More Questions & Answers About Peat

Urgent Action is needed to protect our peatlands

We urgently need our leaders to take responsibility and introduce laws and treaties that will protect our environment.  There is so much to be done that could help our planet and not enough action being taken.  Many of the messages and promises that were shared at COP26 are statements that have been shared many times before but are yet to be acted upon.  Leaders may have sounded impassioned in their speeches, but I am concerned that the rapid and effective activity needed to follow up on their promises is lacking.

One way we can all help the environment is to go peat-free.  Today, across the UK, peat is still being sold in bags of compost and many growers are continuing to use peat to propagate and raise plants, produce turf, mushrooms, and more.  We need our government to take urgent and effective action by implementing a ban on the use of peat in horticulture and invest in restoring our peatlands.  In the UK, currently 80% of our peatlands are in a poor and degraded condition and require urgent restoration.

We need our governments to make haste and implement a thorough and effective ban on the use of peat in horticulture

The UK Government set a voluntary ban that asked retailers to go peat-free (stop selling bags of peat-based compost) by 2020.  Time has passed and we’ve now reached the monumental year of 2022, when UK customers can visit the majority of garden centres and choose from a wide range of bags of peat-based compost (including offerings comprised of100% pure peat) and purchase plants that have been raised in peat-based growing media.

The horticultural industry cannot ignore longstanding government policy and modern-day requirements to address both the nature and climate emergencies.  We should be focussing our energies on finding positive, sustainable solutions to these problems, not looking for ways to extend such damaging practices.  Reasoned discussion has been going on for 30 years about peat use.  Back in 2011, Defra gave the horticultural industry clear guidance on the need to end sales of retail peat by 2020.  It is the industry’s failure to respond adequately to taking up a voluntary approach to government peat policy over this long timescale for change has led to a more pressured situation today.  The mass of scientific evidence clearly demonstrates the urgent need to end peat use and restore our peatlands.  I feel it is also important to say that the Climate Change Committee is advising for rather more challenging targets than Defra’s consultation.

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.  You don’t need to live in Scotland to sign this petition.  Please share with your friends and family, and post a link to the petition on all your social media channels.  Thank you.

Some horticulturists have questioned why if peat exposed to air oxidises, why is it still there, in place when a container grown tree is dug up years after planting in the soil?

When peat is used in gardening, the carbon element of the peat oxidises into CO2, but the structural elements of the peat – the decayed remnants of mosses and other plants, cellulose and lignin are still present.

The carbon dioxide that a plant takes in from the air during photosynthesis becomes part of the structure of the plant.  In garden and woodland plants, their stored carbon is held for shorter time periods than peatland plants.  When our garden plants die, their plant matter decomposes and is broken down by bacteria, fungi, and organisms that thrive in an aerobic, oxygen-rich environment.  It’s the act of the plant material decomposing in air that releases the plants’ carbon.

Peatlands differ; within the watery anaerobic environment of a peatland there is insufficient oxygen to enable bacteria, fungi, and organisms to facilitate the full decomposition of plant matter and therefore the carbon remains locked away within the peatland.  In a healthy peat bog, plants and mosses live and die in amongst each other, whilst being immersed or semi-immersed in water.  Over time, the life and death of a multitude of plants all growing and dying together in this anaerobic environment will eventually develop new layers of peat.  A healthy peatland will continue to both hold and sequester carbon.

Over a period of a thousand years, a healthy peatland can produce a layer of peat that is up to one meter in depth

If a healthy peat bog enjoys optimum water levels and is blessed with a plentiful supply of sphagnum mosses and other peatland plants that thrive in this watery, nutrient-poor habitat, over the course of a year, a layer of peat that’s up to one millimetre deep will form.  Inevitably there will be periods of time where the peatland is exposed to less than ideal conditions and no new peat will form in the year.  In optimum conditions, after a period of a thousand years a healthy peatland will form a layer of peat that reaches up to a maximum of one meter in depth.

Peatlands are our largest natural terrestrial carbon store. Despite covering just 3% of our planet’s surface, peatlands store more carbon than all the world’s other vegetation types combined.

