Vegetable garden with tools and Victorian cloche
Angela Slater
Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas

There’s Gold In These Lakeland Hills

Sheep wool and bracken prove the ideal replacement for peat-based compost

Bracken is a major environmental problem here in the Lake District; it is taking over huge swathes of fell side and the more fertile in-bye pasture. It grows vigorously to waist height, causing problems for walkers and livestock and spreads rapidly. It also out-competes any other form of plant life so cutting down on available grazing grasses for livestock and wild flowers for invertebrates, which has a knock on effect on birdlife. It also provides a haven for ticks which transmit Lyme disease, affecting both humans and animals, and which unfortunately is on the rise.

Another problem for farmers nationwide is the disastrous price of sheep’s wool, more often than not costing more to shear the animal than the price received for the wool. Simon and Jane from Dalefoot Farm in Heltondale in the Lake District have come up with an ideal solution to both of these problems. They have combined bracken and sheep’s wool with farmyard manure to produce an environmentally acceptable alternative to peat-based composts. The ingredients for their composts are all sourced within the Lake District and contain no peat or green waste, which can often be contaminated with plastics, metal and other undesirable elements. They also carry out conservation grazing with their Cheviot and Whitefaced Woodland sheep, plus the native Fell ponies.

Herdwick sheep grazing in the Lake District

Herdwick sheep

The compost is the result of Simon and Jane gleaning recipes from old gardening books. And of course using bracken for bedding livestock has always been a part of the farming tradition in the Lakes. The animal's winter quarters were cleaned out in spring and the manure spread over the land, so the land was constantly being enriched. In contrast to today when a crop of grass is taken off and the land is only being fertilised with chemical nitrogen or slurry, neither of which replenish the soil organic matter.

The ‘Lakeland Gold Claybuster’ is ideal for improving heavy clay soils, which usually suffer from being waterlogged in winter and baked hard in summer. The compost is a mixture of bracken and farmyard manure left to break down for a couple of years. The bracken in the ‘Claybuster’ contains lignin which breaks up the clay particles releasing its nutrients. Once your plants have reached the clay layer they grow incredibly well due to the fact that it is a marine deposit and exceptionally rich in minerals and trace elements. Normally clay soil is fantastic for growing short season vegetables, but the problems occur when trying to grow permanent plants. This ‘Claybuster’ breaks up the structure allowing for better drainage in the winter and providing moisture holding properties in summer. The bracken is a good source of potash which is responsible for producing fruit, flowers and vegetables. The rotted farmyard manure also provides the soil with a source of mycorrhizal fungi which forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants, helping them access nutrients more easily.

Vegetables and fruit need a nice sweet neutral soil but unfortunately clay soil is usually acidic so this ‘Lakeland Gold’ can address the problem by raising the pH of your soil. Clay soil is not normally a suitable environment for earthworms but by improving the organic content you will be encouraging these absolutely essential garden improvers. They provide drainage by burrowing in the soil, they break down organic matter and their waste improves the fertility of the soil, so anything you do to encourage earthworms is hugely beneficial for maintaining a healthy living soil. Clay soil can also often suffer loss through erosion; either wind-blown when the surface is exposed or through heavy downpours eroding the surface (after Storm Desmond this is something we have experienced first hand!). Digging in organic matter provides a buffer against the forces of wind and rain. The ‘Claybreaker’ can be applied in a thick layer in autumn for the worms to break up and pull down into the soil; just dig in any remaining on the surface in spring. It can also be applied as a mulch around established plants in spring.

The ‘Wool Compost’ is a mixture of the bracken and Herdwick wool which is left to compost. The high nitrogen, which is responsible for the green growth of plants, of the wool and the potash in the bracken provide a balanced feed for your plants without the need for extra applications of chemical fertilisers. It also provides trace elements which are only present in minute quantities but are absolutely essential for healthy plant growth. Sheep wool also provides the perfect environment for growing rhubarb in the famous ‘Yorkshire Triangle’. (Click here to read the blog ‘How to grow remarkable rhubarb’). The ‘Wool Compost’ is also available as a seed compost; it’s finer structure, providing good drainage and water retention properties, is the ideal environment for seed germination. The wool, importantly, maintains an equitable soil temperature, as every gardener knows seeds won’t germinate in cold soil. Just fill the seed tray as normal and gently tamp down; stand in a tray of water until damp and you’re all ready to sow.

The ‘Wool Compost Double Strength’ is ideal for enriching light sandy soils, providing essential organic matter. The organic matter holds the moisture and slows down the rate at which the soil drains, allowing the plants time to take up sufficient water. Apply as a thick mulch in spring and use to pot up shrubs and trees in containers.

There is also a range of ericaceous composts for acid loving shrubs, such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. The bracken for these is sourced from the acidic areas of the fells. As with the wool composts, the ericaceous composts contain all the nutrients the plant needs for the first year and as such are perfect if growing these plants in containers. If growing the plants in the garden just add some to the planting pit. Again mulch established plants with a thick layer in the spring. The ‘Wool Compost Ericaceous Double Strength’ is ideal for planting blueberries which need quite a low pH; one plant will bear fruit but more than one plant greatly increases the yield of both plants.

Blueberry Northland

Blueberry 'Northland'

Simon and Jane have just introduced a new product to their range, at Chelsea Flower Show 2016, ‘Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads’. This is aimed specifically at the ‘Grow your own’ market, containing all the nutrients needed for that year’s crop. Use in containers and raised beds and also in the bottom of trenches for potatoes and runner beans (and sweet peas). Mulch around established fruit trees and soft fruit in spring. The compost has been proven to enable seedlings to establish quicker and also results in higher yields. It has excellent moisture retention properties and as such your plants don’t dry out as easily.

Raised bed with broad beans, runner beans, peas and chives

These composts solve the problem of what to use in place of peat, the use of which DEFRA is hoping will have been phased out of use for gardening by 2020. Peat grows at the rate of 1mm per year and it has taken thousands of years to build up the current peatlands. Most of Europe have lost nearly all their peat ecosystems, some lost to small scale burning over the last few centuries but the vast majority has been lost to the horticultural trade in the past few decades; some countries only having 0.5% left. These peat habitats contain a large diversity of endemic flora and fauna which occur no-where else. They are also a huge repository of carbon which is released into the atmosphere when it is cut and processed into garden peat. This release of carbon is a significant contributor to global warming and climate change. They also act as a huge sponge, soaking up vast quantities of water which would otherwise run off and cause flooding and erosion problems. Some industrial scale compost producers are trying to be environmentally aware by taking off the top layer, containing all the endemic flora and fauna, then replacing it when they have extracted all the peat. This is like putting a sticking plaster over an amputated leg; it does nothing to combat the carbon release or the water holding capacity and completely alters the symbiotic relationship within the peat bog.

Savin Hill raised bog with sundews, cotton grass, heather, sphagnum

Savin Hill, healthy raised bog with cotton grass, sundews, heather, sphagnum and pools

The Dalefoot Composts not only over-come the problem of encroaching bracken and worthless sheep fleeces, but the huge environmental problem of peatland destruction. Some of the other peat alternatives have proved to have variable results but the Lakeland Gold has proved to result in an increase in yields and stronger plants.

'Lakeland Gold Claybuster' is now available in store.