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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
Profile photo of richard
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Profile photo of John Ward
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.

Profile photo of wavechange
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.

Member
John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

I have heard this argument; it was used originally to argue against the use of peat as a fuel source,which is a far more intensive process, and then ‘borrowed’ to use against the horticultural use of peat in general. Its not a good fit. For example, peat milling removes the peat at the rate of c. 26mm a year, whereas extraction for power stations employs the kind of machinery associated with strip mining. In the article above Dr. Knight makes the point that the impact of peat extraction is enormously varied, and can actually create wildlife habitats in some areas – he cites Somerset as an example. Where I live in Norfolk of course we have the Broads – peat diggings abandoned when the sea level rose in the Tudor period following the Medieval Little Ice Age. Even when abandoned to nature it seems that the loss of habitat and landscape diversity is very temporary. With intelligent management the restoration of peat diggings is not an issue.

In brief if we consider peat wetlands as a form of carbon storage it does not matter where on earth it is found, its efficacy is the same. From the perspective of wildlife habitat the value of the wetland varies with its area with a high value for the ‘small pockets’ of isolated peat you describe and a far lower value for the enormously larger areas commercially exploitable in Ireland, Scandanavia, European Russia and Canada.

The kind of lowland blanket peat bog favoured for milling for horticulture is in short supply in England (outside of Sommerset) and there is a good argument for limiting the extraction here for precisely the reason you give. Usually however ever peat production is a function of the climate and geology, rather than accidents of geography and the same argument doesn’t apply. The peat wetlands are monotonous over 1000s of sq km, and the temporary loss of habitat and diversity is negligible in this context.

It is also very important to understand that the peat itself is the least important environmental feature of a peat wetland from the perspective of bio-diversity. All the wildlife of bacterial level and above is on the water’s surface or in the air above. Below water level the peat itself is entirely devoid of oxygen, and can only support methane producing/consuming archaea. There is not enough oxygen to support aerobic bacterial decomposition, making the peat in situ a bizarre netherworld of sterile lifelessness; hence the famous bog men, barely marked by even thousands of years in the peat. It is precisely this sterility that makes peat so useful as a seed compost of course.

Anyway, thanks for your comment. Enjoy your gardening, whatever growing media you use.

Member
John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

[This comment has been removed. Thanks, mods.]

Member
John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

TO WAVECHANGE

For the sake of other readers I will respond to the points you made.

First – what on earth do wildflower meadows have to with peat wetlands or peat use? Why are you confusing the issue?

Second – there are 3m gardeners in the UK and 30m homes, so clearly the ‘average garden’ does not see any peat use from one year to the next. So what then does the ‘average garden’ have to do with this debate?

Third – I did not claim that the ‘average garden’ promoted wildlife diversity. Why do you claim that I did, when I clearly did not?

I wonder if you understand how much your approach to this issue damages your cause. You may have already breached the terms and conditions of this site already so please don’t bother responding.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

John Nicholson – I apologise for referring to you as John Dickinson. It was a simple mistake and not an insult. I post anonymously because that was recommended at the time when I joined Which? Conversation. Incidentally, my real name is often misspelled, even by friends I have known for years.

Profile photo of John Ward
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John Nicholson – Perhaps I am missing something, but I detected no abuse or belittlement in Wavechange’s error with your surname. I am sure it was both unintentioanl and innocent. This sort of thing does happen from time to time but it is not a serious issue invoking the wrath of the moderators. Fortunately Which? Conversation is quite relaxed and most of the contributors are valued and respected sincerely for their comments even when they’re wrong.

Profile photo of Patrick Steen
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Hi al. John, I’ve changed your name in Wavechange’s comment and I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Please try and be civil in disagreements – it makes for a better debate. Thanks.

Member
darg says:
13 May 2016

[This comment has been removed for breaching our Community Guidelines]

Member
Bryan Howling says:
17 February 2012

When Ireland stops using peat as fuel for their power stations we might consider not using it for horticulture. Ireland is not alone, Finland uses vast amounts for their power stations. It would be interesting to know exactly how much is used as fuel and how much is used for horticultural purposes. Get to it Which and give us the answer!

Member

Ireland has three peat-fuelled power stations with a combined generating capacity of 370MW. As a rule of thumb, to generate one MWH (1,000 Units) of electricity, you need approximately one tonne of peat.

So you can assume Ireland burns 370 tonnes of peat every hour – about 3 million tonnes a year.

Maybe Which? can do the maths for horiculture.

Member

What is the point of just flagging disagreement with a factual post like this?

If you disagree with the information I have supplied, correct me and state your sources.

If you disagree with the physics, explain where I have made a mistake.

Not helpful!

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Em
I haven’t flagged your comment, or anyone else’s on this discussion, but maybe someone simply did not like the idea of peat being used to produce electricity in Ireland, or the amount of peat being used for this purpose.

Member
R Batts says:
17 February 2012

I wonder what the expression means” a valuable source of carbon” Carbon if required can come from other sources Coal ,wood etc . I think decomposing peat releases CO2 .so using it increases the CO2 in the atmosphere.thats not good.
Compost suppliers like saying reduced peat but they shy away from saying by how much .So that statement is meaningless and misleading.

Member
Alice says:
17 February 2012

I gave up using peat-based composts years ago. At first results were mixed but the non-peat composts are fine now. Sadly, I still buy plants that have probably been raised in peat-based composts but there’s not a lot one can do about that, yet.

Member
Sue Beesley says:
17 February 2012

I run a small commercial nursery, growing 20,000 plants a year. We grow everything in peat free compost and they grow fabulously well. The main ingredient of the compost we use is UK sourced composted green waste. It is surely better to use a high quality product based on UK waste material than a virgin source which is otherwise doing a good job of locking up carbon in natural environments.

I won’t move back to a peat based product no matter what certification applies. It holds too much water when wet and is hard to re-wet when dry. I’m very happy with what I use now.

Member
David Empson says:
17 February 2012

My understanding is that Finland and Russia, to name but two, are swamped with Peat , so why do we not import it. I am a Show Judge and speaker on Horticultural matters and have tried all forms of compost. I can honestly say that nothing is as effective as peat based soil especially for seeds and cuttings, and I believe that, particularly for horticultural users, the loss of all peat will cause both germination and ongrowing of plants.

