The hobby that makes us happier and healthier

What if your children or grandchildren could take up a hobby that would make them happier and healthier throughout their lifetime?

Well, give those kids a little watering can and take them outside because introducing them to gardening is the gift that keeps on giving. 

Research has shown that for children and adolescents gardening helps to:

  • reduce stress and anger.
  • provide quiet time for reflection.
  •  improve concentration and memory.
  • create a sense of achievement and empowerment (especially in children who struggle academically)
  • improve educational performance.

When I worked in a primary school one of the most popular activities was Gardening Club; children constantly asked when the club was starting up again. Some of the children who showed the most natural ability were ones who struggled academically.  Children should be allowed to find what they’re good at; it might not be algebra.

This week it was announced that gardening is one of the activities that the NHS is to prescribe to children (aged 9-13) as part of a campaign to improve mental health and tackle loneliness following evidence that anxiousness among pupils has worsened following the pandemic.

Around 40 per cent of the UK population describe themselves as active gardeners and it’s estimated that around 7 million took up gardening for the first time during the pandemic.

Neuroscientist and psychologist Andrea Mechelli, who is professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London, is studying how nature affects wellbeing. His research has shown that even small pockets of green spaces can lead to measurable improvements in mental wellbeing that last over time.

He says: ‘Even in a dense urban environment you can access trees, you can hear birdsong. We found that when people can see trees, there is an increase in mental wellbeing, and this lasts at least eight hours. We find similar results for birdsong. Small can still be impactful.’

Active participation – when you perform an act of care for the landscape – can be powerful. ‘For example, planting, or taking care of trees will increase biodiversity but will also reduce air pollution and will have a direct benefit on our own mental wellbeing.’

He has found that people are 28 per cent less likely to feel lonely when they are in an environment that includes natural features such as trees, plants and birds.

If you have no access to a garden, he suggests watering green areas around where you live. There is a group of people in London who are taking care of tree pits – planting flowers and watering tree pits.

‘When people take care of the landscape where they live, they’re taking care of themselves.’

He is puzzled as to why we are not capitalising on this resource. ‘It’s a free intervention that can lead to measurable improvements without side-effects, which is amazing.’ (Interview in The Observer 26.05.24)

Many other studies have proven that gardening is good for your mental and physical health.   

Scientists have found that soil contains a natural anti-depressant which stimulates the production of serotonin. Gardeners inhale the bacteria, mycobacterium vaccae, and have contact with it when touching soil. No wonder so many people call the garden their happy place.

The physical activity involved in planting, weeding, digging, raking and mowing means keen gardeners can expend the same amount of energy as running or going to the gym.

Gardening has been shown to:

  • increase life satisfaction.
  • promote relationships in families and communities.
  • promote bone health.
  • reduce falls and delay dementia symptoms in the elderly.
  •  encourage people to exercise and socialise more.
  • improve blood pressure.
  • reduce stress hormones.

Therapeutic effects have also been seen, alongside other treatments, in cases of depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Those new to gardening can start small, growing in little pots or tin cans. Salad greens such as lettuce, rocket and chard can be grown in small spaces.

Take inspiration from people who have proven that gardens can be everywhere – by the front door, on steps, on a balcony and in community spaces.

 Horticulturalist Alys Fowler managed to grow plants on her apartment fire escape in New York and joined a gardening community which reused discarded objects found in the city’s streets.

People who don’t have a garden of their own can volunteer in urban or community gardens. There are also schemes where people with the gardening space but no time or inclination can make their gardens available to those with the passion but no plot.  Contact your local authority or check online for details.

In his book The Science of Gardening, Dr Stu Farrimond describes gardening as ‘the perfect antidote to doom-scrolling through today’s news, it reconnects us with the perpetual cycle of life, death and renewal of which we are all a part. In fact I can think of no other pursuit that offers more.’

Julie

Top tips on making your own compost mixes

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about making your own compost mixes, Garden Organic is the place to go – and with the ban on peat compost for home gardeners coming in this year, there’s never been a better time.

