Last year the UK government announced that all sales of peat to amateur gardeners in England would be banned by 2024 in an effort to protect peatlands and the natural environment. This will evolve to a complete ban on all peat usage by 2030.
What is Peat?
Peat has been used for centuries as a popular energy source. As the early stages of coal formation, it burns hotter than wood and was easier to mine than coal.
Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter in wetlands, swamps and bogs. In the UK, peatlands are most commonly found in the highlands and islands of Scotland, but also in Wales and Somerset. They cover about 10% of the land area, storing 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon, and account for over half of the entire country’s carbon storage.
It takes a century for a metre deep of peat to form, and minutes to destroy it.
When peat is removed from the water and exposed to air, it begins to oxidise. This releases the carbon stored within it as CO2, which goes into the atmosphere. This release happens both at the newly-exposed surfaces in the peatlands, and to the peat which is bought by gardeners and horticulturalists and used as compost.
How does Peat Harm the Environment?
Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon store, yet only around 13% are still in their natural state. This high level of degradation has occurred due to drainage for agricultural use, overgrazing and burning, as well as extraction for use in growing media.
Bagged retail growing media accounts for 70% of the peat sold in the UK and is frequently misused as a soil improver. Since 1990, professionals and amateur gardeners across the UK have used between 2 ad 3.5 million cubic metres of peat every year, adding up to an estimated total of 81 million cubic metres.
When this extraction takes place, the carbon stored inside the peat is released as carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.
Peat extraction also degrades the state of the wider peatland landscape. It damages the habitats of some of the UK’s most endangered wildlife, including the swallowtail butterfly, hen harriers and short-eared owls. It also impacts peat’s ability to prevent flooding and filter water.
Professor Alistair Griffiths, Director of Science and Collections at the Royal Horticultural Society, stated: “Peatlands are the world’s largest carbon store on land, with great potential to store carbon long term, helping to reach net zero. They reduce flooding, when rewetted reduce fire risks and provide valuable habitats for both plants and animals. To tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, it is essential that we have a sustainable transition to peat-free alternative growing medias.“
The RHS have trailblazed this move, having stopped selling peat-based compost in 2020 and banning peat from their gardens and shows. They aim to be 100% peat-free in all of their operations by 2025.
What are the Alternatives to Peat?
Peat-free potting composts contain a mixture of organic and inorganic materials. These might include bark, coir (coconut fibre), woodfibre or green compost, mixed with grit, sharp sand, rock wool or perlite. This mix of fine and coarse particles is needed to create a balanced compost that includes enough water and air, which are essential for root growth.
You can even make your own peat-free compost by using homemade garden compost, leafmould, and inorganic materials such as loam and sand. While this compost would have a very low carbon footprint, it might be difficult to standardise the PH, moisture retention, and available nutrients, and results might be variable.
Crucially, when shopping for a peat-free compost, ensure that the packaging explicitly states that it is ‘peat-free’. Words like ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘organic’ might lead you to believe that the product is peat-free, but this isn’t always the case.
For more advice on peat-free growing media, check out the RHS website here.
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