Member
James Stancombe says:
18 February 2012

I work in a commercial nursery growing larger plants. We have been using peat reduced compost for the last couple of years. This has been giving us variable results due to the use of green waste in the blend. We have now changed to a completely peat-free blend, which is based on screened pine bark. This blend is similar to what I was using in New Zealand surmise started in the horticulture industry 25 years ago. It is good to see the industry here getting away from the idea that peat is the be-all and end all for growing.

Member
Moira says:
19 February 2012

Peat is completely natural and the use of peat has been responsible for some of our best wetland habitats, tourist sites and archaeological discoveries. However there are plenty of alternatives that are just as good and not so environmentally damaging. I believe in a judicial use of peat when the plant absolutely demands it, such as cammelias or heathers, but otherwise use the alternative.

Member

Well done James for making this distinction. It is all very well saying that the peat based alternatives are as good or better for general seedlings but we also need to know whether they are as good for growing peat loving plants in chalk areas like much of the South East.

Member
Steve E says:
19 February 2012

As well as the loss of a finite resource, a great deal of CO2 is produced in turning natural peat into garden compost. Importing from the Baltic, for example, involves shipping to Belfast, where it is off-loaded onto trucks that take it 12 miles to the processing plant. Heat is used to make the peat sterile before being bagged & loaded back onto trucks for the 12 mile trip back to the docks. It is then shipped to Liverpool & off-loaded onto more trucks for distribution around the UK. As the largest market is in the south & SE, most is sent to garden centres there – awaiting to be driven to the potting sheds of the area.
If the Irish wish to burn their peat for fuel, that is a decision for them. We, however, do not have to make the situation worse by using it for our seedlings. Homemade compost avoids both CO2 and landfill penalties.

Member
John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

Peat is a finite resource – it only covers around 10,000,000 square km of the planet, or 1,000,000,000 hectares, producing 10,000,000,000 cubic metres of new peat each year. The 3,000,000 cubic metres of peat p.a. we use in the UK is replaced naturally in a little over 2 hours and 20 minutes.

The same carbon costs you describe apply to green waste and other peat substitutes, such as coir dust – imported from Indonesia, sterilised and shipped around the country. Even leaving the peat in the ground has a global warming cost, as peat is a by-product of the partial anaerobic decomposition of vegetation to produce methane, a green house gas 25 times more warming than co2. Mother Nature was having a blonde moment when she hit on peat to store her carbon. We should all be composting our own organic waste as a matter of course. We also have the right to buy seed compost that doesn’t kill our seedlings.

Member
Penny Spinks says:
26 February 2012

We dig peat for burning as do quite a few people here. My garden consists of waterlogged peat. What I need is soil. I think people get mixed up with the types of peat there are in the uk. You certainly would not want our kind of peat in your garden as not a lot grows on it except Lichens and moss. When you have to make all your own soil by composting everything possible you certainly do not want peat in it. A lot of our peat has grey clay at its bottom depth then hard rock. It is good for natural ponds, no need for liners. Our water table is so high on this peat that we have standing water no longer draining away. People who argue about peat should vist the more dertermined gardeners on the Isle of Lewis and see how they cope. My most wanted wish is for someone nice to domnate about 50 tons of good topsoil outside my gate. What a fabulous present. You can have all my peat I got 12 acres of it.

Member
Rowland Wells says:
26 February 2012

D418857061
there been quite a debate on this issue on another gardening site if gardeners should use peat based or peat free compost’s and there seems to be a lot of controversy concerning the use peat products

i have to say we are still using peat based compost for both seed setting and potting I’ve used many composts brands both peat free and peat based my best buy is Wicks brand for quality and price most of the other peat based brands where either like sawdust or not suitable for seed sowing and those that where suitable where very overpriced compared to Wicks brands that i have had excellent results from using for several seasons now

there is a good argument for gardeners to go peat free however I’ve yet to find a quality brand of peat free that comes up to my expectations i need a reliable compost one that i can trust there’s just so much bleating about using peat free but isn’t it a fact that there’s not a real peat free compost as substitute for a peat based compost

i think the development of peat free compost to come up to the peat based standard is very much in its infant stage and any peat free brands need to be competitive with the peat based brands and not an excuse to hype up the price in the name of conservation i think most people are being made aware of what peat extractions are doing to our wild life

i am mindful when and if compost manufacturers decide to come up with a peat free compost that is suitable for both seed and potting as real alternative to peat based at a realistic price and i mean a realistic price i will be the first to change to peat free

Member
John Walker says:
27 February 2012

The opening comments here highlight an important point: “The anti-peat lobby says that peat is a valuable source of carbon and a wildlife habitat, too”. No, the anti-peat lobby (is that me, someone who cares about the impact my gardening has on the wider world?) don’t just ‘say that’, both are scientific facts – in the case of carbon, peatlands are a valuable store of ‘fossil’ carbon that must left where it is – in the ground. If all the carbon in a peat bog could be reconfigured as your local ancient woodland, and someone threatened to chop it down, would it go unchallenged?

Has the peat ‘debate’ really moved on? I wonder if really all we’ve moved on to is another set of hurdles to drag this weary debate over, while peat continues to be extracted and profits accrue for those who have a vested interest in prolonging the ‘debate’ for as long as gardeners and gardening journalists like me (www.earthfriendlygardener.net) allow.

Alan Knight is trying to find a ‘definitive consensus’ (does this mean something everyone can agree on?). Less consultant gobbledegook will help us all. His comments are contradictory: he says we need to protect peatlands, but wonders what the ‘real problem is’ and if all peat is ‘bad’. He then spins us a favourite myth that by destroying peatlands (in Somerset in this case) we are somehow helping nature by creating ‘wildlife habitats’. This idea that we destroy one part of nature to help another is a very dangerous (and entirely human-centric) one, because where do we draw the line? Apart from anything else, peat dug up in Somerset or anywhere else releases carbon dioxide which was previously stored away and which contributes to global warming.

Logically, this ‘let’s destroy nature to help it’ line of thought only gets worse: climate change is a global phenomenon that affects ecosystems worldwide – the carbon released in Somerset doesn’t just affect Somerset, it affects everywhere (and rolling out the excuse that carbon emissions from peat are relatively small is no excuse for not eliminating them, although it’s a good one for keeping puzzled gardeners hooked on using peat).

