Now we are teetering on the cusp of Spring (hands up, I sowed my first seeds last night in the greenhouse), you may be aware of the nationwide campaign to go peat-free. This refers to swapping out traditional peat-based composts for peat-free alternatives.
However, if you're like me - you may find it hard to change old ways if you don't know why you're being told to change!
What is Peat
Firstly, to get an idea on why we shouldn't be digging up peat it's important to understand what peat is - the International Peatland Society puts it as 'peat is the surface organic layer of a soil that consists of partially decomposed organic matter, derived mostly from plant material, which has accumulated under conditions of waterlogging, oxygen deficiency, high acidity and nutrient deficiency.'.
In the background you can see how heavy machinery is used to remove peat.
In simple terms, peat is a soil-like substance made from plants decomposing in a unique environment.
Peat is exclusively found around bogs, a special type of wetland with a high acid content (there are a number of unique forms of wetlands around the UK). It is this high acid content found in a bog that stops organic matter from fully decaying.
One of the UK's many peat bogs, surrounded by native plants.
On average, it takes around 1 year to build up a layer of peat 1mm deep. To save you the maths, it would take 1000 years to build up a layer of peat 1 meter deep. So hopefully you can get an idea of how hard it is to replace something that forms at a very slow rate and in a very unique natural setting.
Why we need to preserve our peat bogs
It is important to preserve peat bogs because they provide a number of benefits to the environment. Considering how small we are on the world map, the UK contains around 15% of the worlds peat bogs! The National Trust have been peat-free in their gardens for over 20 years now. On their website they have compiled a simple list of the key benefits of peat bogs and why we should leave them be.
This picture shows how peat is scraped from a bog and then cut into blocks to dry.
Peat holds more carbon than the combined forests of Britain, France and Germany. And that's a lot of forest!
Many scarce species inhabit peatlands including unusual mosses, grasses and even flowers.
Peat holds up to 20 times its own weight in water. Essential for water management.
Peat preserves a record of past vegetation, landscapes and people. Providing an important insight into the past.
Where gardening comes into it
Horticulture is one of the main sectors for contributing to the removal of peat. This is down to the simple reason that peat is a fantastic medium for growing plants. It holds water, key to keeping plants hydrated, and it contains an abundance of essential nutrients, key to plant growth.
It's no surprise that in 2020 peat compost sales increased by 8%.
In recent years the peat content in bagged composts have decreased. However, a number of big brand names still use up to 50% peat in their growing mediums. In 2021 DEFRA reported that bagged compost contributes to around 70% of peat sold in the UK. So you can get an instant idea that it is us - the day-to-day home growers and gardeners, who have a part to play in contributing to the demand.
Why do we need to change our growing methods?
The Government have announced a possible ban on peat sales for 2024. With many big institutes and individuals in the Horticultural world behind this, I'd be surprised if it didn't go through. So you're much better off spending the next few years trailing new growing methods and adapting, as opposed to being chucked into the deep end with no ideas when the ban comes into force.
What are the alternatives?
Since the late 80's independent makers of compost have been playing around with substitutes for peat. Early pioneers found that finely-cut coir (the fibre from the husk of a coconut) made a great replacement.
A close up of raw coconut husk. You can notice the fine fibres.
It's no lie that bagged peat-free compost is more expensive than peat-based compost. That's down to the fact that peat, as a raw material, is a) easy and b) affordable to 'harvest'. So why not make your own! There are two ways that you can play with making your own compost.
Buy or make a compost bin to recycle your garden waste to eventually make your own soil-improver/mulch/growing medium. You can find an absolute abundance of videos and guides online on how to do this. However, if you don't have the time to wait 6 months +, the other alternative is to make your own coir compost.
Fertile Fibre now sell their very own coir blocks for you to wet and mix in the garden. As you wet the compressed coir, it will expand and loosen until it becomes a fine mix of fibres. From here you can blend in feed and other additives as you seem fit for purpose. The Fertile Fibre website has videos on how to do this if you're interested to see how it works.
Just remember that the larger brick you buy = the total cost per litre you make will go down.
Once watered, the compressed bricks will loosen and expand.
In case you don't want the hassle of either of the above, buying bagged compost will save you time (and mess). When shopping around, bags of peat-free compost will shout about the fact they are peat-free. If you're looking at a bag of compost and it doesn't mention peat-free... it most definitely contains peat.
If you're looking to switch to peat-free from reading this article, here is a list of 3 main manufacturers who sell peat-free compost.
Dalefoot - Dalefoot in my opinion is the champion. Their range of targeted composts are made from a unique mixture of locally sourced bracken, wool and comfrey up in the Lake District. They have improved water-retention over coir-based composts due to the wool content and their composts typically contain nutrients sufficient for the first 12 months of growth. Approved organic ranges.
Fertile Fibre - The original peat-free compost, Fertile Fibre was established by friend's of the Yard Kim & Rob in around 1989 from their farm in Worcestershire. With a background growing medal-winning herbs and flowers, they knew what plants required. Now owned by local farmer Matthew Dent and based here in Herefordshire, the company focusses on selling coir-based compost, raw coir bricks and even a biodynamic range.
Melcourt - RHS approved, Melcourt's SylvaGrow Multipurpose is made from a fine mixture of coir, bark and wood fibre. It contains balanced nutrients sufficient for the first 4 - 6 weeks of growth. Vegan-friendly.
Whilst a good product, their lorries persist to drive over the verges on the local country lanes around their HQ in Long Newnton (Gloucestershire). Verges are an important feature in our countryside - so minus points for that. Sorry Melcourt!
How have I made a change at Tom's Yard?
It would be very rich of me to talk about peat-free without having made my own steps to reduce my use.
From 2022 I have stopped using peat-based composts to make displays in my Yard.
From 2022 all of my seeds and plants at home will be grown in peat-free mediums.
I have only ever stocked peat-free compost to sell.
I have written this article to try and help your awareness on the topic.
I'd just like to finish off this article by saying that all of the research above is available on the public domain and I have not been paid or approached by any of the companies mentioned to write this or to promote them with any bias aside from my own person feelings and experiences. This has been an independent article that I've taken the time to prepare and publish.