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8 WAYS TO REDUCE COMPOST USE
POT'S GROWING ON? 09/06/23
Our herb bed, shown above, has been grown using minimal amounts of compost by following the below techniques.
Reducing the amount of compost we buy each year is something worth exploring, whether you’re a home gardener or part of a business. Producing and transporting sustainable compost, such as that made from wood chip and other plant waste, currently comes with a carbon cost because of the use of energy in shredding and heating it to sterilise and speed the decomposition process. Plus of course to transport this heavy material around in lorries.
This is on my mind because in the transition away from peat based compost after the upcoming ban, there may not be quite enough sustainable alternative to fill the gap. It makes it everyone’s responsibility to reduce how much bought compost we use, directing it to essentials, such as growing food crops that we buy in shops and at home, mushrooms and tomatoes, for example.
If you’re interested in reducing compost use, read on…
1) Reconsider houseplants
If you have sunny windows, I have found succulents and cacti need less compost long term and they can be easier to grow than leafier plants because they require less water. If you do have a garden, consider reducing how many new houseplants you buy if you have to bring in compost for them. I see houseplants as essential for people with no outdoor space or small areas. As much as we like them, it can be helpful to avoid throwaway house plants like Poinsettia unless you’re prepared to keep them growing as perennials.
2) Stop buying annual ornamentals
The biggest waste of compost comes from annual ornamentals sold in shops and garden centres each year, such as Cosmos, sun flowers and tender Pennisetum. They also generate a lot of plastic pot waste. Growing from seed at home is more efficient, especially because most can be sown direct into the ground or the final pot direct. Annual vegetables are more essential and understandable to buy as growing plants because they are food, though all are extremely easy to grow from seed. As a side note, plug plants are often said to be good entry level plants for beginner gardeners but I disagree. I would always start teaching someone to grow by seed, a skill for life that is miraculous and exciting.
3) Make your own compost
This isn’t the obvious solution it may sound because making compost is like cooking, there’s a knack and it takes time to get right. It’s also unlikely most gardens will be able to produce enough compost each year. However, making any compost at all is worthwhile because it reduces the amount you have to spend money on and transport. Saving you money and saving the natural world. Once you do get started, it’s a very rewarding activity.
4) Buy bare root plants in winter
Fifty years ago or so almost no plants were bought growing in pots of compost, they were sent out as bare root plants (dormant and without soil) in winter. You can still buy many deciduous trees and fruit bushes in this way. Often they don’t use any compost because they’re grown in the ground and dug out to send to us. You can buy rootballed field grown plants too, sent dug from the ground and usually wrapped in hessian. These days, some online retailers, including Farmer Gracy, are moving back to this more sustainable mail order method of bare root perennials.
5) Grow on and divide
Almost all perennials grow quickly and can be divided into multiple pieces to plant around the garden without using any pots of compost. The drawback to this of course is time and patience, it could take a year or two for the plant to bulk up enough. However, by growing in this way you will save money and reduce transportation. Some perennials can take a long time to bulk up enough to be divided, including many ornamental grasses, so do read up about plants online to check or ask me below in the comments if you’re unsure.
6) Cut and chuck
Adding organic matter into planting areas each year keeps nutrient levels and structure balanced. This is done by spreading a thin layer of compost over planting areas for worms and soil organisms to breakdown into the soil (spread to a depth of 2-3cm usually). In vegetable and fruit growing areas, there is no real way around this, though you could make your own compost. In ornamental areas however, you can reduce the amount you need by letting their leaves and dead material breakdown naturally through winter. Including deciduous small trees and shrubs ensures a steady supply of leaf litter to enrich beds. Perennials that dieback can be cut up and chucked around as a natural mulch.
7) Note what you use
I know this is really obvious but it helps. This year, make a note of how much bought compost you use. If you’ve bought too much, go for less next year. It’s surprising how far compost can go for seed sowing and potting on. I’ve reduced what I buy in each year in this easy.
8) Grow perennial herbs
I bang on about growing herbs a lot because we could all so easily live in a world where perennials herbs come for free. Rosemary, chives, sage, thyme, bay - all so easy to grow in the ground we should be planting them in gardens and parks up and the down the country. Most of these prefer nutrient poor soils and therefore don’t really need a compost mulch every year either. Once planted they will continue growing for years, before taking cuttings to grow the next generation.
Do you have other tips for reducing the amount of compost used in gardening? Please do share below. We can’t cut out compost use in gardening completely of course, nor do we need to, but it does feel sensible to think about tightening our compost use, for both our wallets in the current cost of living crisis and the bigger picture.