Just because a peat bog hasn’t been living ‘for ages’ doesn’t mean the carbon it contains is going to have any less impact on climate once it’s extracted and passes into the atmosphere. Surely the answer to the damaged bogs ‘argument’ is to restore them to life so they keep their carbon safely in store and start to sequester it once more (although ‘restoration’ isn’t always the rose-tinted solution it’s played up to be).

Alan Knight does at least concede that peat is a finite, non-renewable resource like oil, coal and natural gas, which puts paid to much of the misinformation that’s been peddled in the gardening media about peat being ‘green’ and ‘renewable’. It isn’t. He’s also right to say that it makes no commercial sense to rely on it. If we keep using it, at some point in the future we’ll run out and will have destroyed habitats and exacerbated climate change to boot. Do the gardening/horticultural industries and indeed gardeners really want to be part of such a predictable legacy in order to safeguard short-term profits/pretty gardens?

By choosing peat-free composts gardeners are, by using their collective spending power, both protecting nature (by lessening demand for peatland-damaging extraction) and stimulating the growth of the peat-free manufacturing sector. It’s important to make the distinction that successful peat-free manufacturers are using carbon that’s around now, in the form of, for example, domestic garden waste, tree bark and other similar ‘modern’ carbon as their raw materials. Peat compost, on the other hand, relies in ancient ‘fossil’ carbon that was laid down tens of thousands of years ago. Although the energy needed to make peat-free compost will almost certainly be derived from a ‘fossil fuel’, the raw materials used are effectively ‘carbon neutral’. Peat compost uses ancient carbon (peat), fossil carbon (energy) in its manufacture, and increasing amounts of fossil carbon (oil) for transporting peat here from European countries (a supply chain that will only lengthen if we continue using peat up ever faster).

Stimulating the market for peat-free compost among the UK’s millions of gardeners is pivotal to getting a peat-free UK. As more of our gardening pounds flow to the peat-free companies, they can invest in even better products and so help gardeners collectively switch to peat-free faster than any 2020 deadline. We can also set an example of best practice to Europe and the rest of the world that growing a great garden is easily achievable without using a crumb of peat. This could also have the knock-on effect of generating many more truly ‘green’ jobs as demand for peat-free compost increases in a known market that’s unlikely to collapse unless we all stop gardening.

My own gardening trials of a range of peat-free composts (link below) have been illuminating and have also helped vanquish a claim that’s been long-spun by pro-peat pundits: that all peat-free composts are ‘rubbish’. This is simply not true. What is true is that we are living with a legacy of some really badly-performing peat-frees and, from my experience, some dismal ones that are still around. The sooner we stop buying inferior products based on sound, impartial advice in the gardening media (Which? Gardening’s work in this area is invaluable but we need more magazines joining in), the sooner the ‘rubbish’ myth will fade and the better the top-performing peat-frees will become.

As people ask me which all-round peat-free compost to buy this spring, I’m recommending New Horizon Peat-free Multipurpose and Vital Earth Multi Purpose (both made in the UK from plant wastes) and Wool Compost (made in the UK from bracken and sheep’s wool, http://www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk) because these have given me consistently good results across a range of plants, for sowing and growing on. I’ve found the best peat-free that I don’t need to buy is a 50:50 mix of sieved rotted leaf mould and compost from a ‘cool’ dalek-type compost bin. No peat, no plastic bag, no transport, and no need for a ‘debate’.

My ongoing peat-free trial is online, has lots of photos and is free for anyone to view:
http://www.organicinthegarden.com/forum/index.php?topic=69.0

Member
Craig Sams says:
28 February 2012

It’s all about money. There are alternatives that are just as effective as peat, but not as cheap. Any industry that can externalise its costs is going to be able to sell cheaper. Peat mining has a cost in greenhouse gas emissions as well as environmental and biodiversity damage, but the peat miner doesn’t have to face up to them. Blending biochar with coir (which we at Carbon Gold do) produces compost that works as well or better than peat, but it can never be as cheap as something you just rip from the ground.

Member
Pete Wise says:
29 February 2012

Of course we should all minimise the amount of peat we use but stopping completely will not save the planet. There should be a responsible, unemotional and factual approach to this issue. 99% of the lowland raised bogs in England are degraded through centuries of domestic peat cutting, drainage, conversion to agriculture and then forestry while much was cut in the 19th and early 20th centuries and sent to towns and cities where it was used for bedding for domestic animals, especially horses. Degraded blanket and raised bogs are emitting an estimated 3-5 million tonnes equivalent of CO2 every year and this has nothing to do with peat extraction for horticulture. Horticulture peat extraction in England accounts for only 200,000 t CO2 per year or 4-7% of natural emissions and a mere 0.04% of the total GHG emissions in England, so little it is insignificant. Peat extraction for horticulture is a late arrival since the 1960s and currently takes place on less than 1000 hectares in England (actually only about 500 ha since there is a public inquiry pending over a planning consent dispute). This is only about 1.4% of raised bogs or 0.07% of all deep lowland peatlands in England. None of this takes place on pristine, peat forming bogs and after peat extraction these can be restored to become habitats for a higher amount of biodiversity than before. Inspection of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan for lowland raised bogs reveals that there are no threatened plants on the peatlands used or with planning consent for peat extraction in England even though some of these are SSSIs and SACs. Interestingly the few BAP animals listed for lowland raised bogs are either heathland species that have taken up residence in degraded, drying out bogs (e.g. nightjar and heath bush cricket) or, in the case of the mire pill beetle, the bare peat of cutover bog. Inappropriate conservation management to rewet some sites may in effect reduce the habitat available for these internationally important species. What is needed is a ‘wise use’ approach in which the benefits from using peat in horticulture are combined with the practical implementation of wildlife conservation to create a win win situation to the benefit of all instead of demonising gardeners and growers into believing they are helping to destroy peat bogs and the planet which they are not!

Member
John Walker says:
29 February 2012

@Pete Wise – would you care to tell us who you actually are and whether you speak for an organisation, company, lobby group or whatever/whoever it is? We need to know.

