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Peat in compost is environmental vandalism (Mar21)

That’s what Monty Don says and I agree. But it’s incredibly common. UK gardeners are responsible for destroying our ‘rainforests’. It has to stop and we can make it happen.

Monty Don supports peat-free gardening

OK, so why is this such a big deal?

First and perhaps most importantly, peatlands are essential in our fight against climate change.  Whilst they only take up 3% of land area in the UK, they store 30% of soil carbon – a staggering 3.2 billion tonnes, in the UK alone.  Sadly, over 80% of the UK’s peatlands are damaged which means the peat is exposed to the elements and dries up – so instead of the carbon being stored it is emitted back into the atmosphere as CO2.

Apart from being beautiful, dramatic landscapes peat bogs are also home to rare and endangered wildlife, they help alleviate flooding and act as water filtration plants. 70% of drinking water comes from upland areas dominated by peat. 

Wildlife Trust the value of peat

So why are peat bogs being destroyed?

Ignorance is a key factor. The main cause is agriculture but peat is also used for fuel – the bogs are mined and drained. Apparently, the amount of peat used as garden compost is small by comparison – and much of it is imported. Does this make it excusable? Definitely not.  I wouldn’t want to be directly responsible for even a small part of destroying the rainforests, wherever they are – and the same goes for peat. 

Why is it so difficult to wean gardeners off peat?

Peat is primarily used nowadays as a growing medium – it’s good at retaining water and nutrients. There’s a contingent in the garden industry who are adamant that nothing but peat will do.  They say that peat-free composts are more expensive and require more processing. 

Interestingly, there is a growing body of opinion that peat-free alternatives can work just as well – or even better than peat.  I talked to Catherine Dawson from Melcourt Industries, who are the largest supplier of exclusively peat-free composting materials in the UK – they don’t sell anything containing peat.  She said that one of their product ranges has received the Gardening Which? Best Buy Award multiple times.  This is down to it’s good performance, rather than its eco-credentials! 

SylvaGrow from Melcourt – leading brand of peat-free growing medium

The biggest problem for Melcourt is that they can’t keep up with demand.  This is not simply due to Covid increasing interest in gardening, but also because the garden industry is beginning to wake up to the eco-impacts of peat.  So much so that at the moment Melcourt can’t accept orders from new customers.  Oh dear. 

Of course, the upside of this is that peat producers have a ready-made alternative business proposition, that’s much more sustainable – in both senses of the word.  Perhaps they’d move a bit faster if their customers were more adamant about moving to peat-free and refused to buy anything else. 

If poinsettias aren’t grown without peat, let’s buy something else

The move away from peat will also require some adaptation by gardeners, as alternative composts don’t always work as a direct replacement.  There may even be some plants that we no longer grow in our gardens. That doesn’t seem too much of a hardship to me.  

What organisations are leading the way?

I’ve been prompted to write this blog because I was ordering some plants for my wilding project. I wanted to make sure that the plants hadn’t been grown in peat and furthermore that they came from a nursery that was completely peat-free. This proved to be far more difficult than I had realised. Actually, I was amazed that this issue has made so little progress in the last 20 years. 

In about 2000 I wrote a poem to catch the attention of fellow Councillors on South Somerset District Council (SSDC). I can’t find it, but I remember that the final line was ‘If the National Trust can go peat-free why not the SSDC?’. I’m not sure it had the desired impact because looking at SSDC website the only reference to peat I could find was referring the peat moors on the Levels. 

National Trust owns Tintinhull House, where I lived between 1995 and 2004

The National Trust on the other hand agreed their peat-free policy in 1999. I talked to Simon Toomer (National Specialist for Plant Conservation at the National Trust) to find out more about what they’re doing – and how they’re leading the peat-free charge. 

