Gardening without peat

I’m rarely out of the garden in the spring and summer months. In fact, I’m writing this from my garden, and when I look in front of me I can see the lapis-blue muscari and narcissi dancing in the breeze. The saxifrages are just coming into bloom too, and a few tulips are budding. I do my best to have a garden full of flowers and wildlife, but I’ve been concerned lately with the amount of peat that goes in to producing compost for gardens. Peat is a natural material that has been built up over thousands of years in the boglands of the UK and the rest of Europe. It’s used in compost because of its remarkable ability to hold water and nutrients, making it a very attractive product.

However, extraction of peat has been destroying the bogs and the special plants and animals found there. It also releases a lot of greenhouse gases associated with climate change. The UK was once covered in nearly 95,000 hectares of lowland raised bog, and 94% of these have been damaged or destroyed.

Most of the peat extracted is used in garden products – about 2.1 million cubic meters per year, equivalent to 24,000 double decker buses full of peat! This doesn’t all come from the UK though, and we now import about 65% of our peat from other countries. These other countries often don’t have as rigorous legislation protecting their bogs, so it’s safe to say that our addiction to peat is causing destruction of special habitats around the world.  Many of these habitats will be home to rare bumblebees, which is another reason why it concerns me.

So what’s the answer?

Stop using peat! There’s no way around this: we have to stop using peat entirely. The National Trust has already banned the use of peat from most of its gardens; why can’t we?

Labelling on compost bags now show how much of the product is peat, and a quick survey of my local garden centre showed that most had at least 40% peat, with the worst having 80%. Sadly, the information on the packaging isn’t always clear, and peat-free compost isn’t always available. In fact, in most of the garden centres and DIY stores I visited, peat-free compost wasn’t available at all.

But do persist and look for the peat-free compost – it’s worth it. You can also make your own compost at home or get some from your local authority’s composting schemes.

Some traditionalists say that peat-free compost doesn’t work as well as the peaty compost. To those people, I would ask them to look at the photos below, showing the seedlings I have germinated this year in peat-free compost (. Echium,  poached egg, evening primrose, bergamont and stocks are just some of the seeds I’ve germinated successfully. Everything I have sown has produced seedlings, even those seeds which ask for a very fine compost. So the rougher texture of the compost I have used is clearly not harming the plants I grow!

The Garden For Life forum (which BBCT is part of) has produced a leaflet with more information about peat alternatives. Click here to visit the GFL website for more information on gardening without peat and other ways to make your garden better for wildlife.


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