Do you really think the ‘worse things have already been done to peat bogs than what we’re doing’ really stacks up? Isn’t it a bit like saying ‘there’s loads of litter blowing around so it won’t matter if I drop a bit more’? The bit you drop might be ‘insignificant’ on its own, but if we all drop a bit it’s a serious problem.

We know that there are dependable and top-performing peat-free composts available to gardeners and growers alike – the latter are people who make their living from growing plants. A switch to peat-free by gardeners (who use 2/3 of peat in the UK – commercial growers are in a minority here) will boost investment in these already reliable composts, create ‘green’ and truly sustainable jobs and could potentially phase out peat use by way of simple market forces ahead of any government deadline.

Future peat-free composts are also made from organic materials, some of which we might otherwise throw away (in landfill). I have yet to see the business plan of a peat extraction company that makes compost which shows the 200-year timescale required to allow that business to be economically, environmentally or indeed ethically sustainable (peat forms at 1mm/year, but a typical sweep over a drained and so no-longer-forming-peat lowland bog removes 20cm – or 200 years worth of peat formation).

So it’s intriguing why so much effort still goes into telling us that using peat is ‘nothing to worry about’. I think the comment above by Craig Sams rather hits the peat nail on the head.

Member
Jane Allan says:
29 February 2012

Domestic gardeners have no excuses for using peat. We can produce most of the compost we need by making it ourselves: the bigger the garden and the more gardening we do the more compostable materials we will generate. Just don’t give your garden “rubbish” to your local authority, make it into compost yourself.
Peat-free alternatives are improving all the time and a few are excellent.
Of course peat bogs are a vital wildlife habitat and they lock up carbon. Not damaging peat bogs can make a large contribution to reducing a country’s carbon emissions.
To say that because Ireland burns peat in power stations we can all happily use peat in our gardens is like saying that because Denmark used to burn sand eels in power stations we can overfish the North Sea. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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We use peat-free compost largely made from domestic green waste. Results are always satisfactory, somtimes excellent, If peat were only used for seedlings and essential horticultural requirements the problem would be minimal but would nevertheless lead to irreversible depletion so it should stop. My feeling is that an exessive amount of bought-in compost is used by people who think they’ll get pretty flowers or be able to grow things for which their soil or climate is not naturally conducive. Maybe the spending squeeze will moderate demand but with the sun now staring to warm our gardens the compost-loving people will be filling their barrows and spreading it around like nobody’s business. My parents’ generation created fabulous gardens for flowers, fruit and vegetables without a shred of peat in sight.

Member
Morris May says:
29 February 2012

There are several issues concerning the commercial industry.

Even if all the alternatives were of a sufficient standard and quality, there are simply not enough resources to meet demand

From a position of having a level playing field with overseas producers, and EU regulations prevent a ban on plants produced with peat, it is unacceptable to force growers to absorb the additional costs (the growing medium is approximately twice the price).

Under EU law England can not legislate against the import of peat from abroad (including Northern Ireland) so the sale of peat based composts in garden centres will be at the discretion of the owners.

Peat (blocking) is vital to the production of field grown edible crops and there is no viable alternative at the moment, again without raising costs significantly

There is a lack of knowledge transfer within the industry as well as to the gardening public, to justify the increased cost from using the peat-free alternatives

One point that is generally missed, with the issue of peat bogs. Bogs can be re-instated after peat has been harvested. There are benefits to the greater carbon-fixing of a young active bog as apposed to a less active, methane producing bog.

Dr Alan Knight’s role is to set out a format whereby the use of peat can be reduced without alienating the garden public or putting UK growers of ornamental and edible crops at a competitive disadvantage. There are many growers who have had poor results with peat-free as the products available are very variable.

For the record, I am a commercial grower and was involved with the initial trials of, what is now, Bulrush Sunrise compost, 12 years ago. It is a medium very similar to peat, with some major advantages. Excluding the additional costs and customers willingness to pay for them, I would happily grow all my crops peat free (upwards of 50% of our plants are produced in peat-free, for councils)

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A very intersting discussio, but for myself I rely, as usual, on Which? tests & note that the recent one found that some peat free products achieved ‘Best Buy’ status. So, that’s what I will buy.

As an aside,Morris’s comment about EU law on imports, shows again that the sooner we leave the EU with it’s constant interference in much of our lives the better off we’ll be. Our Govt. can then do what they were elected for and are supposed to do – ie govern & pass appropriate laws without approval from some non-elected inefficient bureaucracy!

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londongeezer says:
10 May 2012

So…it begs the question….should i go out and buy peat free compost or not for my seeds.Im only growing a few….not really fussed about enviroment etc. Just want some.decent plan

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Morris May says:
11 May 2012

The general consensus is that finding a suitbale peat free for seed sowing, particularly finer seed, is tricky. As a rule of thumb, seed that you would happily sow in open ground should be fine in peat free.

As yet I have yet to see an amateur site that gives good advice to the use of peat free composts (in particular guidance on individual brands as they are nothing like as consitant across brands as peat) and there are certianly complaints about the amount of larger material within them.

For the record, in their interim report, The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force is struggling to identify what the precise problem with peat is and has conceeded that green waste is not a viable sustainable solution. Unfortunately, the role of defining the problem with peat was given to Friends of the Earth, and they have failed to deliver. This is a very important and vital first step, but this failure is now putting the June deadline, for outlining a “road map”, at risk.

Friends of the Earth campaigns director Craig Bennett said: “It’s not our job to solve the horticulture industry’s problem. Our money is given to us by our members to protect the natural environment, which we’ve been pretty effective at.”

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John Walker says:
11 May 2012

@Morris May

Who came up with “the general consensus”? The gardening industry, which will do anything to maintain peat use, perhaps, aided by some vocal and misinforming pro-peat pundits? You’re wrong about seed sowing. Of all the peat-free composts I’m trialling (follow this link for the results: http://earthfriendlygardener.net/category/peat-free-compost/) a good number are perfectly fine for sowing small and larger seeds. But many peat-frees sold to gardeners are not fit for purpose, which has led to the myth that ‘all peat-free is rubbish’ – it isn’t. Please stop trying to propagate the myth and go try some reliable peat-frees for yourself; my recommendations based on my experience are Vital Earth Multi Purpose, New Horizon Organic & Peat Free Multi-Purpose and Wool Compost, or give the Carbon Gold composts a try.

