Peat is just a special form of partially rotted organic matter, forming over long periods of time in the waterlogged, acidic conditions of peat bogs and fens. An undisturbed bog ‘grows’ by about 1 mm every year, meaning that if you dig down 10 metres you’re going back 10,000 years or so into history.
Our peat bogs and fenlands are valuable wildlife habitats, and worthy of conservation for that reason, but we also need to look at them with an eye towards self-preservation. Peat is a massive carbon sink, and when we dig it up to use it in the garden we’re adding to our carbon footprint. The RSPB estimate that everyone in the UK switching to peat-free compost would save the same amount of carbon as taking 350,000 cars off the road – and it is far more easily achieved.
If you go into a garden centre and look at the different sorts of compost on offer then most of them – certainly the cheapest and the most popular choices – will contain a lot of peat. Only the ones marked ‘peat-free’ won’t – it’s still the exception, rather than the norm. Peat is being extracted far faster than it’s being replaced – it’s not a renewable resource in our lifetime. And the wildlife that depends upon it suffers.
But gardeners haven’t always been hooked on peat. Until the 1950s they would have put together their own soil-based potting mixes, using the resources they could easily get hold of, and tailoring their mix to what they wanted to use it for. A seed sowing mix, or a long-term container mix, and everything inbetween. But then the peat producers waged a very successful marketing campaign (according to the Wildlife Trusts), and gardeners everywhere came to see peat as an indispensable part of gardening.
It isn’t, though. Unless you’re growing carnivorous plants that would naturally be found in a peat bog, there’s almost nothing you can grow that would require peat. It’s even possible now to buy peat-free ericaceous compost for acid-loving plants – Bord na Móna have added one to their Growise range of composts, made using green waste, forestry by-products, naturally-sourced nitrogen and computer-controlled technology to ensure their mixes are free from weed seeds, pathogens and contamination.
Complaints about peat-free compost include that it’s more expensive, but that is changing, and at Wyevale garden centres (for example) you’ll find that the peat-free composts and grow bags are the same price as the ones that contain peat. There are also concerns that peat-free composts are lower quality and less consistent, and historically that has been an issue. But as more and more gardeners buy peat-free composts, manufacturers are getting better at making them. If you’re not a fan of composts that contain green waste, for example, then you can now buy New Horizon organic and peat-free multipurpose compost, as from 2016 they have changed their mix to avoid green waste.
One final issue is that distribution of the various peat-free options across the country is patchy. There’s a solution to that problem, and it lies with us. If the peat-free product you want isn’t on offer at any of your local garden centres, then tell them you want them to stock it (and buy it from them if they go to the trouble of doing so!). As consumers we have the power to create demand and change what’s available, and there’s currently an active campaign to increase the number of retailers who stock Melcourt’s SylvaGrow range. Melcourt supplies growing media to many of the UK’s leading nurseries, and have used that experience to create a range of peat-free composts for passionate gardeners that are sustainable, high quality, and tried and tested.
There’s so much controversy and misinformation about peat-free composts that the important information – how to use them – often gets overlooked. There are differences between peat-based composts and the new peat-free formulations, and you can’t simply replace peat in your garden and expect similar results. You do need to make some simple modifications to the way that you garden.
It may be counter-intuitive, given peat’s origins in waterlogged bogs, but peat-free composts hold water better. The surface layer dries out and can hide the fact that there’s plenty of water down below, and so it’s easier to overwater plants in peat-free compost. The trick is to gently dig down a little bit to see if the lower layers are still wet, before adding more water.
This extra water retention is great during the summer, as it means less effort watering. For plants that don’t like sitting in wet compost, the solution is to mix in some horticultural grit or sharp sand to improve the drainage.
You may need to adjust how you feed your plants, too, depending on which products you choose. Some mixes contain a lot of coir (a waste product from the coconut industry), which has no nutrients at all. Some will have been added into the compost, which will feed your plants for up to 6 weeks (which is normal for multipurpose composts) and then you will need to take over. A product which is based on green waste is likely to have more slow-release nutrients and keep plants fed for longer. Learn to use the health of your plants, and their stage of growth, as your guide for feeding them, rather than the calendar.
Gardeners deal with inconsistency on a daily basis, coping with different soils, rainfall patterns and microclimates as well as different planting plans and patterns. We have different gardening styles and techniques, and different hopes for our gardens. The idea that we are dependent on standardised peat-based potting mixes for success is insulting to an army of ‘amateur’ gardeners who are highly-skilled and knowledgeable about their local conditions, and can quickly and easily adapt to more eco-friendly options.
Emma Cooper has been gardening without peat since the dawn of the new millennium. Her book, The Peat-Free Diet, contains all the practical information that gardeners need to learn (or re-learn) how to garden without peat. Out in paperback in spring 2016.