 Last week I joined a Garden Organic online talk about peat-free growing, which I can thoroughly recommend. Talks are helpful if you find it easier to learn through listening rather than reading, especially if the talker is as knowledgeable as our host, Anton. Having the chance to ask questions anonymously in the Q and A session is really helpful too.

A Garden Organic (GO) survey showed that very few gardeners make all the compost their garden needs; the majority use a mixture of homemade and shop bought. If you want to garden as sustainably as you can, GO has loads of advice on achieving this balance.  

A few things I learned:

  • Peat only came into use in the 1960s with plants being sold in containers in garden centres. Garden plants don’t need peat, which is virtually devoid of nutrients. Some countries, such as Australia, have no source of peat so their horticulture industry has never depended on it. 
  • In a bag of peat-free compost you will find:  wood fibre (a waste product from sawmills that is also in demand for use in bio mass boilers)/ composted bark (adds structure and air spaces)/ coir waste (a waste product from coconut plantations)/green waste compost (from council garden waste collections).
  • Growing media shouldn’t be used on a large scale to improve the soil – the resources used to make potting compost are limited. To improve soil, use garden waste compost, homemade compost, manures and green manures. To fill raised beds, use topsoil.
  • It’s a good idea to buy in seed compost because it’s difficult to get right yourself. Get the best you can afford because a little goes a long way. Seeds contain their own nutrients so they will germinate successfully in low-nutrient material with good drainage.
  • If you want to adapt multipurpose compost for use as seed compost, remove larger pieces, put through a coarse sieve, mix 50/50 with rewetted coir block.

Peat-free challenges

  • Peat-free compost behaves differently to peat – the main challenge is watering. Because of their high coir and woodchip content, peat-free mixes tend to dry out more easily. They also have a coarse texture, which can appear dry on the surface but still be damp further down.
  • With pots, watering little and often is best. Check by putting your finger in the mix to see if it’s dry all the way through. Water by going round the pot in a circle to get water to drain all over. Repeat a few times.
  • Water seed trays from below. Use a fine mister or waterer for the surface.
  • Peat-free compost doesn’t store as well as peat so only buy what you need. Don’t leave out in the rain; tiny holes in the bag will let in water which will wash away nutrients. Don’t subject to high temperatures by leaving out in glasshouse. Don’t buy bags that are faded as they might have been lying around for a while. If a mix smells bad it may have turned anaerobic, so return it.  

Feeding tips

A challenge with peat-free compost is that it can run out of nutrients more quickly – after 4 weeks.

  •  After 4 weeks, water with a sustainable liquid feed using comfrey or nettle leaves. Make your own comfrey feed by leaving 1kg of comfrey leaves in 15 litres of water for 5-6 weeks. Use neat to water plants.
  • For a concentrated comfrey liquid feed – stuff leaves into a drainpipe and let the liquid drip out of the bottom. Dilute 1 -10 and use on flowering and fruiting plants. This feed doesn’t smell – adding water is what makes the concoction smell.
  • Urine also gives a very good balanced feed (dilute 1 – 10). Fun fact – the average person produces enough nitrogen in their urine to fertilise 1 and a half tonnes of tomatoes, yet this usually gets flushed away to be treated at high expense, together with drinking-standard water.   
  • Use worm compost mixed with homemade compost as top dressing. Worm compost provides high levels of readily available nitrogen. Use sparingly.

For information and advice about making your own mixes, check out the GO website –  Garden Organic – Discover organic growing

Garden Organic recommends trying different peat-free composts to see which you have most success with. The charity has had good results with Melcourt’s Sylvagrow range for seed and potting mixes.

A word about peat

Garden Organic has long campaigned for an end to the use of peat in horticulture.  Peatlands cover 3 per cent of land surface but store 30 per cent of the earth’s soil carbon. Peat only regenerates at a rate of 1mm a year. In the UK, peat extraction accounts for 5 per cent of CO2 emissions. More than 95% of lowland bogs in the UK have been destroyed or damaged as peat has been extracted on an industrial scale.