My website gives information on choosing and using peat-free compost, so you’re also wrong to suggest this advice isn’t available to gardeners. Hopefully we’ll see much more honest information being made available now that the pro-peat stranglehold on discussing the need to end peat use is being loosened. You’re also wrong about consistency: the best-performing, most reliable peat-frees show excellent bag-to-bag consistency, and the ‘big bits’ is another myth you seem to want to cultivate. Yes, some of the abyssmal peat-frees contain large amounts of wood fibre (and these, in some cases, come from some of the biggest garden retailers), but it does beg the question as to why garden retailers have allowed these inferior products to make it into customers’ trolleys?

Peat is even less sustainable than green waste, of course – we’re using peat faster than it’s being replaced. It’s funny how we’re not hearing any talk about actually growing biomass to turn into peat-free compost, just lamenting that using green waste isn’t a sustainable option. Time for some thinking outside the cheap-to-mine-and-highly-profitable peat box, methinks.

Slinging mud at Friends of the Earth (FOE) rather reveals your shallow approach to all of this. What do you think accusing FOE of not defining the ‘problem’ with peat is going to achieve, other than laying blame for the clearly flawed processes of the Task Force at an NGO’s door? FOE have been informing us about the problems with peat mining for decades, yet the current red herring is that we should somehow forget about all that insist FOE magic some new problem out of the air. Can you please not bring a more mature perspective to this discussion?

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Morris May says:
11 May 2012

I am sorry you have taken such offence to my reply, which was a genuine comment on the suitability of PF for seed sowing. I am a grower and happy to grow in Pf which I have done so for over a decade. I have no problem with it and am fortunate in having access to professional manufactured PF compost. However, as you alos pointed out , not all pFs are fit for purpose. So for those venturing to use a small amount of peat to raise the likes of begonia or similar small seeds, I would only recommend peat based. I was trying to be helpful to someone who wants to raise their own seed without disappointment. some of the composts do contain large material and one of the roles of the task force is to set standards to ensure customers are not disappointed, but again this is not condusive to seed sowing, unless you are prepared to sieve your composts.

Your own website seems to lack a guide to growing in peat free and the change to the habits gained from cultivating in peat… or if it is there the navigation does not lead you to it clearly. I would be happy to point people to a useful site that dispelled the myths about difficulty of using PF.

If anyone is waiting for the SGTF “road map” in June will be disappointed because of FoE. This is a fact, personally disappointing as they have lobbied hard for over 20 years and are now holding up the process. As far as peat alternatives are concerned, unless there is a dramatic decline in growing media use, there are not sufficient resources to maintain PF use across the EU… hence unsustainable. This will result in a need for a mature approach as to whether or what peat is used. 99% of peat bogs are degraded and many are used for agriculture. There are cases across the UK and Europe which peat bogs are being reinstated with the obvious benefits to the environment and wildlife.

As I have pointed out above, the issue for the industry is not so much as outright opposition to PF, but our ability to trade when having to compete with imports grown in peat as well as access to sufficient quantities* of reliable PF media. You are also under-estimating the importance of blocking compost for transplants in food production. Though not a big volume, this is, at present, the most viable option for field grown crops.

The general question about sustainability is not limited to growing media, but the whether we want or should incourage UK horticulture to survive and thrive. Some of that may involve peat use. The alternative is to import more from Europe where ther is no restriction being suggested to peat use. There is a cost factor and in an already competitive market place, British growers genuinely feel that they do not have the margins to absorb the extra costs, which is what they would ahve to do

On a minor note, I had wanted to spear head a campaign for better national labelling for peat-free and peat-reduced products, to give consumers a better informed choice. With the advent of the SGMTF I am hoping that I shall not need to, but if that stalls then I will.

I hope my arguments do not offend you further and I look forward to see a post on your site on “Growing techniques for Peat-free vs peat…. what you need to be aware of, when switching” or “Guide to successfully growing in peat -free”. (or is that in a book I have to buy?)

*A direct quote from you from one of the main PF suppliers “Only recently I’ve been talking to the technical director of Melcourt Ltd (http://www.melcourt.co.uk/), who make peat-free compost for nurserymen. She told me that they can barely keep up with demand for their peat-free products and are inundated with requests from new customers wanting to trial it.” And this is common across the industry as there is not sufficient capacity

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John Nicholson says:
25 May 2012

There is a degree of hysteria in this debate that is deeply disturbing. We are told by Friends of the Earth that 95% – 66,500 hectares – of England’s lowland peat bog has been destroyed by the extraction of peat. This is simply not true – not even nearly true. More than 90% of all the peat bog degraded in the last hundred years was converted to forestry or agricultural use. The total area currently being exploited for its peat reserves comes to around 1,000 hectares – a small fraction of the area of protected peat bog in England. At its maximum the area zoned for peat extraction over the last 50 years was 5,400 hectares. Including upland blanket bog the area of peatland in the UK (with peat depth of more than 1 metre) is 1,650,000 acres. Including shallow peats (depth less than a metre) the total is closer to 5m hectares.

Carbon dioxide is released by the drainage and extraction of peat; peat itself is formed below the water table, so decomposes anaerobically – without oxygen – and exposure to the air allows the partially decomposed material to complete the process. I cubic metre of peat will release 250kg of CO2; a 60L bag of multi-purpose compost contains about 50L of peat (70%) and represents 12.5kg of CO2 released by the peat extraction process. In the UK the average resident is responsible for the release of 8,500kg CO2 equivalents per annum, so a 60L bag represents 0.147% or 1/680th of an average persons CO2 liability.

In comparison growing 1 square metre of mixed fruit and veg will offset your carbon load by 1.5kg CO2 equivalent. A productive 200 sq m / 240 sq yrd allotment laid out in 30 x 4 sq m beds will offset 180kg of carbon dioxide – more if you grow tomatoes.

There is no moral high ground won by the exclusive use of peat-free composts. On the contrary, the abuse of statistics, the misapplication of environmental concerns and the emotive hectoring of peat using gardeners are counter-productive in every respect.

