Funnily, when I’ve told people about writing this bog article, they’ve lit up. Perhaps I’ve been confessing to somewhat special characters but I’m not sure that’s it – bogs are pretty amazing places.
One friend, someone I regard as a true urbanite, went all misty eyed over the ‘b’ word, reminiscing about a few months he’d spent in the Hebrides doing wildlife surveying. He described the rich, peaty landscape as a true wilderness and as isolated as you could get in the British Isles. Another person I told got very excited about the idea of bog people, the ancient bodies pulled out of peatlands, preserved by the acidic, oxygen-less earth.
The UK and Ireland are home to about 15% of the world’s peatlands, which globally cover approximately 3% of the earth’s surface. Living in London I thought I was probably as far away from any kind of mossland as you could get, but it turns out there’s a sliver of bog on Hampstead Heath, not far from where I live. The Heath is a great place, somewhere in the city where you can go and get genuinely lost and a little bit muddy. The capital’s small sphagnum bog can be found in an acidic patch in the Kenwood west meadow. It’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and provides a perfect home for numerous invertebrates and locally rare plant and moss species. It’s a tiny, urban example of how important bogs are for wildlife.
On a far grander scale, the peatland areas of northern England, Scotland and Ireland support wildlife species that can only exist in bogs’ unique conditions. The creatures that call peat home are fascinating and the plant, moss and lichen life is nothing short of exotic. There’s the carnivorous and brightly coloured sundew and butterwort plants that have something almost tropical about them; there’s the delicate beauty of minty smelling bog myrtle, rare bog rosemary and bog asphodel; not to mention the multicoloured and multi-textured patchwork of sphagnum mosses. Bogs can be home to various birdlife as well as dragonflies, damselflies, frogs and lizards. And the sight of the magnificently hairy caterpillar of the dark tussock moth is something to behold.
Peat forms in the waterlogged, sterile and acidic conditions of bogs and fens. These inhospitable sounding conditions are loved by certain plants. As they die, the organic matter doesn’t decompose but slowly accumulates as peat due to the lack of oxygen, growing at the painfully slow rate of just one or two millimetres per year. Some peat bogs have taken thousands of years to form. They lock up carbon that would otherwise contribute massively to global warming.
Unfortunately the UK and Ireland’s peatlands have been being consistently destroyed and degraded for decades. People have been using peat for centuries and hand cutting for fuel can be sustainable, as the peat is often able to gradually re-form. It’s the industrial scale stripping of peat for horticultural products that’s the real problem.
It started in the 1950s with the rise of the garden centre, an explosion in amateur gardening and an increasing trend to grow things in containers. It would be silly to suggest that peat isn’t an effective growing medium. It’s good at holding air and water, it’s sterile, easy to store and relatively cheap. Since the 1970s, it’s been the compost of choice for nearly all growers and this has had devastating environmental consequences.
Things are slowly changing. Politically peat is recognised as being in need of protection. The UK government has committed to 90% of the soil market being peat free by 2010, and DEFRA closely monitors the situation. Figures released in 2007 highlighted that amateur gardeners were the biggest consumers of peat products, but that peat use was slowly dropping.
As we face up to the realities of a changing climate, peatlands have taken on an even greater significance as vital stores of carbon. Despite only covering a small part of the world’s land area, peatlands contain twice as much carbon as global forest biomass. A 2008 United Nations report concluded that 10 per cent of global emissions come from degraded peatlands – more than is emitted by the global aviation industry. The destruction of bogs is not only disastrous for wildlife, it’s got dire consequences for us humans too.
A letter from conservationists appeared in the Times about this earlier this year. The authors suggested that peatland restoration was a key way to tackle climate change. They argued that the “restoration of peatlands converts them from net emitters to net absorbers of CO2…Restoration also brings collateral benefits in terms of flood control, water quality, biodiversity conservation and amenity value. The UK contains substantial areas of peatland containing over 1,800 million tonnes of carbon. Restoring these to prime condition would not only help to balance our own carbon budgets, it would encourage other nations to do the same.”
Peat bogs are wonderful places for wildlife and they have the potential to act as vital carbon sinks at a time when we urgently need to cut emissions. You can do your bit to protect them by refusing to buy peat products or plants that have been grown in peat based compost. There are lots of alternatives that will effectively nourish your plants, not least homemade (and free!) garden compost.
Find out more about peat
www.ipcc.ie – The Irish Peatland Conservation Council
Soggy sounding words like bog, swamp or marsh may not immediately conjure up visions of successful vegetable growing, but wet areas are actually a really important part of the ecosystem.
