22 April 2012

Peat Compost - The Wrong Answer

In her Observer column, ‘Ethical Living’, Lucy Siegle defends the use of non-peat based composts in gardens because the cutting of native peat bogs is ‘destroying our most effective carbon sink (a reservoir that removes CO2 from the atmosphere)’. The simple equation is that the more carbon in the atmosphere the warmer the climate gets, the more trouble there is for humans. This is a scientifically agreed process, and would surely be enough reason for an ‘ethical’ gardener to stop using peat.

But this doesn’t answer the reader’s question:

“My garden supports more life than it destroys, so I see no reason to stop growing with peat products (the best). Gardeners are being unfairly targeted.” Alasdhair, Kent

Alasdhair, I guess, is talking about diversity, another issue entirely. The richness of an environment is a measure of its success as an ecosystem. An environment with limited flora and fauna is unstable and vulnerable.

The argument being implied is that the use of peat compost allows a greater variety of plants to grow than in a similarly sized area of bog. There may also be some thought to the number of birds and insects those plants attract. If you look over any cultivated garden it will be evident it hosts many types of plant from alpine flowers to Mediterranean grass to South American fuchsias. Research done by Sheffield University has shown plant diversity is indeed high in gardens, possibly even greater than in tropical rain forests.
“The world record for plant diversity remains unknown, but is almost certainly held by a garden somewhere.”

The key, however, is that word ‘cultivated’. A garden is a reflection of the gardener. It lasts as long as that human lives in that house attached to the garden. It may even be limited by the fleeting whim of the owner, her physical ability to get outside, or her disposable income. The plant diversity within the piece of land at the back of a house can only be maintained with effort.

And yet as a rebuttal to my argument, in a finding that bursts the egotism of the gardener, the Sheffield researchers found gardens were similar, with regards to species numbers, to urban derelict land, and much of the richness in the garden came from opportunist weeds growing on bare earth between cultivated plants.

So, Lucy, the answer to the question is, yes, Alasdhair, the peat you are using IS supporting ‘more life than it destroys’, BUT for how long and for whose benefit? You may be enjoying your green and colourful plants but what of the rest of us and our children and grandchildren and ...?

Urban gardens however much we love them are artificial and short-lived phenomena. Nature doesn’t need us ... in the long term.

Original Observer article
Sheffield University research into diversity in urban domestic gardens

Image by  Philip Precey from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust site