and Dr Knight personally at the end of September, to alert them to whatever’s been highlighted and/or discussed on this blogpost.

Jon Knight’s response to SGMTF Chair Dr Alan Knight:

“Thank you for alerting me to the update report from the Chairman on the progress and future direction of peat reduction. I’m an amateur gardener using organic methods, and I have been ‘peat-free’ for many years. This puts me firmly in the camp of the consumer and also the people (individuals, NGOs, etc) that feel that removal of peat from horticultural use is not only urgently required but also readily achievable (after all I, and many others like me, have managed it so it isn’t ‘rocket science’, despite what some people would try to convince the public).

As requested, here is my personal feedback on the report and roadmap:

1. I was somewhat perturbed that some companies might consider not labelling peat-free products as actually being peat-free as they feel it would be a barrier to acceptance. I can say that they need to be told that failing to label peat-free products is also likely to be a barrier to acceptance amongst gardeners such as myself. When buying bagged growing media I am careful to check that the product is indeed peat-free and if it isn’t, or doesn’t include such details, I personally ‘choice edit’ that product from the list that I’m willing to spend money on.

2. I welcome the idea of a set of standards to indicate potential quality of growing media. I do think that random sampling at regular intervals is going to be necessary as products from the same vendor can sometimes be variable (I assume because of either feed stock issues or sudden pressures to meet seasonal demands for the products resulting in corners being cut). I’m also left wondering how the auditing of the quality (or rather consistency of quality) will interface with the packaging and retail display materials?  Will products (or batches of products) that get a sudden poor rating be removed from sale or repackaged to indicate their change in status. As a consumer I feel this detail is quite important and will need to be considered carefully.

3. The idea that consumer education has failed and is not likely to be successful in the future seems rather defeatist to me. The campaigns of the last 20 years have been relatively low-key compared to the TV advertising campaigns and large banners for peat-based products, and have rarely appeared at the point of sale which is where many people are going to be making their purchasing decisions. Things haven’t been helped by the variable quality of some suppliers products which, as was pointed out in the report, can undermine the message that peat isn’t an absolute requirement for good growing media. There’s also the question of where on the acceptance curve are we at the moment; I’ve a feeling we’re just moving from ‘early adopters’ to a more mainstream acceptance as more people see the results of peat-free growing, especially with support from high profile garden personalities such as Monty Don and Alys Fowler.

Getting people to be interested in and want to purchase environmentally appropriate products is not an issue tied just to growing media. For example the approaching government-supported ‘Green Deal’ from DECC is aiming to tackle the poor state of insulation and energy efficiency in UK housing stock, despite there having been decades of promotion and product deals on insulation materials and services. Overcoming consumer inertia and/or demonstrating the positive benefits of changes can take a long time and is difficult, especially when you consider the number of different community groups we have in the UK.

Communication with the consumer also needs to consider the ethnic mix in the UK at the moment. If the white middle-class consumer is finding choosing compost tricky and is resorting to differentiating mostly on price/availability, then one can only assume that ethnic minority groups are finding it just as hard if not harder. From personal experience I know that increasing numbers of people from these communities are gardeners and will be buying composts, but they are even less likely to be getting the peat-free messages directly from groups such as the Royal Horticultural Society, Garden Organic or Friends of the Earth.

The use of examplars can help and finding different ways to get the required messages to different groups is going to be an ongoing task for all environmentally responsible changes that we are going to need to make over the coming decades.

4. The idea of the carbon footprint of growing media is something that interests me, but I can see why working it out on a product-by-product basis may be tricky. I do sometimes wonder about the ‘compost miles’ associated with products. I know its likely to be less popular with the growing media manufacturers, but I feel there’s still plenty of room for promotion of home composting, as that can divert green waste and food scraps at source into compost that the gardener then has some degree of control over. I think manufacturers and retailers should be encouraged to provide innovative products that could help with this. For example, small scale, easy-to-use equipment to help riddle and sterilize their home-made compost for use as seed or cutting material, rather than as just a bulk soil improver.

5. On the topic of voluntary vs compulsary compliance, I fear I must come down on the side of compulsion. The industry has had many years of voluntary targets and has spectacularly failed to meet them in the past, so I see no reason to assume that they would perform any better on voluntary goals in the future.  I agree with the comment that if changes are not mandated across the board the ‘good’ companies will be effectively penalised for doing the right thing.

If compulsion to reduce peat usage to set levels (ideally removing it completely eventually) is viewed as politically difficult, then I think the ‘choice editing’ needs to be applied by introducing taxes on peat sales so as to ‘nudge’ manufacturers, retailers and consumers in the required direction. I’m sure that the Treasury would be more than happy to have an additional income from those that chose not to change for whatever reason, but it would give a more level playing field on price.

6. I welcome the involvement of the Environment Agency on streamlining the waste regulations that may apply to compost manufacture. I feel it should be part of a larger review as to how different waste products could be viewed and treated more as raw materials,  so that we can reduce our landfill requirements. One aspect that may or may not have been touched on is whether green/food waste should be diverted to anaerobic digestion rather than just straight composting and if the resulting digestate could form part of a growing media product suitable for the consumer and horticultural trade (as it is already used as a soil improver in agricultural settings). This would give some ‘joined-up thinking’ that would marry up the needs to keep organic waste streams out of landfills, generate renewable energy and also provide a ‘clean’ growing media ingredient.

Thank you once again for the report.  I do so hope that the Task Force will soon start to make concrete moves to actively reducing peat usage in gardening and horticulture.”

Jon Knight, July 2012.

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2 Responses to It’s Time To Have Your Peat-Free Say On ‘Towards Sustainable Growing Media’

  1. Stephen Read says:

    First I wish to state I have no axe to grind either way, I run a commercial nursery which ‘converted’ nearly 20 years ago. We grow all our plants/trees in compost that is sustainable to the environment, the fact that it is peat-free is of no concern. We have also used biological control for pests etc since 1992.

    I agree with Jon on point 1. Labelling is essential, without it the gardener has no idea what he/she is buying.

    2. Standards are an impossible goal, peat has no benchmarks and it will not work practically for peat-free, it is too variable.

    3. Educating consumers is fine in principle but really we should be moving forward faster than this will allow, so this is possibly irrelevant. As for the ‘ethnic’ argument – please just drop it!

    4. Carbon footprint is a ‘what?’ to most of the gardening public, they have no interest in it so let’s move on… The bigger concern is what makes the plant grow.

    5. I agree, compulsion is the only way – let’s just source/specify, an alternative and then ban the other!

    6. Involving the Environment Agency will prolong the process and add to cost, with little benefit.

    My own take on peat-free is simple, the media (compost) is entirely irrelevant to the most important factor i.e. the plant, which is solely concerned with the compost management, water and nutrient availability.

  2. David Crinion says:

    In my opinion peat-free compost is superior to peat-based for two very good and simple reasons. Firstly, peat has virtually no nutrient content, so fertiliser must be added. Secondly, I have found from years of experience that it has little or no long-term effect as a soil conditioner. Peat-free compost on the other hand is rich in organic nutrients and it is a far better as a sustaining soil conditioner. In my working career I spent 17 years in the environmental area so I know only too well the adverse effect that commercial peat extraction has had and continues to have on our peatlands. Unfortunately the majority of the public are either not aware or just not interested in peatland conservation. If we want to persuade the public to buy peat-free products we you must of course educate, but also use legislation to incentivise the production of peat-free products, while at the same time phasing out the use of peat as a raw material. At a time when there is a huge amount of potentially compostable material being treated as waste and sent to landfill, we really must stop and think. Not alone does it make sense environmentally, but also commercially.

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