When a peatland is dismantled to provide peat for horticulture, the once wet peatland is drained and the surface vegetation is removed.  As the cut and drained peat dehydrates and oxidises, it triggers the peat to continue decomposing and as a consequence the peat begins releasing its store of carbon as carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is often referred to as a ‘greenhouse gas’ – it’s associated with climate change.  Carbon dioxide is an invisible gas; we cannot see the carbon dioxide being released from the dehydrated peatland.  When the carbon from peat compost has been released into the atmosphere, it is the decomposed plant matter that remains.

Mulches

As bags of pure peat or peat-based composts are so widely available and sold very cheaply, some gardeners have continued using peat as a mulch.  However, using peat as a mulch is an incredibly wasteful use of peat.  Peat-free mulches, like homemade garden compost make far more effective mulches, and they’re also better for our gardens, plants, and biodiversity.  Homemade compost also saves gardeners money.

Bagged composts

When we talk about compost, we might be referring to homemade garden compost or potting compost sold in bags at the garden centre.  Bagged composts contain CRFs (controlled release fertiliser) which only lasts for around four to six weeks.  However, new research shows that artificial fertilisers actively discourage plants from creating an important link with the natural organisms found in our soils that help the plants access nutrition and moisture.  Bagged potting mixes will do very little for the soil structure.  Homemade garden compost is bulkier and is without any artificial additives, making it a more positive addition to your garden.  I hope to encourage more gardeners to set up compost heaps, as homemade compost will help improve soil structure for all types of garden soil.  This wondrous free material helps to break up and improve heavy clay soils but also aids moisture retention in light sandy soils.  The organic matter in homemade composts feeds the microbes, fungi, and bacteria in the soil, and they in turn will feed the plant roots.

Raised beds

If you’re creating raised beds in your garden, please don’t rush out and spend a fortune on filling the beds with compost.  Filling raised beds with peat or peat-based compost won’t be anywhere near as beneficial for your plants and garden as using soil and homemade garden compost.  The practice of using peat is incredibly harmful to the environment and this is not the best use of peat.  Instead add regular mulches of garden compost each season before you sow your seeds.  Why not save money and instead try the Hügelkultur technique of using branches, prunings, grass cuttings, straw, and other plant materials to make a mound and then cover with soil and sow your seeds?  Another option is to try straw bale gardening, using straw bales as raised beds.  If you do try straw bale gardening, it’s important to check that your straw bales are made of straw and not hay.

A look at the inside of a raised bed made using the Hügelkultur technique.

As a society, we urgently need to realise the immense value of protecting and restoring our peatlands.  I feel that most people recognise the importance of protecting our forests and understand the need to plant trees for future generations; I wish that our peatlands enjoyed a similar level of reverence and understanding.  I am sure it goes without saying, but I am absolutely and resolutely against the burning of peatlands in any form.

I’m a peat-free gardener.  I want to encourage you and your friends, family and neighbours to go peat-free and I also want to ask garden centres and retailers to stop selling peat and encourage growers to switch to peat-free methods.  Why wait?  We’re in a climate emergency.  We need to act now!

Every compost we use has an associated environmental impact and cost, including peat-free compost.  The most sustainable compost is homemade.  I hope to encourage as many people as possible to start compost heaps in their gardens.  We should all be making more compost ourselves and re-using old, spent compost.  It is the perfect time to start a compost heap!

If you’d like to purchase plants, shrubs, or fruit for your garden or allotment, seize the moment and buy bare root plants now during winter, while the plants are dormant.  Bare root plants are usually field grown and are often more environmentally friendly, requiring less irrigation, and avoiding the need for any plastic containers or compost.

More information

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

To read my response to the open letter about peat written by Peter Seabrook and other well-known horticulturists, please click here.

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

To see my Compost Trials, please click here.

For information on planting trees, please click here.

Sara Venn has written about her experience of turning a conventional nursery that used peat-based growing mediums into a peat-free nursery, and her experience of running her own herb nursery on her blog.

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 hereThe Peat Consultation closes on the 18th March 2022.

If you’re interested in permaculture or forest gardening but don’t know where to start, why not commission Jake Rayson to create a design for your garden?

To find nurseries that raise their plants without peat, please visit Nic Wilson’s Peat Free Nurseries List on her blog.

For a list of snowdrop nurseries and suppliers, please click here.

For more information about peatlands, please click here.

To see my Calendar of Specialist Plant Fairs, Festivals, Plant and Seed Swaps, please click here.

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