For peat’s sake
The dirty fight over the contents of your compost, by Alex Valk
I started using peat free compost about three years ago. It coincided with me beginning to pay closer attention to the ways in which my actions, big or small, could have a detrimental impact on the health of the planet. Rather than bury my head in the sand, I decided to begin making more of a concerted effort to do what I could and to take responsibility for the things I consumed, including in the garden.
The first peat free compost I tried was Sylvagrow and more recently I’ve been using Dalefoot and Fertile Fibre. I have found them all to be perfectly fine for my uses (seed sowing, potting on, container plants etc…). I will also always try to order plants from peat-free nurseries where I can, but I will hold my hands up and admit I have not always been 100% strict on this and don’t always check what medium the pot-grown plants I buy from garden centres/nurseries have been grown in. I should do better and be more stringent about this. There really is no good reason to be using peat for gardening. Why damage such an important and valuable natural habitat, just to make our gardens more aesthetically, subjectively pleasing? Remember the Slow Factory post (Ecosystems over Aesthetics) mentioned a few newsletters ago? Well, it could not be more relevant than in this instance.
Digging deeper into the issue, today’s article is by Alex Valk, who looks at why peat matters.
For peat’s sake: The dirty fight over the contents of your compost, by Alex Valk
It’s quite difficult to dislike Monty Don. The nation’s gardening guru got many of us through lockdown and I personally found his soothing tones the perfect balm for my frazzled, pregnant, mid-pandemic nerves. But it turns out, not everyone is a fan. In fact the British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA), has compared the affable presenter to Donald Trump. And Plants for Europe's Graham Spencer told Horticulture Week last month that Don needs to stop ‘constantly carping on and being negative’. The reason? Compost.
Monty is well known for his sustainable approach and has long been an advocate of growing without the use of peat. He is not alone - Kew Gardens has been peat free since 1992 and the UK government has pledged to ban the sale of peat compost for gardening purposes by 2024. Ireland has already banned mining its peat bogs any further, and last week the National Trust added its voice to calls for an international ban. But when Monty says there is ‘no need to use peat for any plant’, gardeners listen. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the people making money from the stuff have been having a bit of a meltdown.
Sara Venn, a horticulturalist, writer, community gardener and disruptor said this behaviour is nothing new. She was personally threatened by a rep from the compost industry while running a nursery in 2011. At the time, the government had proposed an 80% reduction in peat use in horticulture. The proposal was subsequently dropped. Sara tells me:
“I mentioned [the peat free proposal] to the compost rep who said, ‘We are sending in the lobbyists who will get that squashed.’ I said, but we need to save the peat lands. [The rep replied] ‘it’s not going to happen. Plants don’t grow in peat free compost.’ I said I know they do and that we had grown peat free plants on a separate plot - and then he started to get agitated. He said, ‘I need to speak to your boss. I’m going to ring him because I’m going to get you sacked.’”
What is peat and why shouldn’t we use it for gardening?
Peat is a major ingredient in the majority of composts sold in the UK and is used to grow many of our bedding plants, trees and perennials. It is a cheap resource, comes out of the ground sterile, and is relatively easy to dig up and process.
So why shouldn’t we use it? As well as being mined from untouched, ancient wilderness, peat takes hundreds of years to form and offers incredible carbon capture. Peat lands make up just 3% of the planet’s land mass, yet hold 25% of global soil carbon - twice as much as the world’s forests. In the UK they make up 12% of our landmass and store at least 3000 million tonnes of carbon, which is twenty times as much as is stored in the whole of the UK’s forests.
The government is no stranger to these arguments. That’s why they have pledged to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland by the end of this parliament at a cost of £50m. But this is just one fortieth of what is needed. The Wildlife Trust has found the government’s own advisors recommended around 300,000 hectares in England need to be repaired. So continuing to dig it up feels like utter madness.
Is compost containing peat better for growing plants?
Perhaps, you might suppose, all of this habitat loss is worth it? The carbon can be stored somewhere else? Peat must be some gold-plated super substance for growing and we would face barren fields and gardens without it?! In a word, no. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which keeps one of the largest and most diverse living plant collections in the world, has been peat free since 1992.
Garden writer and horticulturalist, Beth Otway, has been running trials with peat free compost for a number of years (chronicled on her site www.pumpkinbeth.com) and confirmed that peat free compost is great for growing, with a few minor tweaks to make the perfect mix for your plants.
She said: “Different plants like different composts – there’s no one best compost – it all depends on what you’re growing. In my garden I mix together different ingredients to form a compost that’s suited to the plants. I use a lot of homemade compost, as well as leafmould, composted pine needles, garden soil, spent compost, bark, Dalefoot Composts, and Melcourt Sylvagrow. I use sand and grit very occasionally.”
She warned, however, that clever marketing by compost companies can easily dupe shoppers into thinking peat is an environmentally sound choice. “Peat based composts can be labelled as organic or natural and usually have green and very environmentally friendly pictures on the bag, but these composts are likely to contain peat. A 100% peat compost can be sold as organic, so always look for the words ‘Peat Free’ or ‘100% Peat Free’.”
Early next year shoppers will find new labels on their compost bags, claimed to rate the contents from A to E depending on their environmental credentials. But as Gardeners’ World Magazine reported last month, the labels will not be clear enough on peat. While they will make clear the distance travelled by substances like coir, they will not include carbon emissions from peat extraction. This just goes to show the power of an industry with billions to lose if we gardeners choose our products wisely.
So it turns out that my favourite TV gardener is definitely nothing like Donald Trump. By raising awareness of this crucial horticultural issue Monty Don has not been ‘carping on and being negative’. The same marketing teams which craft environmentally-friendly looking packaging have vested interests in our continued consumption of peat. But that has nothing to do with its quality as a growing medium, and everything to do with their profits.
Peat-free and fabulous: How to make the most of peat free compost
Look for the ingredients. Peat free compost is available at most garden centres but it doesn’t tend to be well signposted and the brands which do contain peat don’t make it particularly explicit on the packaging.
Give it a sniff. Sara suggests: “When you open the bag you want to be able to smell earthiness. It has to hold roots and water properly.”
Peat free does tend to retain water better than peat, so it’s a good idea to have something you can mix it with to improve drainage. Horticultural grit or vermiculite are good options - and all of this means your compost will go a lot further.
Coir, a by-product of the coconut industry, is a common component in peat-free multipurpose. You can buy compacted coir in rings or blocks from garden centres - I bought some from Wilko and mixed with vermiculite it has made a great seedling and cutting medium.
Horticulturalist and landscape designer Jack Wallington ran a comparison on composts and concluded the brands Dalefoot and New Horizon were both great quality.
You can of course make your own compost, and many local authorities offer subsidies on compost bins: https://getcomposting.com
If you’re a fellow peat geek check out https://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/news/pain-peat-free-uk
Find out about Peat Free April here: https://peatfree.org.uk
Alex Valk is a journalist and communications consultant. She is currently studying horticulture and writing about gardening and environmental issues. You can find her on Twitter @alexvalk, Instagram @valkamory and over on her blog, The Very Green Gardener.
Alex is being paid for this article.
Image credit: Sui Searle