Peatlands and peat bogs: precious environments that need our protection

Protecting peat bogs

Peatlands are extraordinary environments, which now cover just 2-3% of our planet’s surface.  These scarce ecosystems are very fragile; they depend on sufficient moisture being available, together with a slightly cooler temperature range, to enable sphagnum moss (which slowly forms peat) to grow, flourish, and reproduce.  If optimum conditions occur, a new layer of peat, (measuring up to one millimetre thick) can be created over the course of a year; consequently, this is not a resource that can be replaced in a hurry.  Indeed, new peat production cannot be guaranteed.  Very often the necessary conditions: the ideal temperatures and light quality, necessary acidity and moisture levels, the required moss species being present and putting on adequate growth to enable peat to be created, are not all in place simultaneously for sufficient time and as a consequence new peat is not always produced every year.

Protection from flooding

Peatlands are precious habitats that help and protect us in many ways.  In our changing climate, flooding is an increasing concern.  Peat is a naturally absorbent material that improves water quality.  Peatlands soak up and hold on to vast amounts of water, which helps to prevent flooding.  Water moves slowly through peat; peatlands curtail and soften the flow of water, to guard against flash floods.  Sadly, many peatlands have now been excavated or intentionally drained; so the protection these valuable areas once offered us has diminished over time.

Thursley Common National Nature Reserve features areas of open dry heath, peat bogs, and areas of woodland. Visitors can see carnivorous plants and a wide range of rare and interesting flora and fauna.

Storing carbon

Our largest terrestrial carbon store, peatlands store more carbon than the world’s forests.  Peatlands act as a carbon sink; they lock carbon safely away.  Peat bogs have absorbed billions of tonnes of carbon, but this carbon has not disappeared, it’s held in safe keeping, within the peatland.  When peat bogs are excavated, this benefit is lost and the peatland’s carbon is released into the atmosphere.

It’s not only excavated peat bogs that are being weakened.  Peatlands that have been drained to allow animals to graze lose their ability to regenerate.  As the water within the peat reduces, these peatlands begin to erode and oxidise; as they degrade, peatlands release their carbon stores back into the atmosphere.

Many Estates that run grouse shooting activities adopt a practice of burning moorlands to increase new growth in moorland heathers, so as to provide more material to feed increasing numbers of grouse for people to come and shoot.  This practice damages peatlands, kills the mosses, plants, and wildlife that make these areas their home and unlocks the peatlands’ carbon stores.  New peat production is dependent on sphagnum mosses, whose successful growth creates new peat; without these mosses new peat cannot form and the peatland cannot prosper.

With our planet’s temperatures rising, there may be years that pass without any opportunity for new peat to be produced, as sphagnum mosses require cool temperatures and optimum water levels to flourish.  Many of the fragmented peatlands that remain have been severely damaged by peat extraction, which is heartbreaking.  Yet, if these peat bogs are protected and restored they can recover.  It will take a considerable time for the health of these important sites to improve, but with expert restoration it can happen.  Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland, who run Dalefoot Composts are experts in this area; they take great pride in working to restore and repair peatlands that have been damaged by peat extraction or beset by other problems.

Simon Bland of Dalefoot Composts, pictured at Dalefoot Composts stand, at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Peat free gardening…is it possible?

I am a peat free gardener; I am an advocate for using peat free compost.  I passionately believe that it is of vital importance that peat bogs are conserved, restored, and protected.  I desperately want to encourage gardeners to give up peat and switch to using peat free compost.  I feel that it’s absurd for us to keep destroying peat bogs, whether it’s in the name of horticulture and gardening, or for any other industry.  Together we need to care for and heal our planet and protect our peatlands.

Why are peat free composts more expensive?

Peat based composts are cheap for companies to produce, as the peat just needs to be excavated from the peatland.  In contrast, peat free composts are expensive to produce.  The ingredients needed to manufacture peat free growing mediums need to be purchased and sourced from different areas; very often techniques, machines, and technologies are required to create these growing mediums, which need to be specially designed for this purpose.  Naturally, areas of land need to be purchased, or hired, to create a space where the peat free compost can be generated, developed, and created, and once these components are all in place it takes time for quality growing mediums to be devised and invented.  To me, these costs are understandable; I believe it’s important to pay people fairly for their work and contributions.  Purchasing a peat free compost is an investment in our environment; peat free composts are worth their weight in gold, as they help to protect our peatlands.

I understand that many gardeners have grown up using peat based composts and the majority of gardeners are most familiar with this type of growing medium.  Peat free composts are not created equally; some are much better quality than others.  But please don’t be daunted by the prospect of using peat free compost; I want to show you that there are good quality peat free composts on the market – I use my regular Compost Trials to demonstrate just how good peat free composts can be.

Can we make a difference?

Amongst the billions of people on this planet, it’s tempting to believe that any changes we make as individuals will have no real effect and to feel that we cannot possibly make a difference to this beautiful planet ourselves.  We might placate ourselves with the thought that one person who switches to a peat free compost from a peat based compost will make no difference whatsoever to the world.  I disagree; I believe that we all make a difference.  Let’s use our individual power for good; together we can change the world and the status quo.  Peat is a precious resource, and peatlands are a vital part of our environment, they need our protection now more than ever.

Do plants need peat?

I think it’s important to say, that most plants will grow just as well in a peat free compost as they would in a peat based compost.  Many plants grow far better without the inclusion of peat in their growing medium.  Naturally, there are exceptions, carnivorous plants that have evolved growing in peat bogs grow best in a peat based compost – but even then not just any old peat compost will do – you need to use a compost that’s specifically tailored for the type of carnivorous plants you’re growing.

Drosera rotundifolia, also known as the round-leaved sundew grows in peat bogs.

Compost Trials

I spend a huge proportion of my time and money running peat free Compost Trials, to help my readers find the best quality composts to use in their gardens and allotments.  I want to give gardeners the confidence to purchase peat free composts and help gardeners find top quality growing mediums that won’t harm the environment.

When we think of a precious environment, we might picture a coral reef or a rainforest.  These areas are indeed precious and should be conserved and protected.  But this is also true of our peatlands.  The whole planet benefits from the protection that our peatlands give us; for too long this has been taken for granted.  We’re so fortunate to have peatlands in the UK, Ireland, and Europe; we need to be more aware and grateful for the protection these vital habitats offer us.  We cannot allow our peatlands and peat bogs to continue to be damaged, we should treasure and cherish these extraordinary environments. Together we must stand up and protect these fascinating habitats before it’s too late and they’re lost forever.

Please don’t purchase peat based composts; let me guide you to good quality 100% peat free growing mediums.

Other articles that may interest you……………..

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One thought on “Peatlands and peat bogs: precious environments that need our protection

  1. Find a hobby

    May 6, 2020 at 4:42pm

    Awesome! I love gardening and this post help me a lot. I got new tips from your article.

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    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      May 6, 2020 at 5:19pm

      I’m glad you’ve found the article to be helpful. Best wishes, Beth

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