Garden Organic’s online talks (webinars) are held on a donation basis to help support the charity’s work in helping people to garden organically. 

If you live near the charity’s Coventry base, you can attend courses or workshops in person, or else watch out for the next webinar. Online courses are also available and you can write in with questions too.

Julie

Compost your way to a peat-free future

The long-awaited ban on sales of peat-based compost comes into effect for home gardeners this year.

This isn’t the end of the story, however. For the professional sector, a phased approach will reduce use from December 2026 before a full ban comes into effect from 2030. This means that while some peat-containing products will be banned from shelves in 2027, others will be exempt until 2030.

The gardening charity the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) encourages gardeners to take the matter into their own hands by making their own compost, as a free, easy and sustainable alternative to shop-bought soil improvers.

Professor Alistair Griffiths, Director of Science at the RHS, says: ‘Composting is one of a handful of small changes gardeners can make on their plots to help accelerate the UK’s transition to peat-free and for people to make a positive difference to the environment and the health of their plants and planet.’

The charity Garden Organic believes that if consumers are provided with the facts they will swap their peat-based compost for homemade or peat free.

It has long campaigned for the end to peat use through its For Peat’s Sake campaign and is committed to getting the word out to as many people as possible through gardening clubs, allotment associations, garden centres and schools. To join the campaign, go to Garden Organic – Discover organic growing  The website also has guidance on making your own peat-free compost mixes.

A long story

It’s been a long and winding road to get to this year’s ban and there is still wide-spread confusion.

In 2011 an agreement was reached between the horticultural industry and the Government that the use of peat-based compost would be gradually phased out by 2020, giving manufacturers time to develop good quality peat-free alternatives.  This was a voluntary agreement, but the Government said it would legislate if this was not successful.

 The 2020 deadline was missed, so in August 2022, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) announced a ban on the sale of peat and peat-containing products in the retail horticultural sector by the end of 2024.  Consultations carried out with the public showed support for going peat free. Of 5,000 people interviewed, 95 per cent were in favour of ending peat sales to gardeners.  

Then last year the decision was taken to delay the ban for the professional sector until 2026 (with some exemptions) before the full ban in 2030. Defra said the delay was to enable professional businesses to find other suitable peat-free growing alternatives. It said a balancing act was needed between protecting precious peatlands while also acknowledging difficulties faced by the industry in making the changes.

Peat-free alternatives include organic materials such as bark, coconut fibre (coir) and bracken.

With more than 7 million people having taken up gardening since the pandemic, demand for compost is greater than ever.  The amateur sector accounts for 70 per cent of sales of peat-based compost in the UK.

Why are peatlands precious?

Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed ancient plants in the earth’s wetland eco-systems, called peatlands or peat bogs. Because it is stored under water, the organic matter doesn’t release carbon as it decays. Many of these peatlands have been growing undisturbed for thousands of years.

The UK’s peatlands store three times as much carbon as its forests, but the vast majority are in a degraded state.  Estimates suggest that only 5-10 per cent remain in near-natural condition.

For peat to remain healthy it must remain wet – extraction dries it out, sometimes triggering wildfires, and the carbon inside the bog is released as carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.    Emissions from peatlands make up over 4 per cent of all the UK’s annual greenhouse emissions – the equivalent of the carbon footprint of just under 2 million people.

With extraction, wildlife also suffers as animals lose their homes, and the local area loses a defence against flooding as healthy peatlands act as huge sponges.  

The extraction of peatlands was scaled up in the early 1960s for the horticultural industry. For decades it has been an ingredient in the majority of composts sold in British garden centres. It became popular as a fertiliser because it retains moisture and nutrients. It’s also inexpensive and easy to dig out and process into bags.

Environmentalists have long warned than digging up peatlands for use in gardens is a huge source of emissions and devastating for wildlife. The conservationist David Bellamy raised the issue of peat bog damage in the 1970s. Globally, peatlands store half a trillion tonnes of carbon. Environmental agencies say that any peat compost ban must include the importation of peat in potted plants.