Readers of Which? Gardening will be delighted to know that the Mar 2011 Which container compost trial established that at last some brands of peat-free composts performed as well as peat-based compost and were awarded Best Buy status for container use. However, given the poor performance of peat-free media in the Feb 2011 W?G trials of seed and potting on composts you will be surprised to know that the peat-free lobby make no distinction in reporting the success of peat-free as a general purpose compost. Overwhelmingly this wishful thinking is at odds with the experience of huge numbers of British gardeners, who have tried peat-free and been utterly disappointed.

By all means we should be composting kitchen and garden, making leafmold, adding animal manures and composted woodchip/bark mulches to our soils – I get through about 6 cubic metres of organic soil conditioners in a year, free except for my transport costs. Peat is far too precious to be used as a soil conditioner, and peat-free is good enough to support container growing. But nothing comes close to the performance of peat for seed sowing and potting on – particularly with regard to tomatoes.

Gardeners should not worry about the (voluntary) end of peat use by amateur horticulturalists in the UK by 2020. They will still be able to import peat composts from Europe. The Dutch and German governments for example have reviewed their nations’ use of peat and have no interest in introducing trade restrictions.

May you all enjoy your gardens, and feed your soil as you feed your soul.

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Never mind the carbon dioxide. Extraction of peat causes a lot of environmental damage and that can be avoided by using alternative materials. Some manufacturers are labelling their bags of compost as ‘reduced peat’ with out any indication of what this means.

I wonder how much more damage will be caused by the time we have got round to banning peat extraction.

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John Nicholson says:
26 May 2012

There is no viable peat-free alternative to peat based sowing and potting on composts – after £100 million spent on research and development. The best performing peat free brands achieved half the score of the peat-based G?W Best Buy. I make up 6 cubic metres of green compost, manure, mulches and leafmold in a year – 6,000L. I buy 60L of peat based compost for seed sowing and potting on. Peat makes up 1% of my growing media, and I will happily continue to use peat year on year. I have considered the environmental issues, and understand that they do not outweigh the environmental benefits achieved by limited peat use.

Lowland peat bog – the area used for peat extraction – is a limited resource in England and Wales. Less so in Scotland, or Ireland, where most of the peat extracted goes to fire electric power stations, also practised in Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States, Russia and North America. It is entirely appropriate to preserve the limited peat bog habitats we have in this country and they are not threatened by the remaining 1 sq km of active peat extraction sites. Worldwide, however, peatlands cover 2-3% of the world’s surface, 3 – 4 million sq km, of which 93% is untouched by agriculture, forestry or peat extraction. Shallow peat soils (less than 1 metre depth of peat) are twice as common again as true peatlands.

In the UK lowland peat bogs are rare, and as such they are protected. In other parts of the world the same peat bog environment is common, and there is consequently no environmental reason to restrict peat extraction.

There is no likelihood of peat extraction being banned anywhere in the next 20 years. As earlier mentioned, there is considerable opposistion within EU nations, and any trade restrictions imposed in the UK will be illegal under EU law; supply will simply shift to Europe, and gardeners will nip across the channel to fill their boots with the stuff.

There is nevertheless a need for everyone to be re-educated in the issues surrounding peat extraction and use, beginning with the anti-peat lobby itself. Until environmentalists can learn to desribe their concerns rationally and above all honestly they have nothing to teach anyone.

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Howard Drury says:
27 May 2012

What a biased opinion! no wonder we have policies like the peat issue it is NOT like oil it is a growing media literally oil is not, peat is made over many years and a sustainable bog can yield a certain amount of peat the can be environmentally friendly harvested as I have seen in south island of New Zealand by helicopter and the sale of the young sphagnum moss funds the conservation project and helps monitor the eco system Peat managed is no different to a managed forest but over a much longer period harvesting on commercial scales leads to bogs being drained and habitats lost this is what must be outlawed. Remember also to get at the older hard peats for power stations the younger peats we use in horticulture are pushed to one side and if we do not use them they are burned! But I DO STRESS we must reuse peat use low peat mixes and never waste it where there are other alternative – from the complaints i get as advise the peat free alternatives are a waste of time with local Trading Standards going to court for poor composts we still need a proper uniform alternative before anyone can consider banning peat! DO NOT WASTE IT please

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chris seagon says:
6 July 2012

I have tried a number peat free compost over the years some with coir and some with total bark and with green waste they all have there problems the market leader is very good for all sorts of plants I grow mints to lavenders and thymes in it and compared to peat compost my winter loss are far lower as this potting mix drain very well in the winter but the negative point is in a hot dry summer you might use more water if not managed properly feeding can be a problem have over come with slow release controlled fertilizers for those who say well you only grow in 9 cm pots no I do not we use 9 cm pots to start of are plants then use 1lt to 12 lt pots and find get very little shrinking over time unlike some peat compost get price shop around as they are coming down all the time as for seed sowing this were problems can turn up as the only one that’s worked for me is coir based but as this has to shipped over here then use massive amounts of water to
re hydrate
we have to ask are we willing pay for it is it a price worth paying to save are wet lands and the wild life that lives there ? To the hobbies nursery / person selling by side the road every penny counts and car boot selling plants saying we can charge less of course they can because they do not use same compost most the time MY nursery decide to use peat potting compost because found it grew better plants faster then peat and I’ve not looked back even thou supply’s been a problem in the early days as for see sowing we use small amount peat just for seed sowing but are bulking it out with other things have to say coir was better ever gardener and grower has there favored compost we all I will say is take look at the comments on the website then tell your views I’m not paid to talk about the compost I use just have a passion for using it like some pl who use coir been growing herbs for nearly 28 year

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terrym says:
5 June 2014

Many compost producers are using re-cycled green waste which contains selective weed killer mixed with their compost it is impossible to separate and as little as 1 part per billion can affect plant growth even grass treated the eaten by live stock will continue to be contaminated
I purchased several bags of Arthur Bowers compost which was contaminated and all my seed failed even 5 sowings of runner beans failed avoid any compost that uses recycled green waste

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John Walker says:
5 June 2014

It makes sense to recycle green waste and tap into its environmental and economic benefits, rather than send perfectly a good/renewable resource to landfill/for incineration.

