Pushing past peat in the garden

Outdoor Living

GARDENERS’ GOLD Composted comfrey is a valuable source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium for the garden, and the bees love it.

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

In January, Bord na Móna announced that it has ceased all peat harvesting on its land. The move followed a 2019 High Court ruling that such operations on bogs larger than 30 hectares required planning permission. It also coincides with a further announcement that our nation’s managed wetlands are eligible for carbon credits, a source of revenue for restoring bogs to lock carbon into the ground.
Along with other low-carbon enterprises, bog restoration, green-waste recycling and renewable energy projects it will potentially see Bord na Móna supply one third of Ireland’s residential energy needs by 2030.
This move is also a seismic shift for the horticulture industry and the 18,000 workers who depend on peat as a growing medium. However, when I learn that a world-class gardener like the BBC’s Monty Don hasn’t used peat compost in 20 years, I’m encouraged. He uses coir as a base, with its excellent water-retaining properties. New horticultural products are also in development, and I am confident sustainable solutions can and will be found.
Some commentators predict that its only a matter of time before going to the garden centre for a bag of Irish peat compost will be a thing of the past. Even though Bord na Móna’s stocks will run out this summer, it isn’t really the big problem you might first imagine. We just need to direct our compass towards something slightly different, far more interesting and much better in many respects. Peat-free composts are readily available in garden centres and tick all the boxes for growing your plants and as a seed and potting compost.
If you need a mulch to bring on your vegetables, then compost your vegetable cuttings, mix green waste like grass cuttings with brown waste such as leaves into bays. Eventually mix the two types of compost together and your vegetable patch will give a bountiful return at no cost to you or the planet.
Leaf mould and comfrey-leaf compost will give you what many sustainable gardeners call ‘black gold’ which has a similar ‘crumbly’ appearance to peat compost.
I didn’t need to contact Monty Don, Kew Gardens, Mary Reynolds or Diarmuid Gavin to learn how leaf mould is made or how they’ve gone peat free. Westport’s Gemma Hensey of Grow it Yourself has eight years’ experience of how to do it.
Gemma has undertaken a long-term project with Mayo County Council, which supplies bags of leaves in autumn to the Quay Community Centre, and this year will grow comfrey nearby. Timing is everything, and now’s the time to find out how to grow comfrey. (I will return to making leaf mould in the autumn).
Comfrey’s bell-shaped purple-pink flowers are full of nectar and adored by bees. An indigenous European plant, comfrey grows in all temperate regions of the world, thriving in moist, marshy places.
The plant is already well known as a traditional herbal remedy with inflammatory properties, and it’s used to treat such conditions as arthritis and gout. Some recommend using whole comfrey leaves (or comfrey oil) as a poultice for sprains, arthritis, pain and bruising. People also make comfrey tea for colds and bronchitis.
For the garden, comfrey is a most valuable source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. In fact, its leaves contain two to three times more potassium than farmyard manure. The plant sends roots deep into the subsoil, bringing up nutrients by the power of the tap root. The leaves have a low fibre content and decompose quickly. (Incidentally, if you’re not a big fan of the broadleaved dock, it also has a large tap root meaning that its leaves are a welcome nutrient-rich addition for composting).
Comfrey can be sown from seed in March or April, but if you know any gardener who has comfrey existing in their garden then even the smallest amount of root transplanted will result in your own patch. And once you have comfrey, you will always have comfrey.
Flowers, bees and a sustainable way to make our plants flourish. There’s much to recommend.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.