Monty Don, presenter of BBC’s Gardening World, has said that using peat is ‘eco-vandalism’ and there is never any justification for using it.

When the delay to the ban was announced, Garden Organic expressed disappointment, not only at the delay but also the confusion that had been created.

Garden Organic’s chief executive Fiona Taylor said: ‘Peatlands are running out of time, and we need action now to stop the degradation of this precious eco-system just for the sake of our gardens and garden plants. Gardening should be about giving back to nature, nurturing plant diversity and soil health.’

She said the delays created a confusing marketplace for gardeners trying to do the right thing.

‘It’s good that gardeners won’t be able to buy bagged peat from 2024, but at the same time they could be buying it unwittingly via shop-bought peat-grown plug plants. ‘

Exclusions to the ban include a special dispensation for plug plants and mushrooms, which together made up 42 per cent of all peat used by professional growers in 2021.

The Wildlife Trusts have also been urging governments to enforce bans for the last 30 years. They say the burden should not be on the consumer to ensure they are not inadvertently buying peat-based products.

Research by the RHS last year showed that fewer than one in five nursery growers were peat free, but some had moved to peat-free growing in every main plant group, showing that the shift was possible for all plants.

 Despite the delays, the UK is far ahead of other countries in tackling the issue.    

The benefits of quality homemade compost are many – when added to soil, compost sequesters carbon, improves plant growth, conserves water and helps prevent nutrient runoff and soil erosion. Used as a mulch added in layers of 5cm on the top layer of soil, it suppresses weeds, improves soil structure and prevents moisture loss in hot weather.

And if you’re anything like us at Great Green Systems, composting can become a fascinating hobby too.

Digging into myths about gardening

Did you know:

  • Using a petrol-powered lawnmower for 30 minutes produces as much air pollution as a 50-mile car trip?
  • Chemical fertilisers that are washed by rain into water sources suffocate marine life?

These are facts unearthed by Dr Stuart Farrimond, in his book The Science of Gardening.

Dr Stu is a medical doctor turned science writer whose books explore the science behind everyday life.

He says, ‘For something as beautifully simple as sowing, planting and watering we humans have made gardening terribly complicated.’

Dr Stu asks gardeners to consider whether instead of using petrol-powered mowers, leaf blowers or hedge trimmers they could switch to hand tools or electric alternatives.

He also points out that:

  •  The use of synthetic fertilisers can pollute waterways, whereas soil that is enriched with mulches of organic matter can supply plants with all the nutrients they need.
  • Chemicals used to control weeds, pests and fungal diseases can have unintended consequences as they are by definition poisonous to life. Less harmful ways to limit damage by pests include using methods such as ‘integrated pest management’. 
  • You can plant and manage your plot in ways that maximise its ability to store and retain carbon dioxide.
  • Covering soil with woodchip, compost, straw or rotted manure (mulches) in late autumn protects it from pummelling winter rainfall (each bullet-like drop travels up to 20mph).
  • Soils that are fed annually with organic matter and where digging is minimised will store more carbon than those that are regularly tilled.

Here are a couple of his Myths v Science findings:  

Pruning cuts should be made at an angle

 Flat cuts heal faster; angled cuts leave a larger wound and do not prevent rot by stopping water pooling on the stem.

A layer of crocks or stones at the bottom of containers improves drainage

 The popular advice to prevent fungal root rot in plants in water-logged soil is to place pieces of broken pots (termed ‘crocks) or gravel into the pot before topping up with potting compost.

However, plants in pots with crocks fare no better than those without. The small pores between soil particles hold onto water like a sponge, so that it does not easily flow into the much larger spaces between crocks or gravel. Instead water clings to the lowest layer of soil, where it can accumulate and cause drainage problems. The best advice to avoid water logging is to use good quality potting mix, a pot with drainage holes and to not overwater.

