Last night's talk at the garden club was by a distributor for peat free compost made from wool and bracken. It was developed in the Lake District by a fifth generation shepherd and his partner who is an environmental scientist. Bracken is harvested from the fells in September before it spores, which is just as well as you wouldn't want to risk spores germinating in the compost and you don't want to breathe them in during harvest since they are carcinogenic. There is a lot of bracken in the Lake District. The wool comes mostly from the local Herdwick, which produce a coarse wool that will do for carpets but not clothing. In consequence demand has been so depressed that the sale price of a fleece doesn't even repay the expense of shearing. The two are mixed together in a process that is kept a proprietary secret since it took the couple eight years to develop, and in variable proportions depending on how much nitrogen the resulting compost is designed to contain.
The speaker passed around some buckets of different grades of compost and it felt lovely, light and fluffy. He assured us that it had excellent water retaining properties while not sitting too wet, that as the wool continued to decompose it would slowly release nutrients to the plants over a six month period, that the need to water would be reduced along with the need to feed over those six months. He passed around photos of plants grown in the wool and bracken compost next to ones growing in other compost, and the wool and peat based plants looked very impressive.
It seemed like lovely compost. I'd have happily switched to it, subject to an initial trial run, a superior product made from natural waste products, bracken and coarse wool, that didn't involve damaging peat bogs or the risk of introducing some plant disease or a dose of weedkiller from a dodgy batch of green waste. There was just one snag. He was retailing it at ten pounds for a thirty litre bag, and that is a pound less than if you buy direct from the manufacturers.
Now B&Q own brand peat based multipurpose compost, which is normally pretty good subject to the drawbacks of peat, that if once dried out it is fiendishly difficult to rewet, retails at £6.93 for a 125 litre bag. Four bags of wool and bracken would set you back £40. That's under six pence per litre versus over thirty-three pence. A lot of garden centre plants are sold in one or two litre pots, and shrubs are often in three or five litre pots, trees in ten litre pots. You can do the maths.
The bracken and peat mixture was also marketed as a mulch and soil conditioner, suggested application rate one thirty litre bag per square metre, cost ten pounds. When my home made compost runs out, as it always does, I can buy spent mushroom compost at £1.50 for thirty litres (plus the cost of driving three miles up the road to collect it and whatever I should charge myself in labour and laundry bills for shoveling it into bags). For ten quid a square metre you could afford to cover your beds in laminate flooring with change left over for a nice rug. Strulch bought by the pallet load comes in at just under £1.60 per square metre, so mulching with mushroom compost and then a coating of Strulch comes in at roughly a third of top dressing with wool and bracken at the recommended rate, and with the wool and bracken mixture you wouldn't get the weed suppressant effect.
I don't understand why it is so expensive. If it were even twice as much as peat based I could draw a deep breath, think of the environment (though until countries stop burning peat in power stations the difference gardeners can make by eschewing peat based compost seems minimal) and make the switch, but six times as much? How can something made out of raw materials that have practically no value be so expensive? True, there was the cost of developing it, but likewise there was for Strulch. True, it has to be processed and packaged and transported, but so do all other composts. So does laminate flooring.
Afterwards the chairman of the garden club quietly lamented that if the Plant Heritage propagation group were to pay that much for compost they would have to put their prices up. I was left with a feeling of regret that a good product that had the potential to go mainstream was being limited to a tiny niche market by its manufacturer's pricing policy.