My garden is one of many contrasts. While completing the finishing touches to my drought garden last weekend (subject of a forthcoming blog), I noticed in the nearby bog garden how established the tiny clump of cotton grass I planted a year ago has become. I can’t wait to see it flower this spring as it reminds me of one of our special remote places – the peat bog. They are fantastic with their sundews, bog beans and swathes of fluffy cotton grass blowing in the breeze and the orchestra of waders filling the air above - curlew, redshank and drumming snipe to name but a few.
Sadly, many of these sites have disappeared along with their wildlife and archaeology due to poor management, drainage and peat extraction. Although peat extraction on UK bogs of conservation importance has mostly ended, 38% of peat still comes from non-designated sites with another 60% from the Republic of Ireland and 2% from other Northern European countries. With the Bank Holiday this coming weekend you’ll all be wanting to get out into the garden, weather permitting. If you’re visiting the garden centre and thinking of buying compost don’t forget to check the bag to make sure it’s peat free.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently launched a ‘buy peat-free composts’ campaign as part of its wider Act On CO2 work. See http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/growing/peat/index.htm According to Defra, the use of peat for gardening contributes to 1 million tonnes of CO2 greenhouse gas pollution per year, adding to climate change.
The Government have a target of 90% peat-free materials in growing media by 2010. With the figure currently at 53% there’s some way to go. In the retail sector, only 28% of the growing media is peat free. When it launched the campaign, Defra announced its intention to end retail sales by 2020. But that means another ten years of habitat loss and many Non-Government Organisations (NGO’s), including RSPB, have expressed concern at the length of time. A consultation with growers and other stakeholders will be launched in July. The aim will be to shape targets where the biggest reductions, eg 85% peat-free, are within the next five years.
As all good wildlife gardeners, no doubt, you already try to avoid peat-based composts, but it can be so easy to pick up the wrong type. Multi-purpose composts and Grow-Bags are the main products - most are strongly peat-based, with poor labelling, so read the bag before you buy and please make sure you buy peat-free!
A couple of free hours and a bit of drizzle were a good excuse this weekend to get some more seeds planted indoors.
First job was to get the pots and trays nice and clean (left). Seedlings are so prone to attack by fungal diseases that the more you can start with sterile materials, the better. So that was the first hour taken care of in my Marigolds, scrubbing away with an old toothbrush.
Then it was time to prepare the seed compost. The John Innes seed compost recipe contains peat, so I make my own instead. I always thought John Innes was a brand name, until I found out that it is just the amount of each ingredient. John Innes potting compost is 2 parts loam, 1 part peat, 1 part sand, and a sprinkle of fertiliser, so I just replace the peat with the same amount of sieved, peat-free compost.
I also tend to mix in a bit of vermiculite. If you haven't used it before, it is a natural mineral that, through heat treatment, has been expanded into light, hard fragments. These add to the drainage and aeration of the soil, helping to stop seedlings from 'damping off'. This one has caught me out in the past, where the seedlings appear to be doing fine but the fungus is surging through your tray under the surface until all your seedlings keel over like after a mini hurricane.
Then comes wetting the compost (right), where you place your trays of compost into bigger water trays and pour tap water around them, allowing it to soak up from the base.
And finally, at last, a chance to open those precious packets (left) and sprinkle and poke the tiny seeds into position on the compost. The larger seeds are then covered with soil, the compost firmed gently into position, and the trays placed in a warm position. All of my trays go under little plastic covers to keep the temperature and humidity up to stimulate germination; a few lucky seed trays get to go in a heated propagator.
And now it's a case of waiting for warmth and moisture to tease life out from those tiny little sealed parcels .I hope many of you are doing the same, and are feeling the same anticipation!
Something magic happened in the pond last night. The pots of Marsh Marigolds and beds of waterweed were clear when I went to bed. But by this morning, they were loosely twined with string after string of double-black-dotted jelly ribbons (left). The Toads have spawned!
I would estimate that perhaps 5 metres or so was laid last night, the chains of spawn so different from the great clumps of frogspawn that have been in position for just over a week now. Because the female Toads clamber about as they lay, the spawn marks out the route they followed, revealing how they choose pots and clumps of weed to wind around in the shallow warmer water.
We can assume they did so with their eager suitors still clamped to their backs, the so-called 'amplexus' where the males take a piggy-back ride holding tightly onto the female. They then fertilise the eggs as they are laid.
The laying of the spawn is always a great moment, proving that the Toads still feel this my pond is a worthy nursery, and kick-starting three months of drama as the spawn develops, hatches, and the toadpoles slowly grow and finally emerge from the pond.
It is also a great reminder to get out and look at your pond by night with a torch. It is under cover of darkness, when Toads, Frogs and newts all come to the surface, that you have the best chance of seeing which amphibians are using your pond. Earlier on this evening, there was just a single male swimming about on the surface (right). But having just opened my study window, I can hear them now, the soft 'wink wink' calls of the males luring in the females. I predict I'll be regaling you with more pictures as the weekend goes on!