DIY feed that plants love but pests hate

This ‘plant feed with added benefit’ is recommended by Nancy Birtwhistle in The Green Gardening Handbook. It comes with a smell warning!

Plants love this liquid feed even though it smells awful to us. When I decided to add a little clove-bud oil I thought it smelled even worse! Plants are able to absorb essential elements through their leaves (foliage). After reading that plants love a nettle feed, and that clove-bud oil is an insect deterrent, I made this mix because I wanted to give my veggies an organic feed while at the same time trying to keep butterflies off my cabbages (it not only repels butterflies and other flying insects, it also controls aphids).

Makes about 500ml spray

YOU WILL NEED:

Rubber gloves

Scissors

60g nettles, leaves and stalks

Clean, old plastic tub with a lid

Old fine tea strainer

1-litre bottle with spray attachment

1-2 drops eco-friendly washing-up liquid

6 drops clove-bud oil

Wearing gloves, harvest the nettles with scissors. Select the young leaves because they contain more nitrogen that is quickly broken down in water. The leaves need to be 5-7cm long. Pop them in a plastic tub that has a lid. I buy my bicarbonate of soda in 5kg tubs and this container, complete with handle and lid, is perfect. Pour over the cold water (or rainwater), stir and push the nettles into the water using a gloved hand. Pop the lid on and leave outside and forget about it for at least a week (two weeks is even better), stirring maybe once or twice during that time.

When ready to use (and I suggest you do this outside), take off the lid, give it a stir and the smell will send you reeling – it really is awful, but plants love it! Strain off the leaves, using simply the lid as an aid, then strain again using an old fine tea strainer (the nettles will be a welcome addition to the compost heap). Fill the spray bottle with the foul-smelling liquid, then add the eco-friendly washing-up liquid and clove-bud oil. Give it a good shake then spray away!

Should you sweep or leave those leaves?

Sometimes you think you’re doing the right thing, only to find out that maybe you’re not.

I’m thinking of autumn leaves and what we should do with them.

Our family came to composting the easiest way, through making leaf mould – fallen autumn leaves that are left to rot down. Our garden receives an abundance of leaves every autumn, as it’s home to a horse chestnut tree and overlooked by several other trees. We soon got out of the habit of paying the council to take away bags of leaves as the cost mounted. So we got two 900L Graf Thermo King composters and started making leaf mould.

But once I realised what a fantastic resource leaves were (they build soil and store carbon), I couldn’t bear to see them lying around all over the place going to waste. I read about what sounded like a great solution – eco-warriors all over the world who sweep the pavements in their neighbourhoods to collect leaves for composting. So I joined in.  

Pollution

Then I read something else – that you shouldn’t sweep busy streets because the leaves could be contaminated with pollution from traffic fumes. That made sense, so I started to sweep leaves from grassed areas (after getting permission).

Then I read that you should leave the leaves on soil and around trees and hedges as they replenish the soil with nutrients as they decompose, providing food throughout winter. Apparently removing leaves contributes to the slow death of trees from malnutrition. Aaaargh!

At this point my husband suggested that I stop reading.

Ignoring him, I read somewhere else that leaves are low in nutrition because all the nutrition is absorbed back into the tree before the leaves fall. As Homer Simpson might say, Doh!

Autumn glory – leaves left around the trees at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield.

I remember last year the Royal Horticultural Society advised people to leave autumn leaves on borders as they encourage worm activity and increase humus content in soil. But then others piled in to say that leaves have an annoying tendency to not stay where they’re put, with the wind teasing them out and repositioning them on the lawn or, dangerously, the garden path. And in our case the hallway too. So what to do?

Ideally you should only collect leaves from hard surfaces as they would otherwise only be blown or washed away by wind and rain. But you should rake them off lawns and plants to prevent them smothering growth.

 The solution I came up with is to go to alleyways (or ‘ginnels’, if you come from Yorkshire) where there is no traffic so no fumes and no soil/trees needing to be fed over winter. On pathways leaves are wasted and the only thing they create is a slip hazard. You just need to watch out for hidden dog poo, but as dog lovers we’re used to that.  

