How the Peat Free April campaign aims to promote a peat-free future

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 March 2020

The wide peat field with brown soils on it. Peat (turf) is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter that is unique to natural areas called peatlands or mires. (c) NordicMoonlight/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The wide peat field with brown soils on it. Peat (turf) is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter that is unique to natural areas called peatlands or mires. (c) NordicMoonlight/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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The Peat Free April campaign is calling on gardeners to stop using peat in composts and switch to alternatives. Naomi Slade investigates...

Pile of peat bog turf stacked up (c) Jens Domschky/Getty Images/iStockphotoPile of peat bog turf stacked up (c) Jens Domschky/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When we head out into the garden, we green-fingered types tend to think that we are doing our bit for nature. Many of us encourage frogs and toads into our ponds, feed the birds in winter and carefully plant nectar-rich blooms to nourish the bees and butterflies.

But as awareness of the full and potentially devastating effect of human activity on our planet grows, and the spectre of climate catastrophe looms, some of our other gardening habits are rightfully coming under scrutiny. And this month, when sowing, pricking out and potting on reaches its peak, the Peat Free April campaign is calling on gardeners to stop using peat in composts and switch to alternatives instead.

The facts and figures are compelling. According to the campaign, 30% of land-based carbon deposits are in peat bogs. And, according to Plantlife, not only is the UK amateur gardening market responsible for using nearly 70% of the peat that is extracted from our bogs, but because the sphagnum moss grows so slowly, commercial extraction can remove up to 500 years’ worth of growth annually.

“While peat bogs only amount to 10% of the UK land area, they hold more carbon than all our forests and other soil types,” says Sara Venn of Incredible Edible Bristol, a volunteer organisation that is committed to creating community food gardens without the use of peat. “They are precious habitats for rare fauna and flora, and they effectively breathe carbon in and lock it up,” she continues.

There are also human impacts. Undamaged peatland locks up water from excessive rainfall, reducing the run-off and flooding downstream. “Extraction does untold damage, not just to rare ecosystems but also to our own support systems,” says garden writer Nic Wilson, who has compiled a list of peat-free nurseries on her Dogwood Days blog. “It pollutes water supplies and water companies pass these costs on to the consumer. As peatland is drained, it also becomes more prone to fires and less able to retain water in future, adding to the problems.”

Peat use is clearly undesirable and unsustainable, so how can we help? Well, firstly, we can exercise our purchasing power and actively not buy it. Peat is unnecessary for gardening and, although peat-free composts were historically variable, the newer formulations, particularly from Dalefoot Composts and Melcourt, are excellent – slightly more expensive, but worth it.

And don’t be fooled by words like ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ – if it doesn’t say peat-free, then it probably won’t be. Meanwhile, those who are particularly keen to stay in their ecological and moral comfort zone should be aware that organic and peat-free are not the same thing. Nor do these descriptions necessarily mean that they are suitable for vegetarians or vegans – reading the label and a little research will pay dividends.

At home, you can create your own potting mixes, using home-made compost, topsoil, organic matter, such as leaf mould and grit or sand, tweaking the proportions as necessary. You can also ask your local nursery to stock peat-free compost and plants – if they realise that there is a market, they often will. 
And some already do, as Nic Wilson has discovered.

“I started the nursery list as I wanted to source peat-free plants, but there didn’t seem to be any easily accessible information,” she says. “It now includes over 60 nurseries, although some areas are still under-represented, so I’d love to hear about other peat-free nurseries – my aim is to get at least one per county across the UK.

“It’s vital that we stop using peat, now that we know how much damage extraction does. There really is no excuse any longer – especially when there are so many excellent alternatives available. Peat-free compost might cost a little more, but I want to leave the environment in a better state for my children in the future.”

Peat-free compost brands

Dalefoot Composts, dalefootcomposts.co.uk – lots of formulations, including ericaceous, seed and bulb compost

Melcourt, melcourt.co.uk – their Sylvagrow® brand is RHS endorsed

The Compost Shop, thecompostshop.co.uk/peat-free-compost

Compost Direct, compostdirect.com – supplies Veggie Gold Compost in bulk

Westland, gardenhealth.com – produce New Horizon

For more information, visit Peat Free April Campaign at facebook.com/PeatFreeApril

Garden Organic, gardenorganic.org.uk/peat-free-growing

Plantlife, plantlife.org.uk/uk/our-work/campaigning-change/why-we-need-to-keep-peat-in-the-ground-and-out-of-our-gardens

Dogwood Days blog, for a list of peat-free nurseries: dogwooddays.net

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