Wetlands are defined as transitional areas between dry land and deep water, including habitats like rivers, streams and lakes, as well as flood meadows, peatlands, marshes and estuaries. On your plot, it’s that boggy spot where drainage is slow or the pond you’ve built in the corner.
The bigger, wetter picture
Three per cent of the earth’s surface is classed as wetland, and it’s a habitat that is under constant pressure. Huge numbers of humans find themselves living on what used to be wetland areas, which are now partly concreted over and less absorbent. As climate change scientists warn of rising tides and the ever higher risks of flooding, perhaps it’s time we started valuing the boggier aspects of life a bit more.
After the devastating UK floods in 2007, the Pitt Review concluded that the extent of the flooding was exacerbated by unsustainable management of land and water. The Wildlife Trusts argue that, in the past, the landscape around towns and cities and in upland areas absorbed water like a sponge.
Today, rain falling in the uplands often cannot soak into the ground, because drainage and erosion have damaged peatlands, and soil has been compacted by intensive grazing and farming.
Housing and arable land have replaced wet grassland and grazing marsh areas on many floodplains, taking away natural storage spaces for water. Concrete and paved over spaces like car parks, streets and some gardens can’t soak up water. Intense rainfall can quickly overwhelm some urban drains.
In the rush to increase agricultural production and expand towns and cities, water has been squeezed out of its natural space. And it’s not just about flooding – many species of wildlife need wetlands in order to survive.
In the face of all this, gardens and allotments, with their soft, absorbent surfaces, are incredibly important for both people and wildlife. Adding some wet areas to your plot will have benefits for the wider environment but will also encourage useful predators like bats, birds, frogs and toads, as well as adding aesthetic interest.
Damp loving plants can be very beautiful and there are even some crops that love wet conditions. Water mint makes as good a cup of tea as ordinary mint, comfrey is an invaluable green manure crop and the jewel-like fruits of cranberries are a pleasure to try and grow. Or why not give water cress cultivation a try?
Dig a pond or a build a bog
A garden pond, however big or small, is one of the best ways of attracting wildlife into your garden. Even small ponds can support a rich diversity of wildlife and provide places for various species to bathe, drink and mate. A series of ponds in a neighbourhood creates essential corridors for wildlife to move and adapt to changing temperatures. Ponds also store large amounts of carbon, helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Anything can become a pond, in one of London Wildlife Trust’s sites an old roll top bath looks rather majestic as one, but it is best to construct a purpose designed pond, with easy routes in and out and plenty of pond-side shelter in the shape of marginal planting. A pond can be dug at any time of year and shouldn’t take very long.
You can download a free guide to making one from www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening, but the key things to consider are location and liner choice. A level, sunny spot away from falling leaves is best, while flexible butyl liners are preferable to pre-moulded or concrete ones.
Creating a bog garden is even easier than making a pond, requiring a lot less digging! If you already have a place in your patch that naturally has poor drainage, you can set this aside for plants that favour wet conditions.
To make a boggy area from scratch, mark out an area, dig down about 30cm and cover the space with a pond liner punched with a few holes (for slow drainage). Refill the area with soil and a water retentive fibrous garden compost, and then water. Plant with bog loving plants and keep it wet with rain collected in your water butt.
Water loving crops
Comfrey: organic growers should consider having a comfrey patch in their garden or allotment, as its leaves can be turned into an effective, green feed. Comfrey really likes soggy conditions so if you have a damp area it should do well there.
Cranberries: the plants are low-growing, creeping shrubs that grow best in damp, acidic soil. Try digging a sunken bed in the garden, lining it with perforated black plastic and filling it with peat free compost.
Water cress: traditionally grown in running water, it’s possible to grow water cress from seed in standing water. Sit pots of the plants in bowls full of water in a shady spot and change the water every couple of days. Remember to re-use the old water elsewhere on the garden.
Water mint: able to grow on pond margins or fully submerged, water mint adds welcome colour and fragrance with its large pinkish flowers and strong menthol scented leaves. Small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies love this plant, which also has numerous culinary uses.
Damp lovers – plants that like it wet
Purple and yellow loosestrife
Yellow flag iris
If you do one thing
Protect the world’s bogs and fens, which provide a home for many rare plants and animals as well as acting as vital carbon stores, by refusing to buy peat products. Choose peat free compost and only buy plants that are grown in peat free soil. There are many alternatives to peat that are just as good if not better at nourishing your plants, not least homemade garden compost, which has the added bonus of being free.
This article appears in the July issue of Kitchen Garden magazine