An Open Letter Promoting The Use of Peat is in Circulation – My Response

Yesterday afternoon when I logged onto Twitter, the first thing I saw was an open letter on the use of peat signed by some well-known professional horticulturists and illustrated with a picture of Peter Seabrook.  Earlier this year, I responded to some of the claims Peter Seabrook made about peat in Hort Week; today I’m responding to the claims made by the following professional horticulturists in an open letter, which was published by Garden Trade News.

  • Sir Brian H Donohoe – Ret’d MP, Secretary of the Gardening and Horticultural Group 1992—2015
  • Peter Seabrook – International TV Gardening Presenter/Gardening Editor, The Sun
  • Robert Hillier – Director, Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centres
  • Jim McColl – Presenter, BBC TV The Beechgrove Gardening Programmes
  • Adrian Bloom – Chair, Blooms Nurseries Ltd.
  • Jason Bloom – Managing Director, Blooms Nurseries
  • Bunny Guinness – Garden Designer and Broadcaster
  • Andrew Tokely – Horticultural Director, E. W. King & Co Ltd.
  • Garry Coward Williams – Editor, Amateur Gardening Magazine
  • Robert Wharton – Director, Wharton’s Roses
  • Paul Wharton – Director, Wharton’s Roses
  • Alan Sargent – Founder, Association of Professional Landscapers
  • Paul Cooling – Chair, Coolings Garden Centres
  • Neil and Nicci Gow – Experienced and Long-term Garden Retailers
  • Steve McCurdy – Managing Director, Majestic Trees Ltd.
  • Kenneth Cox – Director, Glendoick Nursery and Garden Centre, Ericaceous Plant Exporter
  • Christine Walkden – Gardening Broadcaster and Lecturer
  • Steve and Val Bradley – Authors, National Gardening Columnists
  • Graham Richardson – Group Managing Director, Johnsons of Whixley, and six fellow Directors:
  • John, Andrew, Iain, Robert, Eleanor, and Jonathon Whitemore
  • Douglas Wilson – Director/Partner, Trioscape Garden Centre and Nursery
  • Jo Davey – Horticultural Marketing Research and Development Manager
  • Michael Smith – Director, Grange Nurseries and Meadow Croft Garden Centre
  • Simon Crawford – Director, Burpee Europe
  • Tim Kerley – Director, Kerley & Co, Plant Breeders
  • Derek Jarman – Director, Hayloft Nurseries Ltd.

The letter starts:

The undersigned feel there should be a much more open debate on the peat in horticulture issue with both for and against statements up for discussion. It should be noted at the outset we all believe Sphagnum moss peat should not be used for soil improvement.

It is universally agreed peat should not be used for soil improvement, there are plenty of alternatives for this use, including garden compost, well-rotted manures and leaf-mould.

I totally agree with this statement.  Due to the fact that peat is still widely available, many gardeners have continued using peat as a soil conditioner or mulch.  Peat mulches don’t enhance the soil and using peat in this way is therefore an incredibly wasteful use of peat.  More effective, peat-free mulches include:

Sphagnum Moss Peat from Raised Bogs has been and remains the best constituent for seed, cuttings and potting composts.

There is more to this argument than which type of compost individual gardeners or groups of gardeners prefer to use.  Peatlands cover just 3% of our planet’s surface, yet our peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests; in fact, peatlands hold more carbon than all of our soil dwelling plants combined.  Healthy peatlands take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away, which helps to protect us from climate change.  However, this carbon hasn’t magically disappeared, it still exists and is held within the peatland.  Peatlands need to remain wet and intact to hold onto their stores of carbon; once a peatland is drained for agriculture or ripped apart and excavated to supply peat for horticulture, the carbon will start to oxidise when it will be released back into the atmosphere.

I’ve heard horticulturists claiming that using peat compost helps to keep carbon within the soil, but this isn’t true.  Once peat is removed from a peat bog and exposed to the air, it will immediately begin to oxidise and release its stored carbon; this process is irreversible, regardless of whether the peat is added to a container or dug into the soil.

