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Peat or peat-free: which side of the compost debate are you on?

Growing seeds in pots with peat compost

Nothing divides gardeners like peat. Some say it’s essential for sowing seeds and growing plants, others have switched to peat-free and haven’t looked back. Which are you – and will you be swayed by our interview?

Pro-peat campaigners point out that peat is burnt as a fuel in Ireland and claim that there’s plenty of it in some parts of the world.

The anti-peat lobby says that peat is a valuable source of carbon and a wildlife habitat, too.

Whether gardeners like it or not, peat is set to disappear from our composts by 2020, thanks to a government target. That means that alternatives must be found. One man who is helping to ensure that they are is Dr Alan Knight. He’s a sustainability specialist and business consultant and chair of Defra’s Sustainable Growing Media Task Force.

I interviewed Alan recently about the task ahead of him and found that the ‘peat debate’ has moved on a bit recently. You can read the full interview in the March issue of Which? Gardening, but here are the edited highlights:

Q: It’s claimed that peat is plentiful in some places, and is even burned as a fuel. So why are British gardeners being asked to use less peat?
A: That’s the very question the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force is trying to find a definitive consensus for. Twenty years ago, the argument was that English peat bogs needed to be saved from destruction and we should not export the problem by buying peat from foreign sources. More recently, it’s become a discussion about carbon. No one denies that we need to protect peatlands and peat bogs, but the train of thought is now: what is the real problem with peat? Is all peat bad?

Q: And what do you think about that – is all peat bad?
A: A lot of peat is harvested badly from the wrong source. But not all peat comes from bogs. In Somerset, for example, peat extraction from agricultural land creates wildlife habitats. Lots of Scandinavian countries have huge areas of peatland that have not been living bogs for ages.

Q: So some peat is OK, then?
A: Like oil, peat is a finite resource: it will eventually run out. And we can’t control what happens in the countries we import peat from. It might be needed for fuel, or conserved as a carbon sink. Being less reliant on peat makes commercial sense, and manufacturers are beginning to understand this.

Q: Is there any point in boycotting peat-based products?
A: The thinking is now similar to the tropical hardwood debate in the 1990s. The argument moved from ‘Don’t buy tropical hardwood’ to ‘If you buy tropical hardwood, buy it from a well-managed forest’. Peat-based composts already contain less peat than they did before. But if you like peat-free products, you’re providing an incentive to companies who are making the move, so stick with it.

Q: Will the 2020 target for phasing out peat in growing media be met?
A: I don’t think we’ll end up with an absolute 0% peat target but it can and should be very close. What we really need is a 0% peat bog destruction target. At the end of the day, consumers want a bag of compost or a growing bag that will perform well. People will lose their attachment to peat when they know the alternatives work.

Here at Which? Gardening we test composts that contain both peat and no peat. This year, two out of three of our Best Buys for growing plants in containers are peat-free, which shows that peat-free alternatives can work. We’ve yet to find a good peat-free compost for seed sowing, though.

Are you prepared to go peat-free, or have you already? What do you think of this new perspective on an old argument?

Comments
Member

I’ll go peat free – I use very little now – If going peat free will save the current bogs I’m all for it as I’m an environmentalist at heart. I’m appalled at the present reduction of Lepidoptera.

Member
Gogo gardener says:
18 February 2015

Yeah everyone likes to seed butterflies Mr plain speaker!

Member
Sophie Gilbert says:
17 February 2012

I was brought up in an ecologist environment and have always bought peat-free compost and my plants are thriving, thank you very much. If you give the subject some thought and weigh the pros and cons it makes sense to conserve peatlands.

Those who think that peat is essential for sowing seeds and growing plants will find out that it actually isn’t when we eventually run out of peat, whenever that is. Same for those who think we can’t do without oil, cod, hardwood…

Member
John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

There are 3-4m sq km of deep peat on earth, twice that much of shallow peats. Together they produce – at a rate of 1mm a year, 10,000,000,000 cubic metres of new peat a year. In the UK we use 3,000,000 cubic metres a year, ie the UK uses 1/3000th of natural renewal each year. It’s a myth that we are running out of peat.

Member

It is no myth that harvesting of peat is causing environmental damage including loss of habitat.

Member
John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

Yes of course, everything we do as human beings involves environmental damage including loss of habitat. Try breathing without producing co2. As gardeners we use the peat to create gardens, which support a far wider habitat range and biological diversity.

But peat bogs in England are rare in any event, and represent islands of distinct habitat that attract very specific flora and fauna. Four species of moss and four species of insect – including one species of dragonfly – are dependent on these ‘island’ habitats. In Russia they measure their peat wetlands in terms of time zones, and blanket peat bogs stretch over millions of square km throughout Ireland, the Baltic states, Russia, Canada etc… So it is a myth that the environmental damage and loss of habitat caused by peat extraction for horticultural use is environmentally significant across the board. The impact of peat milling depends entirely on the specific location of the site. Even in England the 500 hectares currently in production represent a very small fraction of our active peat wetlands.

The peat debate would benefit from a lot more informed consideration and far fewer fanatical soundbites.

Member

Is it not the case that much of Earth’s peat resources are inaccessible or uneconomic to exploit so that production is intensified in small pockets which are depleted much faster then the natural renewal rate? I cannot comment on other scientific aspects but that point worries me in terms of loss of habitat and landscape diversity.

Member

I totally agree with John Ward.

John Nicholson – The habitats provided by gardeners are very different from natural habitats, such as wildflower meadows. The same applies with agricultural land. Some gardeners work hard to promote biodiversity but to suggest that the average garden is helping is not really true.