Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Peat alternatives flawed

As the 2010 deadline for meeting the UK Government's 90% reduction target looms ever nearer, it is almost certain that the standard will not be met.

Although no one in Government will admit the failure of this goal, the horticultural industry is quite clear that such significant peat reduction is impossible in such a short time.

As is so often the case, this whole sorry farce started out as a naive attempt to alter the very structure of a major industry by a political dictate. This time the dictate came from DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the United Kingdom government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities). The dictate was noisily supported by the usual suspects, the leading one this time being "Friends of the Earth", who seem to have assumed the mantle of owners and social conscience of all peat resources in Europe.

So, what should have happened in an intelligent world. Well, first DEFRA should have commissioned a body to produce a viable, economical alternative to a peat based compost, witness previous Government sponsored initiatives with Growmore and John Innes standards, and only then started to apply quotas and restrictions. Instead it was left to "the industry" to sort it out.

Locally, we had our usual failures, the Worcester City Council started producing it's own "green" peat-free compost with a flourish of trumpets, via a third party. This was of such a poor quality that they had to quickly rebrand it as a "soil improver", as there was no way that it could possibly be considered as an alternative to a professional peat based compost. In addition, it is more expensive than professional peat based composts. It is amazing how the term "soil improver" did not exist in public parlance three years ago, but now it's with us everywhere as a product designator.

So, what is wrong with the locally produced "green" alternative. Well, we tried it and we found that the very high acidic levels meant that we would have to weather it outdoors for several years before we could use it for growing our Cannas. In addition, there are no water absorbing materials present, just pour in the water and watch it pour out at the same rate from the bottom of the pot! We would have to mix it with expensive Vermiculite or Perlite if we wanted to grow any plants, let alone Cannas, in it. Lastly there is zero recorded food and mineral content, so it would need a good additional food mix before we could use it in pots to grow Cannas, but even then it is very unscientific as there are bound to be some foods of some sort in the "improver" that will interfere randomly with the attempt to provide a professional, balanced, horticultural compost. However, the local amateur gardener has to take such things on trust, and such gardeners are not getting straight answers at present.

So, what have local authorities achieved by producing this apparently useless "soil improver"? Well, they have managed to take all the garden waste that they were obliged to dispose of and turn it into something that does not have to go to landfill. However, you cannot base an horticultural industry on something as low quality as this, although it is an appealing black, peat-like colour, which might fool the uninitiated that it was of some use in the garden. This soil improver is not the equal of our own composts heaps!

I have no reason to believe that Worcester City Council are any worse than any other Local Authority in the United Kingdom. This whole illusion of replacing professionally harvested peat by recycled garden rubbish is just that, an illusion!

The big players in the industry have tried to step in and provide peat alternatives based on the sort of material we have described being produced by Worcester Council. Trials have shown them to be a poor alternative to the traditional peat based products. As yet, it has to be considered an horticultural failure, and I have resisted the naming of the brands involved, to save them commercial embarrassment. However, we have tried them all and we are in despair at how bad they all are.

At Claines Canna, whenever we can use an alternative "green" method we do; however, with the best will in the world we have no intention of attempting to grow-on our seedlings and new accessions in anything but a traditional peat based compost. Those things are too valuable to us to entrust them to the poor, pathetic substitutes that are being offered at the moment, and in addition, we cannot afford the significantly higher costs involved.

When DEFRA gets around to admitting that it's targets are not going to be met, then instead of condemning the horticultural and gardening industries of failure and trying to use a big stick to exercise punishment, it should take a look at it's own flawed initiation policy and start again from scratch with a policy that is more mature than the failed approach they have used so far.

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