By protecting our peatlands, we can protect their vast stores of carbon and keep this carbon safely locked away.  Healthy peatlands will continue to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.  Peatlands have the ability to protect us and our future generations now and in the future, providing we look after them.  More people are becoming aware of climate change and are starting to realise that to make a difference, a combination of effective actions and a faster response time is urgently required to achieve positive change.  Our peatlands urgently need our protection; environmentalists and scientists have been repeating this over and over, for decades.  We now urgently need action to protect and conserve our peatlands; we need our governments to invest in restoring and repairing these vital habitats.

Our peatlands are rare habitats that are home to rare plants, wildlife, and fungi, some of which can only survive here.  The UK only has 50.3% of its biodiversity remaining.  To protect our biodiversity we need to protect our peatlands.  We receive so many benefits from peatlands; these open areas of countryside are incredibly beautiful and provide tranquil places we can visit to relax, unwind, and spend time with nature.

Peatlands are naturally absorbent and hold onto large quantities of water, gently slowing the flow of rainwater to protect us from flooding.  Many of us benefit from high quality drinking water that has been filtered through peat.

It would be sheer madness to continue to use peat knowing these facts.  Monty Don summed it up perfectly when he said, “I am glad that – at long last – the use of peat is getting some attention but please ignore the absurd claims that peat is somehow ‘better’ than any alternative. Would you bulldoze cathedrals because they made ‘better’ rubble than other buildings?

Many gardeners and horticulturists, including award-winning nurseries, like Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants are peat-free and raise all of their plants in peat-free growing mediums.  I’m a peat-free gardener and I’ve grown a wide range of plants successfully.  I raise all of my seeds and cuttings in peat-free compost.  I’ve experienced excellent germination rates using peat-free growing media.  See the results of my Compost Trial: Growing Broad Beans and the results of my Compost Trial: Growing French Beans to see a comparison of seeds grown to maturity in peat-free and a peat-based compost.

Peat to case spawned mushroom growing media currently has no alternative.

Sadly, the mushrooms that are usually sold in our supermarkets are almost certainly grown in peat.  However, it is possible to grow peat-free mushrooms and peat-free mushrooms are available.  Maesyffin Mushrooms are peat-free mushroom growers, as are Garryhinch Wood Exotic Mushrooms.  I’ve even grown some peat-free mushrooms indoors using a brilliant kit (see the mushrooms I grew in this article).

If you’re interested in this topic, Sally Morgan wrote this article on mushroom growing and spent mushroom compost.

Moss peat use in seed and potting composts is currently, by all available measures, an environmentally friendly growing media and in most uses, results in the absorption of CO2, plus the sequestration of carbon in woody growth and the soil.

The use of peat in seed and potting composts is not environmentally friendly by any available measure; I cannot stress this highly enough – it’s quite frankly an absurd claim to make and is entirely untrue.

Plants grown in peat-based composts will not sequester any more carbon than plants grown in the soil or in peat-free growing mediums.  The carbon that the plants do sequester will be inconsequential in comparison to the vast amount of carbon that’s lost from the peat these plants were raised in, and that’s before you consider the associated destruction of the peat bog.  Peatlands are our largest terrestrial carbon store, they may cover just 3% of our planet’s surface but these precious environments hold more carbon than all our terrestrial plants.  Peatlands have the potential to store carbon indefinitely, if they remain healthy; whereas the carbon our plants hold is stored for shorter timescales.

Cut-away raised peat bogs can be restored, where water levels are raised and harvested areas re-seeded with the correct species of sphagnum. Newly planted sphagnum grows rapidly, laying down 5 to 7 cms per year, which make peat a sustainable and renewable resource. (e.g. Beadamoss)

The fact that peatlands can be restored does not justify peat use.  Peat use is not sustainable.  Healthy peatlands, planted with the correct species of sphagnum mosses, will lay down up to around 1mm of new peat a year, provided the mosses enjoy their ideal growing conditions.  The slow formation of peat means that peat extraction could never be considered sustainable, as peat is not renewable in human lifetimes.  The peatland’s benefits both in terms of biodiversity and future carbon sequestration also mean that peat use is not environmentally friendly.  Excavated peatlands release vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is not recoverable.  In addition, the range of peatland plants, fungi, and wildlife that were found in the area prior to the peatland being excavated may not recover or return.