He says that the Government has been slow to tackle the issue. They’ve set voluntary targets to halt all retail peat by 2020 and all horticultural peat by 2030 but the industry has fallen far short of this. He thinks the government needs to bring in a total ban on peat in compost – on extraction within the UK, its import, export and sale.

Simons’s view is that there hasn’t yet been enough demand for peat-free compost, which is why there hasn’t been enough effort put into alternatives.  One of the biggest challenges for the National Trust and others who are trying to remove peat throughout their supply chain is plug plants. These are the small seedlings often propagated in multi-hole trays.  He says that the buying power of the National Trust is not enough to get their suppliers to stop using peat for this. 

Plant plugs

Family run Blooming Wild Nursery, in Somerset, also made this point. They sell herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses and have a peat-free policy.  However, they haven’t been able to find peat-free seedlings from propagators.  

My experience

Going back to my experience. I discovered that the trees I had ordered were grown in ‘peat-reduced’ compost and that it would be very difficult to find alternatives. Aargh. I decided not to cave in. I managed to talk to Mike Burks the MD of the Garden Group, who own Castle Gardens. He was extremely sympathetic to my position. Actually, he seemed to welcome being challenged on this issue because it gave him some validation for taking measures to reduce or eliminate peat from their offering. 

He also acknowledged that it’s very important to educate customers on this issue and help them towards buying peat-free. However, it’s not easy to find their policy on peat on the company website! Hopefully, that will change soon!  The thrust of the policy is that they’re working towards peat-free and promoting it to customers, but they are still selling peat products and sourcing reduced-peat alternatives as a stepping stone along the way. 

The huge challenge for the industry is being able to find peat alternatives in the volumes that are needed. According to Plantlife, UK gardeners use about 3 billion litres of peat-based growing media a year.  Yikes. 

Now, I have a confession to make.  Some of the trees I ordered arrived before I realised that they’d been grown in peat-reduced compost – and I didn’t send them back.  In part, this was because the planting team were scheduled for the following day. But it was also because I thought that the environmental impact of returning the plants and getting replacements, would have been greater than using them and making a commitment to go peat-free for all future purchases. 

I believe that making my voice heard, as a customer, and getting others to join me, will be the most effective way to get the gardening industry to go peat-free.  This is not an issue for kicking into the long grass – the sooner the better.  If you want to find out more there are numerous organisations raising the red flag about peat – see below for contacts.  

I’m particularly impressed with the National Trust who made their commitment long before the rest of their sector.  Hooray for them and hooray for Monty Don, whose voice is being heard. Garden centres and nurseries should be moving away from ‘environmental vandalism’ as fast as they can. 

USEFUL LINKS

Blooming Wild NurserySomerset-based family-run nursery with a ‘peat-free policy.

CPRE – The bog blog: everything you never knew you needed to know about peat

Dogwooddays – Peat-free Nurseries List

Friends of the Earth – Why peat is good for the climate and nature: a guide

National Trust – Going Peat-free

Peat Free AprilCampaign to encourage gardeners to stop using peat and switch to peat free compost or make their own. 

Plantlife – why we need to keep peat in the ground – and out of our gardens

RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) – Peat-free growing media advice

The English Garden Magazine 30Mar20 – Go Peat-Free for PEATFREEAPRIL 

The Gardens Group peat policy – our path to peat-free gardening

The Wildlife Trusts – Environmental groups and Monty Don write to the Government calling for an end to the use of peat compost.

Powerful Peatlands – Peatland Solutions

Wildlife and Countryside Link – Where is England’s Peat Strategy?

Which? – Should I buy peat-free compost? 12mar21

UK Suppliers of peat-free growing media, found in The Garden magazine April 2021 

Bulrush

Dalefoot Composts

Fertile Fibre

Scotts – Love the Garden

SylvaGrow – Melcourt Industries

Westland – Garden Health

7 thoughts on “Peat in compost is environmental vandalism (Mar21)

  1. Bruce Harnett - MD Kernock Park Plants says:

    Hi Julia – Some thought provoking statements…

    I think there is an element of truth to the intimation that people (producers and gardeners) have not been driven to change from peat in the past, but I do not believe that is the case now. The biggest barrier to peat free production that I see in professional horticulture, particularly for our stage of young plant propagation is the availability of sustainable alternatives and the inconsistency in both supply and quality of these alternatives.

