Choose peat free compost this spring

It’s spring, writes Lucy Oldroyd. The cold winds have passed. Surely, that is the last of the severe frosts. It is time to get planting! Trays of bright bedding at the supermarket, at the garden centre entice. Now for the compost. The bags are almost as bright as the bedding plants, but which one to choose? Which one is cheapest? Three bags for how much?

We are a clever species. We know the price of everything. But do we know the value of a bag of compost? A bag of dirt. It is trivial. Isn’t it?

How about the value of a peat bog? Less than one tenth of England’s lowland peat bogs remain. A scarce habitat home to unique animals, plants and insects. An important feeding and stopping-off point for native and migrating birds. A crucial factor in flood mitigation soaking up rainfall to release it back slowly. A huge store of trapped carbon, laid down over millennia. But as soon as the peat begins to drain, it begins to oxidise and emit that carbon back out again.

Our peatlands are the UK’s largest store of carbon, estimated at around 3.2 billion tonnes. That is more than all our forests. New licenses for harvesting peat are no longer issued by the UK government but extraction at existing sites will continue for years to come.

But we need peat to grow our plants don’t we? The Royal Horticultural Society disagrees and is working with exhibitors to transition towards no peat use at its shows by 2025. The RHS does not sell peat based composts and its nurseries and propagation areas are predominantly peat free. It is working with suppliers to replace peat-grown plants with peat-free ones in its gardens and to eradicate peat use in the plants it sells. 

Mark Gush, RHS head of environmental horticulture, estimates the RHS to be 98% peat free, the exception being some special collections. But do those of us without a national collection of pitcher plants or sundews really need peat? The RHS has lots of information on using peat free composts available on its website. 

The peat industry and the garden centres are wringing their hands. But this is so sudden, we need more time, they say. More people are gardening because of the pandemic so there is more demand. This is all eye-wash. Geoff Hamilton, of Gardeners’ World, began campaigning against peat in the 1990s. In 2011, the government set voluntary targets to end sales of peat-based compost for domestic use by 2020. It’s been a dismal failure. Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, says: “Countless promises have been broken and targets missed, with the result that precious peatland habitats are still being unnecessarily destroyed in the name of gardening.”

We are a nation of gardeners (not shopkeepers as Napoleon famously jibed). What power can a nation of gardeners show? If we cannot move mountains we have the power in our wallets to save peat bogs. We can petition the UK government to rescind peat extraction licenses. But that is a minor source of the peat in those gaudy plastic bags at the garden centre. Most of the peat we buy comes from Ireland or Europe. Here is a chance for UK gardeners to show leadership. What a role model for the world if we boycott peat! Let’s send a clear message to leave it in the ground. This spring don’t buy compost with peat. If the bag does not clearly state ‘Peat Free’ then it contains peat. 

Jessie Stevens eloquently stated the case against peat in her recent column ‘Call to Change’ (1st April) in the Mid Devon Advertiser and called on gardeners to begin a new era of gardening. Let us follow her call and now act for change.

Your choice this spring. What will you value? What will you save? Will you save a few pennies for a few bright ephemeral primulas? For a few pence more you can help save a unique habitat, an ecosystem, an irreplaceable source of biodiversity, a carbon store. What will you choose this spring at the garden centre?

Please sign the petition ‘Ban the use of peat in horticulture and all growing media by 2023’.

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