Sphagnum moss can be grown and harvested sustainably as part of a peatland’s restoration.  The harvested sphagnum can be used to create a peat-free growing media.  However, this does not diminish the fact that the continued use of peat is not sustainable.  Due to its slow formation, peat is not renewable in human lifetimes.  Peatland plants, fungi, and associated wildlife all need protection and must be allowed to colonise and thrive in our peatlands; we need to protect and restore natural peatlands for wildlife and to safeguard our biodiversity.

Restoring cut-away bogs and the rapid growth of seeded sphagnum absorbs carbon dioxide in great quantity.

I’d be interested to see a citation for this claim; I am unaware of any studies proving that sphagnum mosses growing in restored cut-away bogs absorb any more carbon dioxide than sphagnum mosses growing in unadulterated, healthy peat bogs.  A natural peat bog that is left undisturbed would be far more beneficial to to us, our environment, and for biodiversity, than a peatland that was mined for peat and then restored.  I want the UK Government (and all Governments) to invest in restoring our peatlands, this is of critical importance, but the argument that a peatland can be mined and then restored does not justify the continued use of peat.

Most current peat-free composts need much higher rates of base fertilizer (up to four times more) to replace plant foods absorbed by breaking down fibres. They also need more regular watering (at least double), which in turn leads to nitrates being lost in drainage water. Peat has excellent water retention qualities and holds onto base fertilizers to feed plants.

Some peat-free composts need regular applications of fertiliser to produce good growth, but this is also true of peat-based compost, as peat is naturally low in nutrients.  Fertilisers are always added to peat-based composts, which isn’t always true of peat-free composts – some peat-free composts have no extra fertilisers added.  Peat-free composts vary, just as peat-based composts differ.  We should continue to adapt and improve our peat-free composts to resolve any problems with fertilisers.

Dalefoot Composts produce a range of composts that are very water-retentive and also rich in natural nutrients.  I potted up some daffodils in a planter filled with Dalefoot Wool Potting Compost in October 2017.  The planter has been left untouched and the bulbs have never received any additional fertiliser; it was only this year that I felt the daffodils needed dividing and re-planting into new compost.

The growth of some plants is not as good in many of the peat-free composts currently available and this includes all the ericaceous subjects, namely azaleas, camelia, heathers and rhododendrons.

Peat-free composts vary in their quality, and different composts suit some plants better than others.  This is true both of peat-free growing medias and peat-based growing medias.  Both good and bad results can also be seen in plants grown in peat-based composts.

I’ve grown Rhododendrons and blueberries successfully in Dalefoot Composts Ericaceous Wool Compost.  I am sure that peat-free ericaceous composts will continue to be improved by those who take up this challenge.

Air dried peat can be compressed and is light in weight, so uses thinner polythene in wrappers and less fossil fuel to transport.

Firstly, all compost – whether peat-based or otherwise – has an environmental cost/impact both in terms of transporting to retailers and consumers, and in terms of the plastic packaging it is wrapped in.

Thinner polythene tends to be less resilient and is often a one-use product.  I prefer ‘bag for life’ schemes, like those run by Melcourt.  For me, ‘bag for life’ packaging is preferable to using single use plastics, which might not be able to be recycled.

Peat is lighter to transport than many materials; coir and other peat-free materials offer similar benefits and can also be dried and compressed and used for compost.  We need to be aware that transporting heavy bags of compost around the country comes with an environmental cost that could be reduced if we set up more composting schemes in our homes and communities.  I’d like to encourage everyone to make more compost!

Sphagnum moss peat is sterile, clean to handle, pest and pollutant free. Unlike some of the peat free alternatives, where there is a risk of introducing weedkillers and plant diseases.

The risk of contamination with residue from weed killer is a very real concern with some sources of green waste.  These risks can be avoided by tighter controls and companies setting up their own dedicated systems that are guaranteed to be free of pesticides and any undesirable products.  Compost materials, like comfrey can be grown on larger scales for compost.  It’s worth investigating using different materials for compost production.

