Going peat-free in our gardens: why is it important?
Peat has been a major ingredient of garden compost for many years; in the UK 66% of the total peat consumed is used by amateur gardeners, most of it in multi-purpose compost and grow bags. But there is now increasing recognition of the importance of peatlands worldwide, and the urgent need to protect them.
What is so special about peat? Peat is made up of decayed matter and vegetation developing slowly under particular wet conditions over thousands of years. It is found in bogs, moors, lowland fens and swamps. Its composition makes it home to a unique ecosystem, creating diverse habitats supporting a huge range of wildlife, including over 5000 species of insect, some of which are endangered. Peatlands play an important part in the fight against climate change by locking up carbon. Because peat holds up to 20 times its own weight in water it also helps reduce flood risk and improves water quality through filtering. 94% of the UK's lowland peat bogs, one of our rarest and most diverse habitats, have already been lost. Our remaining peatlands are largely protected and recognised as sites of international significance. Peat takes so long to grow, at about 1mm per year, it cannot be regarded as a sustainable material.
Peat extraction in East Frisia, Germany, Photo by Christian Fischer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=171585
So what can we gardeners use instead? Quality and consistency of peat-free composts has improved significantly in recent years. The National Trust, Royal Horticultural Society and The Eden Project have led the way in switching to using only peat-free products. The RHS and other gardening websites all give simple, practical advice about using peat-free alternatives: read the label carefully, and buy the right compost for the right job, i.e. seeds, potting on, vegetables, bedding etc; follow the advice on the bag, particularly in relation to appropriate watering regimes, which may be different from when using a peat-based compost. Much peat-free compost is made with recycled garden waste which might otherwise have been sent to landfill; coir and wood-based materials also provide a good growing medium. "Environmentally friendly" and "organic" do not always mean peat-free. Both the RHS and Which give recommendations as to the best peat-free composts, (some of which have been awarded best-buy status) and make the point that you tend to get what you pay for, and that to buy cheap compost is generally a false economy. Experiment with different kinds to find what suits you, and when buying plants ask the supplier if they use a peat-free medium.
Here is what Monty Don has to say on the subject. "I urge you not to buy peat products for the garden. Look for alternative potting compost. Every time you use a peat-based compost you are participating in the destruction of a non-renewable environment that sustains some of our most beautiful plant and animal life. No garden on earth is worth that".
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