Gathering leaves that would go to waste

We have now taken to wrapping our garden tree with a rich leaf-blanket, or bug rug as I call it. If the leaves are dry they will blow away so we dampen them with rainwater from our water butt to weigh them down a bit.

Left leaves also create a habitat for insects, beneficial bacteria and pollinators. Soil apparently needs more winter cover than you might imagine – not a stingy couple of centimetres, but a big generous serving. As well as feeding the tree it will also protect the roots from weather extremes.

As a proud member of the Earthworm Society of Britain, I was interested to read about the Leave the Leaves Project, which will investigate the benefit of leaving leaves in London parks, comparing the earthworm population in areas that are cleared of leaves and areas where the leaves are left to be dealt with by earthworms. Volunteers can register via The Royal Parks website.

The rake’s progress – making a ‘bug rug’ for around trees

Storing leaves for compost

Stockpiling autumn leaves for composting ensures you have readily available Browns to balance the Greens. While food waste is usually plentiful, providing you with Greens, finding more carbon-rich Browns content can be harder.

 Shredding the leaves increases the surface area in contact with microbes, speeding up decomposition. Shredded leaves also take up less space if you don’t have much room to store them and they’re also less likely to mat down in a bin, excluding air from the compost.

 If you don’t have a shredder, you can mow over them; set your mower on a high cut setting and mow them up, using the grass collector added to the back of the mower. You can also whizz them up with an edge trimmer in a dustbin (like using a food stick blender) or use a pair of hedge clippers and a board.

Rake leaves on lawns to prevent them smothering growth

Store dry leaves in old compost bags or thick black bags next to the compost bin so they’re ready when needed.  Then when you add a kitchen caddy of food waste you can add a caddy full of leaves to the bin, so providing the good balance of nitrogen and carbon necessary for efficient composting.

Some leaves break down more quickly than others. In his book A Gardeners’ Guide to Composting Techniques, Rod Weston says the leaves of common UK trees, such as oak, beech and hornbeam, break down comparatively easily to produce good-quality leaf mould, while horse and sweet chestnut and sycamore are slower to break down.

‘Conifer needles are slower still. They should be treated separately, in any case, as they produce an acidic material, which is ideal for mulching ericaceous plants.’

What are the benefits of leaf mould?

Leaf mould has similar properties to peat but has the benefit of being a renewable resource. Like compost, it will improve the structure of your soil and increase water retention by around 50 per cent. Fallen leaves are soil-building, carbon-storing materials.

How do I make leaf mould?

Making leaf mould is a simple but slow process, relying on fungi rather than the heat-generating bacteria of the composting process.

The most basic way of storing leaves is to keep them in a black bin bag, pierced at the bottom and sides to allow the contents to breathe.  If the leaves are very dry, moisten them with stored rainwater before putting them in the bag. You don’t need to add anything else – just the leaves, but adding some grass will speed up decomposition.

If you prefer a container, the Thermo King compost bins that we use make life simple because:

  • Two large flaps make it easy to remove compost.
  • The lid allows humid air to escape and is adjustable to summer and winter weather conditions to regulate air circulation.
  • The base (optional) allows worms and insects to enter while deterring rodents.

Check the leaves from time to time, especially during hot weather, to ensure the contents are still wet.

How can I use my leaf mould?

If leaves have been left to rot for two years or more, they can be used as seed-sowing compost or mixed equally with sharp sand, garden compost and soil for use as potting compost.

If less than two years old, leaf mould can be used as autumn cover for bare soil in winter. It looks and smells like compost – dark brown in colour and crumbly in texture.

In his book The Science of Gardening, Dr Stuart Farrimond points out that in nature nothing is wasted, ‘and all the soil nutrients upon which plants depend, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium, are replenished in forms ready for roots to take up. Far better than feeding your plants is to feed your soil and support this natural nutrient recycling system.’

Julie

Spare Parts