The problem here isn’t with seed and potting compost, but with pollution of the chain of raw materials that go into compost. If we insist on allowing highly persistent weedkillers (chiefly aminopyralid and clopyralid in lawn treatments) to be used by just about anyone, then problems of contamination will always exist. Unless, that is, we get serious about stopping the pollution at source, and banning these chemicals without further bluster or delay. All the soothing talk of ‘improved stewardship’ is not going to work, because as you say, just a little of these persistent weedkillers goes a long way. Misinformation spread by the gardening media doesn’t help the matter one bit.

You can read here about why the use of clopyralid in lawn weedkillers used by gardeners continues to be a ticking time bomb: http://earthfriendlygardener.net/2012/10/12/aminopyralid-clopyralid-lawn-weedkiller-herbicide-pollution-residue-damage-contamination-chemical-poison-compost/

The main message is that blaming the bag of contaminated compost is like blaming the postman because you don’t like what’s in the parcel…

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John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

It does make perfect sense to recycle green waste as compost. I collect grass cuttings (from pubs etc…,) spent beer grain and sawdust, weeds, kitchen waste from my neighbours etc. to create around 3,000 litres of finished compost a year. I allow weeds to grow to flower where possible to bulk up for composting. I have tried using peat free green composts, and been robbed blind every time. Particles of plastic are common; shards of broken glass are thankfully less common, but I cut myself again this year in a bag of gp reduced peat compost from the leading brand. Three years ago I found half a mummified rat in a bag of peat free, yellow pus dripping from its severed guts. That particular experience cost me £30 of wasted seed; even courgette seeds were damping off in the contaminated filth sold as compost. I would cite the brands but I’m getting used to the practice of the anti-peat mob using the internet mods to censor green waste critics on legal technicalities.

This last point raises a serious issue. If consumers do not feel confident about reporting faulty and dangerous products to the world’s most effective consumer organisation what does that say about the hysteria of the anti-peat fanatics? Where do gardeners turn for an honest discussion of the issues? Not to the environmental lobby, that much is clear. John Walker (above) suggests that the contamination of green waste composts can be controlled. Anyone who visits a green waste composting site and will be rapidly disabused of this notion. Some loose metal objects are screened out by magnets to protect the shredder mechanism, but otherwise the material is unscreened, and contamination is inevitable; glass, plastics, metal inbedded in wood, dead animals etc… all go into the shredder before being sold to the consumer as seed compost. You can find details of your nearest green waste recycling centre online. Phone ahead and bring your wellies.

Given his wide ranging research on this issue, I’m surprised that Mr. Walker was not aware of this when responding to TerryM’s post about clopyralid contamination.

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John Walker says:
6 June 2014

Putting the blatant scaremongering here aside (puss-oozing rats, etc), you have conveniently sidestepped the issue of pollution of the raw materials that go into making green waste compost, with persistent weedkillers, including clopyralid which is available to gardeners (it might help if you actually read the article I provide a link for). If we stop using persistent, polluting lawn weedkillers, the lawn mowings won’t carry the weedkiller to the composting plant, so the pollution threat recedes. Yes or no?

A reluctance to name which composts are giving problems seems a defining characteristic of those arguing vociferously against peat-free composts. Have you got any independent, verifiable evidence of “the practice of the anti-peat mob using the internet mods to censor green waste critics on legal technicalities.” I’m sure we would all appreciate a link so we can examine the evidence for this.

I think most of us can agree that in the past some peat-free composts haven’t been satisfactory in terms of quality, and we’ve all experienced some of the contaminants you describe. But today’s good quality and reliable peat-frees are a world away from what you describe. Many have been around for years, and many gardeners are using them. Some don’t even contain green waste compost, rather deflating the ‘it’s all rubbish’ argument.

This spring, in my garden, I have had excellent results, from sowing to potting on, with various peat-free composts of the highest quality. Together they represent real, impressive progress. Among them are (in alphabetical order):

Alan Titchmarsh & Waitrose Peat Free Multi-purpose
Carbon Gold All Purpose
Miracle-Gro Peat Free All Purpose
SylvaGrow (multipurpose)
Vital Earth Multi Purpose
Westland Gro-Sure Peat Free All Purpose
Wool Compost Seed & Cutting

Myself and others have been sharing some of our results on Twitter. If you go there and search for #peatfree, you’ll see them.

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John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

No, Mr. Walker, this will not do at all.

Never mind your nonsense about ‘blatant scaremongering’. This is a consumer magazine – how dare you deny my right to comment on an obviously substandard product? Who appointed you our censor? No-one.

I have not ‘sidestepped’ the issue of clopyralid contamination. That is simply untrue. I pointed out that contamination with a range of materials is a inevitable result of the green waste process – something that you seem not to register – yes or no? There is some confusion because by the middle of your comment you seem to be agreeing with me.

I am very aware of the clopyralid issue and supported the campaign against its use and reintroduction. IF I want to know more about clopyralid I will refer to a source that I can trust, thankyou.

Your antagonistic badgering really does give you away with regard to the censoring of support for peat – I will let your own comments speak for me on that score. I am not reluctant to mention the compost suppliers who provided me with contaminated peat. I am however wary of having my comments removed – again. And precisely because the post was moderated the link does not and can not exist, as you would understand if you had thought about it rather than subjecting me to your sneers. Just who do you think you are?

I did not claim that ‘all’ green waste ‘is rubbish’. You are putting words into my mouth. Why? Why do you not respond to what I did say, rather than the strawmen you have created? As to the reliability of peatfree composts I already recomend Vital Earth and Westland Gro-Sure or New Horizon pfc’s for those who want to go that way. I would also refer anyone who is really interested in the research to refer to results of the peat-free trials you refer in your post from a few years back. I think most gardeners would question if the majority of brands you trialled were giving excellent results. But hey, that was 2012 and apparently everything has changed since then.

The big problem with pfc’s is not that it is ‘all rubbish’ but that the quality is very variable, even between sacks of the same compost produced by the same manufacturer stacked on the same shelf. That is my experience, the experience of most gardeners I have spoken to on the subject and it is the finding of every Which? peatfree trial I have studied. Variability. That is the issue that you refuse to address. I got half a dead rat in one bag. I’m happy to presume that besides the fella who got the other half everyone else did okay from that batch. Nevertheless you’ve invented the myth that we complain that ALL peatfree compost is rubbish. Not true, Mr. Walker. More invention, when what we want are reliable facts and honest debate.

