Going Peat Free

Prof Mark Reed

Prof Mark Reed

There would be an outcry if a company started excavating top-soil from your local park and selling it to gardeners. And yet most of us are silent about the excavation of peat from habitats that are just as valuable to us.

Like most of us, Im a weekend gardener (when I have time), and for the majority of gardeners like me, there really is no excuse not to use peat-free compost. And yet most people I meet have no idea of the damage caused by buying peat-based composts. Thats why I accepted Project Mayas invitation to front their peat-free campaign this summer. I hope that as you read this short article, youll have your eyes opened to the consequences of extracting peat, and the good you can do by making a pledge to stop buying peat.

Why peatlands matter

Peatlands are a vast green lung that provide unique places for recreation and wildlife, while breathing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorbing it into the peat. A loss of just 1.5% of the worlds peatlands is equivalent to all the carbon emissions humans create worldwide in a year. But an area of healthy peatland the size of a rugby pitch can absorb the equivalent of 4 return trips London-Edinburgh by car every year. Thats why we need to keep that carbon locked up under our feet, rather than digging it up and putting it on our gardens, where most of the carbon will end up being lost back to the atmosphere, where it will contribute towards climate change. 

Your average 100 litre bag of peat compost takes around 100 years to develop, as plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and turn it into leaves, stems and roots, which are eventually laid down as peat. A bag this size will have absorbed as much carbon dioxide over the 100 years it took to form as you would emit driving 236 miles in a petrol VW Golf; thats equivalent to driving from Birmingham to London and back, twice. Every month gardeners in the UK use enough peat to fill 69 Olympic swimming pools. We have lost 94% of our lowland raised peat bogs in the UK and there are just 6000 hectares left in good condition. Although most of the peat we consume in the UK now comes from abroad (principally Ireland), we are still extracting peat from the few sites we have left. Thats a problem for species that depend on these habitats, like those in the gallery below.

 

Gallery 1: Species associated with lowland bog habitats 

 

Why go peat free?

For me the answers are really simple:

  • You can protect important wildlife and prevent climate change by buying peat-free compost
  • Peat free composts are typically made using waste materials, reducing the amount of waste we send to land-fill
  • By buying peat-free, you support the development of a UK peat-free compost industry and UK jobs, instead of digging up our few remaining lowland bogs and supporting an overseas peat extraction industry
  • They work: most amateur gardeners are unlikely to notice any difference in the performance of peat-free versus peat-based composts, but some gardeners like to alter their watering and feeding regimes with peat-free composts to get the most out them.

If youre a serious gardener, it may be difficult to phase out peat use completely - there are some plants that are always likely to prefer peat, like carnivorous plants and ericaceous species. But you can still go a long way towards mimicking peat by buying a specially formulated peat-free ericaceous compost or by adding pine needles or bracken to your own compost to increase its acidity. Some enterprising hill farmers in the Lake District now sell peat free compost made from bracken, as well as ericaceous compost made wool sheared from their sheep and their neighbours flocks to provide slow release nitrogen and added water retention.

For me, its a bit like the whole argument over low-energy light bulbs - we all knew that they existed and that they were good for the environment for years, but many of us didnt switch till they were banned. Some of us remembered the low performance of early low-energy lightbulbs that took ages to warm up, some of us balked at the higher price of low-energy light bulbs, and some of us just kept buying what wed always bought out of habit. Early peat free composts often didnt perform well, and there were scare stories about finding nails or bits of glass, but these issues are now things of the past. Peat-free composts do typically cost a bit more than peat compost, and you have to read the labels rather than just choose the compost you always buy. 

Like low-energy lightbulbs, if we dont start buying peat-free composts voluntarily, they may eventually be banned. The Government has set a target to phase out the use of peat by amateur gardeners in England by 2020. They are monitoring peat use and will be reviewing progress next year to see if additional policy measures are necessary.

You have the opportunity to lead the way by making the peat-free pledge today, and letting everyone you know why they should take the pledge too. Our peatlands are a beautiful and incredibly valuable resource. Lets keep them and our gardens beautiful.


Mark Reed is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment at Birmingham City University, where he teaches on courses about Environment and Spatial Planning and Environmental Sustainability. He is also Research Manager for the IUCN’s UK Peatland Programme, where he is responsible for managing the UK Peatland Code. Mark is a Project Maya Associate, helping run a national course training researchers how to increase the impact of their work.