May all your weeds be wildflowers / Gardening - Sandy Millar/Pexels

By now our gardens are getting into the swing of summer. Most of us will be beyond the risk of frost, but in some parts, we need to wait another few weeks before feeling sure we can keep our frost-tender plants out overnight.

If you’ve grown plants from seed, now’s the time to put them into larger pots to grow them on a bit before putting them in their final position. While you can put them directly into flower beds and planters, most plants benefit from a bit of extra attention while they’re still small. It allows them to establish good roots and strong growth which will put them in good stead for the future.

Many gardeners will advise you to pot seedlings up into ‘potting compost’. This is a vague term, and there are dozens of products out there that call themselves this. Whatever you use, our advice is to always check the label to see if it contains peat and refuse to use any products containing peat. Peat is extracted from living peat-bogs, and these bogs are home to special wildlife, including certain moths and butterflies, such as the Large Heath Butterfly.

Peat is basically composed of the partly-decayed remains of plants which have built up over thousands of years. These plant remains contain vast amounts of carbon and peatlands globally hold more carbon than all the world’s forests! When peat is extracted, it soon degrades and releases much of that carbon to the atmosphere and contributes to the climate crisis we are experiencing.

Go Peat Free

It seems bizarre that we gardeners claim to be gardening for wildlife, while at the same time supporting the senseless destruction of peat bogs so we can grow our plants. Thankfully, more high-profile gardeners and institutions are now vocal in their support of going peat-free. Monty Don of Gardeners’ World is proudly peat-free, while our top horticultural institutions such as the Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh have reduced peat use to virtually zero. If they can go peat-free and still grow some of the most wonderful collections of plants in the world, why can’t we?

Part of the issue is that we are so used to working with peat composts. The quality of peat-free composts various greatly, and when I first went peat-free I had to experiment to get it right. Here are some of my tips for making the best of what you’ve got:

  • If you are finding that peat-free compost dries too quickly and is made up of large pieces, then mix it with other finer material. I use coir (a waste product from coconut production) which comes in dry blocks and just needs re-wetted – a 1kg brick can make 15 litres of compost! You could also use garden compost and leaf mould, and what you’re really trying to do is incorporate some fine material that will fill the gaps and hold water.
  • If you’re using only coir compost for seedlings, mix it with some perlite, sand or grit to make it less dense. This helps air to get through the compost and prevents fungal diseases like damping-off.
  • When using peat-free compost in pots and containers, you can add a slow-release fertiliser that provide nutrients to your plants through the season. You can also top-up with liquid feeds if needed. 

Finally, if you’re planting up some hanging baskets this month, here’s my list of recommendations of trailing plants to use:

  • Trailing Fuchsia
  • Bidens
  • Bacopa
  • Strawberry
  • Bird’s-foot Trefoil
  • Verbena
  • Trailing Sedums
  • Nasturtium

And for planters and pots, I usually stick to drought-tolerant plants that don’t mind if I miss the watering for a week or so. These include

  • Thyme
  • Marjoram
  • Sedum
  • Chives
  • Lavender
  • Sea Holly
  • Verbena