Whether you’re growing flowers and vegetables from seed, planting up containers and hanging baskets ahead of summer or cramming window boxes full of floral delights – there’s one vital ingredient that every gardener will be clamouring for this spring: compost.
Garden centres sell compost by the lorry load. From seed and cuttings compost to multipurpose and specialist John Innes mixes, the annual springtime ritual of lugging heavy bags from trollies into car boots is underway. But, even in the genteel world of gardening, the topic of compost can generate intense debate.
The trigger lies in the ingredients of our compost, and more often than not bags are brimming with peat. Here, we look at what peat-free compost is, how gardeners are shunning their addiction to peat, the environmental consequences of using it, and how eco-friendly shoppers can switch to sustainable peat-free alternatives and still be rewarded with healthy flowers, fruit and vegetables.
What Is Peat?
Peat is mined from raised bogs – wet, poorly drained, acidic areas of land that are low in nutrients, where over the course of a millennium or longer, it gradually forms from partially decayed mosses and vegetation. Bogs develop at an incredibly slow rate of just 1mm per year – meaning that it takes 1,000 years for an area that’s one metre deep to develop. The RSPB says that peat bogs “form a fragile home for distinctive and often threatened wildlife”.
Now you may ask, what has this got to do with gardening? Well, for decades, peat harvested from bogs has formed the basis of the UK’s commonly bought composts. It’s an ultra-reliable growing medium, getting seeds, cuttings and young plants off to a flying start. It is a relatively cheap commodity, too, as it can be easily compressed for transport, allowing producers to offer it to gardeners at competitive prices. Even to this day, although consumption of peat has fallen, around three million cubic metres of this brown, crumbly material is dug-up every year, destined for use in compost.
Is Peat Bad For The Environment?
Conservationists say that more than 90 per cent of lowland raised peat bogs in the UK have been lost, pointing much of the finger of blame at gardeners (traditionally, peat was also harvested to be burnt as a fuel). While bogs can be gradually restored after harvesting, a further worrying aspect of peat extraction has come to the fore. Experts on global warming point out that peat bogs are the world’s biggest and most efficient carbon store, often referred to as carbon sinks – and when peat is torn out of the ground, carbon locked away beneath the surface is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
How Peat-Free Is The UK?
The good news is that gardeners’ dependence on peat has fallen but there’s still a long way to go. More than ten years ago, the government set a target for garden centres to phase it out by 2020, but this voluntary goal fell by the wayside, with many garden centres still piled high with peat in 2021. According to The Growing Media Monitor Report, the amount of peat in compost sold to gardeners fell from 53 per cent in 2015 to 41.5 per cent in 2019. While it’s the first time that peat content in bags of compost has dropped below 50 per cent, it’s a far cry from the government’s peat-free targets.
Why Is Peat-Free Compost Sometimes More Expensive?
Peat compost is cheaper to produce – that’s why gardeners can be lured by multibuy offers, but opponents of peat use say this comes at a cost to the planet. Eco-friendly compost manufacturers have invested millions of pounds in developing and trialling peat-free ingredients such as coir, green compost and wood fibre, while competing for timber-based ingredients that are in demand from other industries, such as biomass energy production. While prices of peat-free products are coming down, gardeners who seek sustainable compost may have to dig deeper into their pockets for the foreseeable future.
How Can I Tell If Compost Contains Peat?
If the packaging doesn’t scream peat-free, then chances are that it contains peat. A growing number of manufacturers now print a peat content indicator, which can usually be found on the rear of compost packaging, showing how much peat is in the formulation. A garden industry scheme is currently auditing the environmental footprint of all compost ingredients and is expected to roll out a traffic light-style system of labelling within the next 12 months – similar to the energy efficiency labels that are commonly found on domestic appliances at electrical retailers. The aim is to help gardeners make better-informed choices when buying compost.
Which Peat-Free Composts Perform Best?
Some early peat-free composts – we’re talking 20 years or so ago – performed poorly, knocking gardeners’ confidence. Thankfully, compost technology is now so advanced that peat-free is no longer a poor substitute. In fact, certain modern peat-frees claim to outperform peat. Most garden centres stock tried-and-tested peat-free brands such as Westland’s New Horizon compost range, Miracle-Gro Peat-Free and the new eco-friendly kid on the block, Happy Compost from The Greener Gardening Company.
However, there are excellent peat-free brands that gardeners may not be aware of and can be tracked down online, including SylvaGrow from Melcourt which carries the ultimate accolade – Royal Horticultural Society endorsement. Other reputable brands include Dalefoot Composts, which are made from bracken and wool from Herdwick sheep, and Fertile Fibre’s coir-based compost range, to name a few.
What’s The Best Way To Go Peat-Free?
Gardeners must be prepared to experiment. Many will be used to peat’s superb water-retaining ability, ensuring that plants don’t dry out too quickly, but peat-frees can behave a little differently. As various brands contain different ingredients, a degree of trial and error is required. Wool-based composts, for example, are better at retaining moisture while bark-based growing media may hold less water than peat. Until gardeners get used to their chosen brand of peat-free, extra attention is needed with watering and feeding. The best tip is to opt for a quality peat-free brand, even if it costs a little bit more – and to follow the #peatfree hashtag on social media to read other gardeners’ recommendations of sustainable composts that deliver bloomin’ brilliant results.
Have you used peat-free compost in your garden? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.