Just to put your hands into a bag of peat and give it a good squeeze has to rank amongst the most sensuous pleasures known to man – well, certainly a man that doesn’t get out very often! As a young ‘horticultural apprentice’ in my parents’ garden, I used it liberally to improve the soil in the borders and any new plant would have at least half a sack added to give it a good start in life. In fact, I’m surprised that, after all my digging, their garden didn’t evolve into the first man-made peat bog!
How things have changed. Once upon a time you could pop along to the garden centre and pick up a tin of creosote and some DDT, along with your good old peat, in order to tackle the weekend’s jobs. It’s probably fair to say that the only bogs of interest to us in those days were of the porcelain variety and any critters who had the temerity to chew on any of our geraniums would have the full arsenal of our “endorsed by Saddam Hussein” sprays unleashed upon them. Now garden centre shelves in Walmley, Sutton Coldfield, are, quite rightly, full of green and organic products that will only give greenfly a mild headache or tummy upset – just enough to put it off nibbling your plants and try the ones next door instead. Equally, the outside pallets of composts now offer a bewildering array of mixes, but with the overwhelming message that if you pick up anything that is not carrying the peat-free or, in the worst case, reduced–peat logo, you will be labeled an environmental vandal. Soon they will be offering brown paper bags so these “Peatists” can wrap their offending products discreetly to hide them from the prying eyes of the environmentally enlightened masses…..
But, should these Peatists be vilified for using what is, in effect, a natural resource covering vast tracts of Russia and Canada – especially as it has now been classified as a renewable biomass product by a UN advisory body? In our country, at least, there seems little excuse for pillaging acres of sedge peat that will take lifetimes to replenish – at a growth of 5mm a year it doesn’t take the mathematical ability of Carol Vorderman to work out that you and I, or indeed our children’s children, will not live to see these areas regenerated. Leave it to nature and the odd (very odd!) bog snorkeler to enjoy……
The startling reality, aside from all its aesthetic and tactile qualities, is that peat has very little that it can add to our gardens that we can’t produce ourselves in our compost bins. If you haven’t the space, time or energy to do your own composting, then buy composted green waste as it is every bit as good as peat based soil conditioners – you only need to see the numbers of worms it contains! Peatists and the large commercial growers may argue that peat is a much easier and consistent product to work with – but what they can’t argue with is the “peat-miles” involved and that peat extraction is now as environmentally acceptable an activity as chopping down the rainforests or dumping all our rubbish at sea.
Personally, I love the stuff; you can burn it, grow plants in it (if you have to) but, most importantly, it adds that all important flavour to a single malt whisky – so call me a Peatist if you want to, but keep putting your leftovers in the compost bin while I pour myself another shot of Laphroaig.
Garden Consultant and Connoisseur of the ‘Black Stuff’