Like many gardeners, I don’t like using peat and over the years I’ve tried many alternatives. One of my favourites is Dalefoot Composts – not least because it uses renewable ingredients to produce soil improvers and composts.
Dalefoot was set up by Cumbrian hill farmer Simon Bland and his wife Jane Barker, who has a doctorate in environmental science. Drawing inspiration from old gardening books, which described using bracken as fertiliser and sheep’s wool as a method of water retention, they have combined the two to produce composts that can be used as a planting medium or dug into borders to improve the soil.
The bracken, traditionally cut for animal bedding, is harvested as part of the upland management to improve the area’s biodiversity, and the wool comes from the farm’s own flock.
“By harvesting the often ‘waist-high’ bracken we make it much easier and safer to gather our sheep, whilst reducing the cover of this ever-spreading scourge of many uplands,” explains Jane.
“We use wool from our neighbours’ Herdwick and Swaledale sheep to share the benefits of our farm diversification. Plus, using the natural materials on our doorstep makes the perfect recipe for a really sustainable compost.”
Bracken is high in high in potash, while wool has nitrogen, released slowly as it breaks down, and can hold around 35 times its own weight in water.
It took the couple about 12 years to develop the range, trialling it first with local gardeners before beginning to sell it by mail order and at shows, including Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court. It is also available through some garden centres and shops, such as Allomorphic in Stroud.
“Our peat-free composts give gardeners the option of growing in earth-friendly composts that really work and we’re delighted that professional growers are now using them and winning gold medals at shows like RHS Chelsea,” adds Jane.
The range covers all sorts of gardening and all sorts of gardens. The basic ‘Wool Compost’ is ready to use in potting up or planting out.
‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ is designed to be mixed with soil or spent compost, such as the contents of old growbags. It’s ideal for improving thirsty ground like the sandy soil in my garden.
In contrast, ‘Lakeland Gold’ is designed as a ‘clay-buster’ for those with heavy soil while Wool Compost ‘Ericaceous’, as the name suggests, is ideal for planting acid-lovers, such as rhododendrons. It comes in normal and double strength.
Recent additions to the range include a seed compost, which I have trialled and found easy to use, while my seedlings seem to love it. There is also a compost for vegetables and salads, ideal for containers.
• Dalefoot, which was recently featured on BBC 2’s Back to the Land, will be at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival from May 11-14, 2017.
• Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win some Dalefoot Compost.
Franchi Seeds have launched Windowsill Garden kits to bring growing indoors. I’ve been finding out more and
there’s the chance to win a herb kit.
Franchi Seeds may have stocked the ingredients for their Windowsill Garden kits for decades but it was a chance remark that brought them together.
Staff at the family-run firm were eating lunch at their Harrow headquarters when someone commented that it would be even better if they had some basil in the office.
“I thought, we’ve got seeds, we’ve got jars, let’s do something,” explains Paolo Arrigo, who is the seventh generation to run the business founded in 1783.
Like many good ideas it is simple: take a traditional Italian preserving jar, some biochar and seeds and you can have fresh herbs even if you have no space to grow outside.
“It’s exactly where we sit in the world,” says Paolo. “We are food.”
At first, the Windowsill Garden range was limited to basil, parsley and coriander but such has been its success three more kits are being added – a cherry tomato and chilli with the third as yet undecided.
“It might be catnip,” says Paolo, “as we have been asked for it.”
The beauty of the kits is that they are straightforward and mess-free. With no holes in the bottom, there’s no danger of flooding desk or windowsill and the biochar soaks up moisture, making it difficult to over-water.
The seeds supplied are Franchi’s own – well known for their easy germination and robust plants; the firm raises all its own seed in Italy.
“You would be growing real Italian basil.”
The half-litre preserving jars are made by B, which has been producing them in Parma since 1825 – I’ve got my grandmother’s jars,” comments Paolo – and they can be washed and used for preserving afterwards.
“They are great for jam or passatta.”
And anywhere is suitable for growing, providing it gets enough light from office desks to kitchen windowsills.
“Obviously with a cherry tomato you’re not going to get loads but you get lots of chillies from one chilli plant.”
And Paolo doesn’t doubt the benefits of fresh herbs in food: “In Italy we say you can lift peasant dishes by adding parsley into the food of kings.”
• Franchi Windowsill Garden kits are available online here and are due to be stocked by the Royal Horticultural Society.
• Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win the first prize of a set of three Windowsill Garden kits or be one of the runners-up and get a single kit. For details see here This contest has now closed.