Fairtrade elephant pot

We see a lot of articles about how you can save money by growing your own food. And it’s true, it’s absolutely true, you can. A packet of salad seeds is roughly the same price as a bagged salad, and will keep you in salads all summer (and probably beyond). You can save money by picking up seeds at seed swaps, saving your own seeds, sharing with friends and neighbours, making your own compost and plant feeds and recycling household items into pots, etc. But there’s an elephant in the room – a factor that’s often left out.

Container growing is increasingly popular, especially with Generation Rent who need to be able to move their garden, and anyone in urban areas where the top of the waiting list for an allotment is like the retirement age – as you get closer to it, it just moves farther away. My friend Chris, for example, has decided to grow his potatoes in containers this year, and for that he needs… mud, as he calls it. Except it’s not mud (or dirt) – garden soil doesn’t work well in containers. You need some sort of potting mix to grow vegetables in containers. If you’ve got a large garden you can make enough compost and leaf mould to make your own potting mixes, but I suspect that habit is dying out.

SylvaGrow peat-free potting compost

It’s possible to pick up peat-based potting mixes for next to nothing at garden centres, DIY stores and even supermarkets. It’s familiar and reliable, but it’s contributing to the destruction of peat bogs (a valuable wildlife habitat) and to global warming (peat bogs act as carbon dioxide sinks).

Peat-free alternatives are (a) more difficult to find and (b) usually more expensive. Buying in bulk is generally cheaper, but then you have the problem of getting it home, and storing it in a dry place – and potting compost doesn’t last forever. It should probably be sold with a ‘best before’ date printed on it. You can have it delivered… if you need a lot all in one go. Wyevale Garden Centres offer a peat-free potting compost in their range, and their policy is to keep it at the same price as their peat-based version. Since I worked in one of their stores last summer, I can tell you that (here, at least) it wasn’t popular. I used it myself last year, and so I know it’s not great in containers. It has a tendency to go all claggy. It’s fine in the raised beds, as part of a mix in a large enough volume to be a ‘living’ soil, but this year I’m filling my containers with something nicer (and more expensive). Buying it involved a trip to a garden centre an hour or so away, where I found Sylvagrow, Dalefoot seed compost and New Horizon.

Dalefoot peat-free potting compost

I didn’t like the Dalesfoot seed compost much. It was incredibly dense, and had got wet – shovelling it into modules wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. I trialled it against New Horizon, though, and the plants didn’t seem to mind; they were happy in either. Sylvagrow has a tendency to go grey and crumbly across the top where it dries out, but again the plants don’t seem to mind, and it’s nice stuff to handle – friable, you might say.

Does growing your own vegetables in peat-based compost present more or less of an environmental issue than buying them in a supermarket? I don’t know, those kind of analyses are difficult and involve various assumptions. I’m simply saying that yes – you can can absolutely save money by growing your own vegetables, if you need to. But unless you’ve got the time and space to go the whole hog and make your own compost and potting mixes, it’s very difficult to save the planet at the same time, and that’s something we need to change.

New Horizon peat-free potting compost

What are you tips for keeping the cost down, without compromising on potting compost?