    As someone who cares greatly about the environment, if we are partially contributing to the “environmental vandalism” that you report, then of course we are not comfortable with this banner. In some quarters, depending on the size/stage/variety of plant the move to peat free has been more straightforward once making production adaptations. We are in a cohort that is trying desperately to move away from peat and as a business owner/producer, we have made some bold moves to towards significant peat reduction and peat free production. We produce millions of young plants, in their first stage of rooting and they are particularly sensitive to change in pH, EC and nutrient availability – something that peat traditionally provides in a stable manner.

    The jump to peat free has worked well for many subjects at certain points and we get excited about making a larger step, but then in many other cases, or different times of year or dependent on batches of media, it has led to significant delay, loss and crop shortage, resulting in loss of sales and customer confidence. In less dramatic cases we have to simply write to our customers (on a weekly basis) to say why X product looks inferior to product Y due to growing in peat free medium and hope that they have a similar forward-looking view on this subject. From a purely environmental stance you might say that this is a risk worth taking; we should work even harder, invest more time and resource to make the change. If this means significant pain, loss of revenue, customer confidence and orders, then so be it. I am sure you might appreciate that from a pragmatic ‘sustainable business’ stance, the pill is a little hard to swallow.

    In today’s world the consumer places increasingly high demands on the retailer regarding availability, quality and timing of offer, therefore growers are held accountable by the retailers to ensure their product is ready in the correct specification and timing. It is not so acceptable to simply not deliver as this is disruptive to all in the supply chain. The reality if we were to simply halt peat use tomorrow, the gardening landscape would be a very different place. The alternatives are not yet ready, or available in the volumes required. There would be significant loss of crop and eventually business casualties. Again, perhaps many would view this as a price worth paying for the environmental gains promised?

    I encourage the creation of the perfect peat free alternative, with a strong proviso that their environmental credentials are superior to those of peat. I am not an expert on the facts stated, the extent that peat is acting as a carbon sink and exactly what is the effects on habitat during extraction and once peat bogs are returned to nature. I do not know whether there is a definitive answer yet, as to whether there is a ‘sustainable level’ of peat extraction for horticulture. Whatever the answers and whichever peat alternatives gain general approval by all stakeholders, then as an industry we need to ensure supply and quality of these constituents. Each alternative needs significant development and research before being thrust into commercial reality. Whilst any business will be sensitive to increase costs in production, the price of the alternatives is not going to be the main driver as has been previously suggested. We realise that changing from the status quo inevitably has cost attached, at least in the initial stages.

    We will keep pressing on, making the advances that we can. We are already seeing some of the major peat suppliers reducing, or even stopping peat extraction now, or in the very near future which in itself will fuel the speed of the change. I truly believe that the majority of professional growers and gardeners alike will make the move away from peat as a growing media as the exit path becomes more clearly defined for them to explore and refine.

  2. Craig Sams says:

    Carbon Gold have been making peat free compost since 2010. Biochar compensates for the fixed carbon that you can only get in peat and it performs just as well, but costs a bit more. It uses coconut coir, which is a by product of a nutritious food industry and comes from coconut plantations that sequester carbon in the soil and in the wood of the tree, which always ends up in buildings. A negative carbon footprint. Once we have universal carbon pricing (Come on COP26!) the price of peat will quadruple and we can stop appealing to people’s deficient moral sentiments and appeal to their wallets

    • Julia Hailes says:

      Hi Craig, Could you let readers know where they can buy Carbon Gold? From the feedback I’ve been getting there’s more demand than supply for peat-free compost. Julia