Peat free composts are made up to widely differing recipes, so it is very difficult for home gardeners to adapt their watering and feeding practices when the compost mixes are no longer standard. Where they experience poor growth and failures, we risk losing the attraction for people to stay at home gardening and growing some of their own food.

Naturally, peat-free growing medias vary from product to product and from one supplier to another, just as peat-based composts do.  There isn’t one single material that is used to replace peat in composts but a range of many materials, including home-made garden compost, leaf mould, composted bark, sawdust, and wood fibre, coir, comfrey, Typha, bracken, and wool.  Different composts require different watering regimes.  It’s advisable to check the compost in your containers before watering to determine whether you need to irrigate your plants; touch the compost or push a finger into the compost to discover whether the deeper layer of compost inside the pot is wet or dry.  Alternatively, for established plants, gently tip your plant out of its container to examine your plant’s roots and assess the compost’s condition and water as necessary.  When using a new compost for the first time, check your plants’ compost regularly (every day during periods of drought) until you’re used to how your compost performs.

I would suggest that we would be more at risk from losing home gardeners who purchase compost or plants in good faith in the belief that they are planting a tree and helping the environment, and then at a later date realise that their tree was actually raised in a peat-based compost and the compost they had purchased was also comprised of peat.  If you’re looking for plants raised in peat-free compost, check out Nic Wilson’s Peat Free Nurseries List.

Sign the Petition

If you would like to protect our peatlands and the rare, beautiful, and fascinating plants and wildlife that can only survive in these unique habitats, please sign this petition that calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to place a legal ban on the extraction of peat, peat imports, exports, and sales in order to protect peatlands both in Scotland and worldwide.  Please share with your friends and family, and post a link to the petition on all your social media channels.  Thank you.

Our UK Government has opened its peat consultation and is asking amateur gardeners, professional growers and anyone interested to compete a questionnaire.  To participate in the UK Government’s Peat Consultation and share your opinion, please click here.  NB: Scroll to the bottom where it says ‘online survey’.  To read Peat Free April’s responses to the UK Government’s Peat Consultation by clicking here.  NB: The UK Government’s Peat Consultation closes on the 18th March 2022.

To read about how the labelling on compost bags is changing and find out about the new Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media, which will be introduced in January 2022, please click here.

For more than 20 fabulous tips on how to compost successfully, please click here.

For tips on tree planting, please click here.

For more information about peatlands, please click here.

To see my calendar of snowdrop garden openings, please click here.

To see my list of snowdrop nurseries, please click here.

To see my Compost Trials, please click here.

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One thought on “An Open Letter Promoting The Use of Peat is in Circulation – My Response

  1. Anne Maddox

    December 21, 2021 at 9:23pm

    Hear hear to your robust response!

  2. Doug Simpson

    December 22, 2021 at 7:39pm

    An excellent and comprehensive response, especially when taken on board along with Monty Don’s recent article on this topic.

  3. Richard Collingridge

    January 10, 2022 at 3:27pm

    All your responses are spot on – thanks. Very disappointing that these ignorant and reactionary views are still being expressed. What century are they living in?

    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      January 10, 2022 at 3:47pm

      Thank you, Richard. We all need to work together to make positive changes to improve our industry and protect the environment and biodiversity.

  4. Rowan Adams

    January 11, 2022 at 9:07pm

    Well said Pumpkin Beth!
    I’m shocked that any true gardener could claim the nonsense that peat is the best growing medium for anything except plants that grwo in peatland habitats, let alone the nonensense that extracting peat from peatlands is ‘sustainable’.

    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      January 11, 2022 at 9:41pm

      Thank you, Rowan. It’s lovely to find another kindred spirit. I totally agree with you – the only place for peat is in a peat bog. Please stand up for our peatlands and fill in the questionnaire for the UK Peat Consultation – thank you. Best wishes, Beth

  5. Carol King

    January 13, 2022 at 4:11pm

    A well thought out and well put response, thank you pumpkin Beth, such a shame these well known names go for the easy option instead of considering to the future.

    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      January 13, 2022 at 6:24pm

      Thank you, Carol.It’s great to find kindred spirits.Thank you for helping to support our peatlands.Best wishes, Beth

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