Friday, 23 March 2007


Photo: Peat free gardening.

I was very interested to read the article about peat in last weeks Inish Times. Having seen the destruction in the Midlands at first hand I can appreciate the problems inherent with using peat. Flat plains of lifeless desert, not like the bogs up here which are teaming with insects, frogs, and bird life as well as different varieties of plants and flowers. Up here in Donegal, peat is cut by families for their winter fuel and the bogs are sustained. In the Midlands, the peat companies strip the land of its natural resources with heavy machinery for commercial use. Not that I can talk, after all, I buy briquettes for my fire and peat moss for my plants. This does not mean I think what they are doing is right, quite the contrary. Get me on my soapbox and I can rant for hours about the devastating effects of afforestation, acid rain, short term profit over long term loss etc etc.

The article last week mentioned alternatives to peat such as coir compost (these are the shells left over from the cocoa bean). Mind you these aren’t exactly a local product. They practically have to travel around the world to get to us. This of course takes up fossil fuels to power the ships, causing strip mining or pollution elsewhere and invariably making the product more expensive to buy in the shops. Mushroom compost and composted bark are very effective for mulching and established plants, and easy enough to get hold of locally, but they aren’t that suited to growing seedlings. Even some organic alternatives such as compost made from cattle dung and seaweed still has a percentage of peat in its list of ingredients. I think one of the best alternatives when buying these sorts of products must be the worm casts and vermiculite. After saying that vermiculite is a natural resource that has to be imported… and the debate goes on.

The system that is in operation for recycling garden waste in Nottingham takes in 70 tonnes of organic garden waste a day and shreds it into fine pieces. This is then piled high until it has rotted down into fine compost and given away free. There would be drawbacks to this scheme for us. Living in a rural area we haven’t the population of Nottingham to produce this amount of material (never mind the income from rates to spend on such schemes. We would also have further to travel to a recycling centre, therefore burning more fossil fuels which causes more environmental problems and so on.

Well, there you have it, the only real solution is staring me in the face. It’s time for us as a community to get to work building up our compost bins and sterilizing our soil. I was in the library this week in Buncrana and there is a leaflet called “Composting Made Easy – A Simple Guide” which you can pick up for free. It’s also great to see local schools getting involved in composting. Composting your organic waste is not a quick way to get the compost you need for your plants. Even though the leaflets say you can make compost in twelve weeks, it usually takes my compost heap a lot longer (up to a year) as I just bung on my kitchen and garden waste and don’t worry too much about temperature, air, layering and all the technical stuff.


There is still the problem of what I use for my seedlings. One solution is to sterilize your own garden soil. There are products on the market that will heat the soil until all the bacteria is destroyed. The prices start at about 70 euros and will do a couple of shovels full at a time. I recall one year I decided to sterilize some soil in the kitchen by using steam. I used a saucepan with boiling water in it and put a metal sieve over the top with about a cupful of garden soil in it at a time and let the steam get to work for half an hour. This method took a full day until I had enough soil to fill a few seed trays. And another day to get the mud off the worktops! I did try just pouring boiling water over the soil, but this proved to be ineffective, as it didn’t kill all the weed seeds. I suppose there’s always the garden flame throwers, but maybe that might be a bit too dramatic…All these methods again use some form of fuel energy to make them work, so maybe the ideal solution is to use the compost from the middle of your well rotted compost bin. (The only energy used here would be walking to your compost bin!) There is a better chance of this being sterile as the center of the heap will get to the highest temperatures, killing all the nasty things that your seedlings won’t like. Mind you there’s not much chance of those temperatures in the centre of my compost heap, so for now I’m off to the Co-op, in my petrol guzzling car, to buy yet another bag of peat based compost to put into my plastic plant pots. How do I sleep at nights?


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