Smarter Growing

Now that Malvern and Chelsea are done and dusted my attention has turned to planting up my summer pots. However, the demise of the DIY chain Focus means I haven't been able to stock up on my usual brand of compost (aka growing medium if you hail from across the pond) beforehand, so I've been out seeking a good source from elsewhere.

There's been quite a bit of debate about peat in the press and in the blogosphere lately: I'm not going to add to it here, except to say I've yet to see the pro and anti peat lobbies set out their evidence side by side so that ordinary people like me can make an informed choice. And talking of informed choices, I was very pleased to see the above notice at my local garden centre last week (click to enlarge image if needed).

They've started a labelling system showing the peat content of the products they sell. Thus customers can clearly see exactly what they're buying: a tick in the green box means that the product is peat-free and one in the red means it has over 90%. The system will also serve to highlight a couple of common misconceptions:
  • John Innes compost isn't peat-free (it contains around 30% peat)
  • The term 'organic' when applied to commercially available compost doesn't necessarily mean it's peat-free either
I hope that this clear system, or something very similar will be adopted ASAP across the whole industry.

What informative labelling has your local garden centre adopted (not necessarily compost) which you like? What other information would you like to see to help you make informed choices about what you buy?


  1. Great post.

    Am totally bamboozled by the labelling on compost/growing medium. A bag I bought at the weekend, which is, I believe, derived from "green waste" is labelled "organic based" but I feel no better off knowing that; what does it mean ?

    The traffic light system is a great idea but indicates only peat content. I for one would feel a lot happier if I knew what else the compost contained i.e. chemical fertilisers' water retention chemicals etc.

    So peat free, although an obvious step in the right direction, doesn't necessarily mean I would be happy to use it unless I knew what else it was "free" of.

  2. I never use anything except growbags - peatless when possible, whether sowing seeds or potting on. I often get it from the local council who make their own compost from garden refuse. I just sieve out the big stuff, bits of twigs and rubbish, add some fine grit and it seems to work a treat.

    I've started my own compost area now which is filling up nicely.

    Monty Don would be proud...

  3. Hi,

    It's interesting that they've decided to show peat content as red, and peat-free has green... That to me indicates that the garden centre is anti-peat.

    I always go for Peat-free, however my last batch I bought I was horrified to discover that it contains peat... Must say that the quality is much nicer, no large or sharp pieces of undecomposed matter in there like other peat-free organic mixes. Anyway I'm back to peat free again now, purely because my conscience won't allow otherwise.

    Although I do have my own compost bin, I just don't have enough garden waste to produce enough to sustain the garden.

  4. We certainly do need some standardization and a system which makes it easy for consumers to know exactly what they are buying. Just like with food, we should maybe see a breakdown of what is in the compost.

    As an aside, I think the RHS are pushing for us to call it "growing medium" as well, so that it can be distinguished from home-made compost. Home-made compost is full of nutrients, whereas the stuff you buy for potting at the garden centre isn't. We can't have the same name for two totally different things!

  5. Interesting. I confess that I haven't thought about the peat controversy, since the only things I add to the soil are composted chicken manure and/or my own compost.

    As far as I can tell, peat isn't controversial here. Is it because it isn't used as much in the states? Or have I just been walking around in my usual fog?

  6. peat isn't that controversial here in the connecticut valley, either. the local walmart & home depot haven't altered their labels at all (when they are labels). when i go to my nearest garden center, i just ask the clerks with any question as they also grow most of the plants they sell.

  7. I blogged about this a few weeks ago, VP - my post's here. In fact, I think I came over here at the time and asked if you had any thoughts on the issue, but I think you must have missed my comment.

    I won't repeat all I posted here, but like you I find the labelling of compost generally unhelpful, especially when it comes to organic compost, which really ought to be peat-free, but as you say often isn't - and I'm having particular difficulty finding suitable compost for fruit & veg.

    If you or anyone can help with my dilemma, please pop over to my blog - thanks!

  8. It is very confusing so some kind of industry-wide standardised labelling would be a good idea. As would using 'growing medium' instead of 'compost'. I think 'organic' is a misleading term too. In the meantime we'll just have to keep our wits about us!

  9. I would love my local garden centre to label as per your example. I'm constantly having to turn the bags over to read the ingredients, and it doesn't do my back any good. They are always heavy, invariably wet and dirty. I seem to end up going home looking like I have rolled about in compost rather than buying bags of it!

  10. It's all very odd.

    What does it mean to have 'John Innes with added sand'? (Except that it doesn't hold moisture and the soil washes away from the roots of the plants.)

    Is it fair to say things like - 'This compost has ORGANIC content'? (Hoping you will only notice the big letters and not wonder what compost would be like if there were no organic content.)

    I'm not sure 'Growing Medium' sounds very attractive but I do get in tangles when writing posts, trying to distinguish between potting compost and compost that comes out of a compost bin without getting too pedantic and long winded - so a snappy distinction would be good.


  11. Simon - good point. It means 'peat free' isn't necessarily 'organic' either.

    Chris - good luck with your composting :)

    Liz - I'm not sure whether it means anti-peat, or is more in keeping with the government's target to reduce peat consumption and is more of a 'take care and consider what you're doing' warning. That's the conclusion I've drawn after pondering what the colours might mean.

    Emma - I'm not sure if home made compost is full of nutrients. It depends on what you've composted. Also a lot of growing media at garden centres has had fertiliser added to boost growth for 6 weeks or so. As Simon says, we need to know what else has been added so we can make an informed choice, especially if anyone is trying to be an organic grower.

    Susan - I don't know much about the situation in the States. Must find out when I'm over there.

    Petoskystone - good point that the local growers know exactly what goes into what they're selling, so can answer any questions.

    Juliet - I did see your comment, but only answered it here. I've been away so haven't had time to do my usual follow-up over at yours. As you can see I'm rather tardy with catching up here!

    Presele Mags - welcome :) Just like food we need to read the small print and labels most carefully!

    Dobby - I try to buy my growing media when it's been dry or freshly delivered. It's much easier to lug about! However, that might be more tricky in Wales ;)

    Esther - it's quite confusing isn't it? I noticed last year that John Innes composts were looking quite different and didn't seem to have as much loam as they used to. I'm trying to see if their formulation has changed.


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