  3. Jonathan Hoskyns says:

    Julia, Well done for drawing attention to this predicament. As you allude in your blog, supply of peat free compost is short at the moment and demand is far exceeding supply. The take-note points for me are the comparison of peat bogs to rain forest (surely absolutely no-one wants to be associated with cutting down rain forests?) and the fact,perhaps unlike heating oil or road fuel, that peat is an easy item to remove (or replace) from anyone’s shopping list without affecting living standards.. In other words, peat is a luxury we can all do without. I think your research has shown that a simple like for like replacement is not necessarily available now and may not be ever available in the quantity that British gardeners currently consume peat? More environmental gardening techniques maybe required in the future to reduce our reliance on peat based products and proprietary peat free composts need to become more specialised and of higher quality. The one aspect that I think needs pushing even harder is that while gardeners may not be the largest contributor to peat bog decline, they appear to be the only sector that hasn’t curbed their damage and recently, usage has risen considerably. The agricultural impact was greatest in the early 1800’s, when the draining of the Lincolnshire Fens and other lowland areas such as the Somerset Levels was completed. Since then, farming techniques have sought to reduce damage to peat soils and latterly (the last 40 years) more has been done to reduce the impact of agriculture on peat bogs by introducing wildlife reserves and the reflooding of small but important wetland areas. Since the 1990’s, the peat content in most composts has fallen from over 70% to around 45%, which looks better on paper than it does in reality. During that time, environmental targets set for the industry have been consistently missed and one of the main contributing factor is the increased consumption of peat based composts by gardeners. Gardening can be great for physical and mental wellbeing and could be a great asset to the environment too, but to balance the scales, the use of peat needs to be eliminated. Like almost all manufacturing, the industry is led by retail demand and there should be no excuse not to seek out peat free alternatives every time you have the urge to purchase compost. It may not be as simple to source as Julia might hope but almost every garden centre will have peat free alternatives on offer. It’s best to ask for advice before purchasing, as growing from seeds and cuttings is not as straight forward as it might normally be, but almost all other uses are like for like. COVID has put a spanner in the works at both ends of the chain. As a result of lockdown, more people were trapped at home and spent increased leisure time in their garden and consumption of all composts has risen dramatically. Gardeners are probably the only sector where peat use has increased since the 1990’s and in terms of reducing your carbon footprint, it’s probably the easiest move to make. The risk for me as a Garden Centre owner is creating a demand for something I can’t supply but I will be posting a link to your blog as soon as our next load of peat free product arrives, hopefully in the next few weeks. If you need any before then, we do have three peat free lines of growing media available for sale, but in rather limited supply.

    • Julia Hailes says:

      Thanks Jonathan. The majority of peat used in the UK now comes from overseas. Whilst this might relieve pressure on our peat bogs, it is still a significant contributor to climate change and biodiversity. Delighted you’ll be promoting peat-free where you can – and hopefully encouraging your suppliers to make the switch ASAP. Needs some market pressure…

  4. Julia Hailes says:

    Good news! I made a confession in my blog to planting the trees I’d been delivered, even though I had discovered they were grown in peat-reduced compost. It turns out that they were actually grown in peat-free compost! What a relief. But the battle continues. Some friends of mine brought me some pots of mini daffodils at the weekend. I had to reject them because I was certain they were in peat… A bit ungrateful but the benefit was that they’ve decided to stop using peat in their mini nursery… The ball is rolling and gathering momentum…

  5. Catherine Dawson says:

    Great article, Julia which concisely captures the main issues. The new cross-industry Responsible Sourcing of Growing Media scheme, due for launch very soon will give consumers much greater transparency on the ingredients used in composts. All inputs, not just peat, will be assessed for their environmental and social impacts, giving greater clarity all round. NGOs as well as manufacturers, retailers, growers and Defra have all been involved in its creation and it will undoubtedly help to drive change.

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