I produce enough high quality home made composts to serve all my container plant needs. I buy peat based seed compost because the objective trials I have seen all graded even the best peatfree composts you refer to above as markedly inferior for seed composts. Its that simple. I can’t afford to waste expensive seed on the basis of your obsessions.

I do know some gardeners who get good results from peat-free. I also know that most gardeners get results like the poor specimens you produced in your earlier trial, or those in the photo at the top of the page. And there are better brands, I’m sure of it. The problem is that there is not enough of the better peat-free composts to go around. As far as I can establish the ratio is 30% good or good enough, 40% less satisfactory than garden soil or home made compost and 30% that will kill or stunt your plants. Your answer to this problem is to harangue anyone who dares speak up for peat, presumably so that the more timid fall in step behind you.

I am used to dealing with bullies. I am not even mildly impressed by your performance here.

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John Walker and John Nicholson – consider this a formal warning. Do not antagonise each other. Be polite in your disagreements – if you think another person is being rude, please don’t respond in the same manner. Instead, report the comment for our moderators to look into. Thank you.

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John Nicholson says:
6 June 2014

So, with a nod to those following this debate, I responded to a comment about chemical contaminants in peat free composts by mentioning that I had my own similar issues with pfc’s.

On consideration I won’t be using any green waste compost or reduced peat compost in the future. The risk of losing the growing season is too significant, and the benefits to the environment are negligible at best. I remain to be convinced that they outweigh the real and visible environmental benefits of an organic gardening programme. On top of this I simply can’t afford to lose money on seed and even less lose the yields that I depend on to eke out my income. When peat is removed from sale in England in 2020 I will simply import it from Scotland when I make my annual winter trek up there to see my folks at New Year.

In March 2011 I bought a 60L sack of Grandiol Peat Free Multi-Purpose Compost, which advertised itself a general purpose compost for seed and containers. I sowed it with a £30 range of seeds in 20 cell trays and 50 cl pots; tomatoes, cucumbers, gherkins, squash, pumpkins and courgettes, two seeds to a pot, 240 seeds in all. I would normally expect 95% germination with such seeds and although the strike right was below par – about c. 85% – it wasn’t far off. But over the next two weeks almost all the seedlings died of damping off disease. This was despite the use of a light bordeaux mix in the watering spray as ever, and good ventilation in a frost free lean to. My worst sowing experience in 18 years. Just six seedlings survived, to make pitiful runted plants I had to put out of their misery.

In May of that year I used the remains of that particular sack as a container compost for some bought-in replacement tomato plants. When breaking up a large, stubborn ball of compost I found myself staring at a very large, dead and partially mummified rat in my hands. Its fur was so entirely matted in with peat as to make the two almost indistinguishable. Then I noticed that it was in fact only half a rat and it was leaking yellow pus out of its severed belly. I buried the rat and disposed of all the remaining and used compost in my local recycling plant.

This year in March I bought a 60L sack of reduced peat Multi Purpose Compost from the B+Q Verve range. I have previously had very good results with this a seed compost, particularly for the more robust seed types – pumpkins, squash, courgettes and tomatoes. This brand is the Which? Best Buy, and has apparently won some quality awards.

When using it however I noticed that that the material appeared visibly different than before. The compost itself was flecked with white specks, small fragments of a wood fungi, I think. I also found small sections of black and blue lightweight polythene about 2cm square, and chunks of coarse, poorly composted but softened woody material up to about 4cm / 1.5 in length. This material can be put to one side and used as mulch materiel, or buried at the bottom of a container quite safely. I was more disturbed to find a few pieces of entirely uncomposted, solid, undarkened wood, still showing the grain, up to 5cm long. This can be put to one side and used as kindling for a barbecue, carved into a chess piece or crafted into a fetching shamanistic talisman to wear about your neck; it is a little chunk of wood, after all. More alarming than that as I ran my fingers through the compost to sift it through I scratched the lower palm of my hand on a sharp fragment of glass embedded in a ball of woody compost. The scratch was deep enough to be painful but drew virtually no blood and led to a mild red swelling. Not such a big deal. I was less happy with the results of my sowing.

Verve multi-purpose did as well as expected with the most robust seeds; cucumbers, squash and courgettes. Tomatoes fared less well, with a very marked variation in the development of the young plants – both Gardener’s Delight and Tamina. The Fi sweetcorn fared still worse. I sowed 20 seeds each of two Fi varieties that yielded 12 and 13 seedlings. Barely 60% germination for an expensive Fi seed where I would normally expect a 90 – 95% strike rate. Worst of all were the Runner Beans T&M ‘White Lady’, where germination yielded barely 30% seedlings. The compost simply got wet in the rain and never quite dried out as one would expect, even when brought into an outhouse to dry. We’ve had a pretty dry spring here, but the seeds seem to have rotted away. I have previously had very good results with this well regarded brand, and have almost always had very good results with the seed, which cost about £25.

On neither occasion did I report my lack of content to the vendor or manufacturer. To be honest, when folk start taking the mick I tend to lose interest quickly. I still have half the bag of verve multi-purpose and the glass that cut me, and I can show you where the rat is buried. Bring your own spade.

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This debate has come by me recently due to the rubbish I found in the peat free recycled rubbish. I have suffered major losses with brassica seedlings, which make up most of my horticultural produce. Us growers know that plants breathe carbon dioxide and produce oxygen (and wholesome food). Im no expert in physics but I’m pretty sure that the carbon released from the peat in say, one tray of seedlings, is used many many times over by the growing plants. As they grow they gulp more and more co2 from the air and release good old oxygen.

One tray of seedlings grown in peat based compost will cover 300m sq allotment with many brassicas. When they are fully growing at full chat they will eat all the co2 they can get.

Remember history lessons about all the trees planted in London to clean the air? Nicknamed the lungs of London? …now imagine all the produce on farmland sucking up co2 in mid summer. A huge proportion of this is raised as seedlings in a relatively tiny amount of compost, peat probably and a the payback is huge both in carbon taken in by the produce and the lush, healthy acres of Cabbage, Cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts. No contest I think, and I will continue to use good quality peat based compost from now on until I can’t.