Have you thought about your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Have you got any that are garden related? A quick poll amongst my gardening buddies suggests that “spend more time in the garden” will be a popular one for 2016, and it’s certainly one that I would like to be able to stick to! For some reason gardening always seems to come at the end of a long To Do list, so hopefully I will be able to make it more of a priority during the coming season.
Going peat-free is another good choice. Not only does extracting peat cause serious damage to some important wildlife habitats, but it’s removing carbon from the ground and allowing it to escape into the atmosphere, where it is contributing to climate change. Peat is just partially-rotted organic matter, which has formed over long periods of time in the sterile, waterlogged conditions found in acidic peat bogs and fens. It forms at the rate of about 1mm each year, so extracting 1 metre depth of peat is digging back 1000 years into history. Peat is not a renewable resource, and we use it as though it is.
If you’ve tried peat-free composts before, and found them less than perfect, now is the time to try again. There are a number of newer products on the market, and they are improving at a great rate. Gardening without peat is a little bit different to gardening with peat-based products – largely in terms of when to water your plants – but with a little adjustment you can easily have a garden that is just as productive and beautiful, but which avoids destroying peat bogs. The biggest issue is picking out peat-free composts at the garden centre – unless they say they’re peat-free, they’re not!
A related resolution would be to make more of your own compost, which is really the best thing for improving your garden’s soil. With my Master Composter hat on, I know that people can easily be discouraged by early composting failures. Have you had the horrible green slime experience? Or suffered a really stinky compost bin? You may find it quicker and easier to send your kitchen and garden waste off for municipal composting (or – the horror! – just to put it in the bin for landfill), but you may as well be throwing money away. Composting is a very simple process, and once you’ve got the knack you can turn a waste product into free soil improver for your garden, and your plants will thank you for it. You’ll spend less money at the garden centre, and be doing the environment a favour at the same time.
The easiest way to compost is to follow the cold composting method. You don’t need to amass piles of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials, you just add things to the bin as and when you have them. In most households, the mixture of kitchen and garden waste we produce, together with some scrunched up newspaper or corrugated cardboard, is perfect for composting. You just have to be a little bit careful not to overload the bin with grass cuttings – mix them up with paper or card to balance them out and add some air into bin when it’s lawn cutting season. (Throw any cardboard tubes in the compost bin whole – they add nice air reserves as well as some carbon.)
When you add your homemade compost to the soil, you’ll notice it requires less watering. Organic matter has this amazing ability to improve both drainage and water retention. Plants will have easier access to the water their require, without the risk of waterlogging, and you can do less watering in the summer. It’s not a miracle cure though, and you will need to do some watering, so now is an ideal time to work on a resolution to “store more water”. Water butts added to the garden now will be nice and full by the time the water is needed, and plants prefer rainwater to tap water anyway (and it’s cheaper!). Spend a little while pondering the best place to put your butts – they need to be close to a source of water, obviously, but they also need to be more conveniently located than the hose pipe, or you’re not going to want to use them! If you’re DIY-minded then you could even set up an automatic watering system, with leaky hoses, which will take the strain for you next summer.
Of course, there are a whole host of gardening resolutions you could set your mind to. Perhaps 2016 is the year that you save more of your own seeds, or get on top of the weeds? Or perhaps, like me, you’d like 2016 to be the year you grow something different?
Emma Cooper has been composting and gardening (peat-free!) since the dawn of the new millennium. Utterly smitten with edible and useful plants, she’s never happier than when she’s in the garden, up to her elbows in compost. She’s in the process of building a new garden, and you can follow her progress on her gardening blog, The Unconventional Gardener.