Peat use in horticulture has been a contentious issue for over 30 years. Until recently the arguments have revolved around habitat destruction: we know that draining and extracting peat does extensive damage to unique ecosystems, destroying the biodiversity in these sensitive habitats. However, as recent research has revealed, the benefits of healthy peatland go far beyond biodiversity.
Flood and Drought
Peatlands play an essential part in mitigating against the effects of climate change. Where peatland hasn’t been drained for extraction, it slows water loss from the hills in times of heavy rain and helps to prevent flooding. Healthy peat bogs also store water which is then available for use during droughts. Up to 70% of the UK’s drinking water is sourced from peatland, and these areas provide natural purification, reducing the amount of treatment needed before the water reaches our taps.
In contrast, damaged peatland erodes and leaches peat into drinking water, causing contamination.
The most convincing argument for the conservation and restoration of peat bogs concerns the ability of healthy peatland to sequester vast amounts of carbon, locking it away beneath the ground. Unfortunately, the UK’s peatland is now so degraded that it has become a net source of greenhouse gases: 16 million tonnes of carbon are emitted annually from UK peatland. This is equivalent to around half of all the reductions in carbon emissions made in the UK each year.
Carbon can be stored in layers of peat bog.
The good news is that going peat-free no longer leaves gardeners at the mercy of poor quality compost. There is now an extensive range of excellent products available for both professionals and home growers, including seed and potting mixes, and compost developed specifically for bulbs, vegetables, tomatoes and ericaceous plants. These days even growers of alpines and carnivorous plants have found peat-free mixes which are suitable for these specialist plant requirements.
This Lake District-based company produces Soil Association-approved composts on their small hill farm from renewable, natural ingredients. Sheep's wool and bracken form the core ingredients and the range includes seed, vegetable, bulb, ericaceous and clay-buster composts. I’ve been using Dalefoot products for years and have always been pleased with the results, especially with their new tomato composts which avoids the need to feed plants and cuts down on watering by 50%!
The RHS-endorsed SylvaGrow range includes organic compost, growbags, ericaceous compost and multi-purpose with added John Innes. The compost contains a blend of fine bark (a by-product of sustainably-managed British forests), coir (from a single, known source), green compost (a carefully-sourced, certified ingredient) and balanced organic nutrient. It is sufficient for the first three to four weeks of growth and is popular in many nurseries and garden centres around the UK. SylvaGrow is also available for home growers through local suppliers and online.
From multipurpose to potting and seed compost, Fertile Fibre has a wide range to suit different garden situations. All the products are based on coir sourced from organically-grown coconut trees in Sri Lanka, certified by international agencies accredited to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). There are no air miles involved in the products and to make the process as efficient as possible, the coir is dehydrated and pressed before being transported by container ship. One container delivers 285 cubic metres of finished material. Fertile Fibre also offers winter seed compost with added vermiculite for extra insulation and peat-free organic potting loam mix compost.
In the first few weeks of last year, Bloomin Amazing hit the top ten best-selling growing media products. Made entirely from a by-product of the UK’s first commercial biomethane generating plant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, this 100% peat-free formula is high in organic matter making it ideal as a soil conditioner and mulch. The product is much lighter than other mulches, clean to handle and almost odourless.
Whatever peat-free growing media you choose – and the range is growing every year – you can garden knowing that your choices are not contributing to the further degradation of key habitats in the ongoing fight against climate change.