summer flowers in reduced peat compost

The world of gardening is about to experience its biggest shake-up in modern times and it’s going to have a big impact on the way in which gardeners grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. Peat, the traditional ingredient in compost for plant pots, garden containers, hanging baskets and window boxes is being banned for amateur use in 2024.

peat free compost in a handFor decades, gardeners have put their faith in peat-based compost. It’s a brilliant growing medium and plants, especially those that need acidic conditions, adore it, so why has the government given its seal of approval to legislation that will consign peat to history?

The Royal Horticultural Society points out that peatlands are the world’s largest land-based carbon stores. The RHS claims that the planet’s 10 billion acres of peat hold “more carbon than all the world’s forests combined”. At least 80% of our peatlands are damaged, say experts, while it’s said to take 100 years for just 10 centimetres of peat to form in a bog.

When peat bogs are dug up and harvested for compost, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. With the climate emergency dominating headlines, ending peat use in horticulture is integral to worldwide efforts to minimise the rises in global temperatures that are leading to more frequent weather extremes and disasters.

peat bog being harvested

Credit: Pixabay

Join the Peat-free Compost Revolution

If you’re planning to make the most of growing plants in peat this year before it disappears for good, you could be disappointed. Some of the biggest compost suppliers plan to be between 90 and 98% peat-free for 2023, so high-peat compost could be in short supply.

The biggest obstacle to weaning gardeners off peat has been the poor performance of early peat-free formulations, which came onto the market around the time of the Millennium. Industry experts recognise that going peat-free too early damaged consumer confidence, but modern peat-free composts have been completely reformulated to deliver results.

To demonstrate how far peat-free compost has progressed, let’s compare with another household item that’s been transformed by innovation. Flat-screen televisions hit the mainstream market a couple of decades ago, around the same time as early peat-free composts. Back then, their pictures were sometimes blurry while fast-moving scenes could become pixelated. Twenty years on, images on ultra-high definition TVs are as razor-sharp as a cinema screen.

It’s the same story with peat-free compost. While plants struggled to grow in early peat-free mixes, modern blends are unrecognisable from formulations of 20 years ago, having been re-engineered for nutrient balance, water-retaining capability and promotion of abundant flowers and crops. Many, however, behave differently to peat and that’s where gardeners are going to have to rip up the rule book and learn how to succeed in a peat-free world.

peat bog harvest

Credit: Pixabay

Experiment With Performance

Firstly, it’s important to point out that anyone can grow plants in peat-free soil even if you’re new to gardening. In fact, many gardeners haven’t touched peat in years and have still enjoyed successful results.

Gardeners need to accept, however, that while peat was a consistent growing medium, the quality and performance of peat-free compost can vary considerably between brands, or even from bag to bag. That’s because peat-frees can contain a host of ingredients, from wood fibre to bark, coir and green compost (recycled organic matter).

With the cost-of-living crisis squeezing finances, it’s easy to be tempted by the cheapest option but that’s a mistake, because compost is the lifeblood of everything that you grow. With peat-free compost, you get what you pay for, so choose quality brands and experiment to find a blend that delivers great results.

peat free compost on sale at a garden centreRe-learn the Art of Watering

Watering is simple, right? That was the case with peat. If you watered a plant growing in peat, the compost dried out at an even rate. If compost felt dry at the top, it was likely to be parched at the bottom of the plant pot, too.

Due to their composition of multiple ingredients, many peat-frees behave differently. It’s common for a plant in peat-free compost to become as dry as the Sahara at the top, while roots at the base of the pot still sit in a plentiful supply of water.

The consequence is that gardeners inadvertently overwater, causing roots to become saturated. Many plants, especially tomatoes, need compost to remain evenly moist. Tomatoes that are allowed to dry out between watering are likely to experience problems such as blossom end rot and split fruit.

Whatever you’re growing, if peat-free compost appears dry, push your finger deep down into the compost before watering. If it’s damp below the compost surface, resist the temptation to water.

Another trick to tell if peat-free compost needs watering is to learn the weight difference between a dry and saturated pot. Fill two plant pots, keep one watered regularly and allow the other to become bone dry. One will feel significantly heavier than the other to pick up.

Boost Feeding Regimes

summer flowers in reduced peat compostUnlike peat, eco-friendly composts vary in their ability to retain water. Due to bulky ingredients such as bark, gardeners often notice that water runs more freely from the base of pots containing peat-free compost.

This has implications for feeding, as nutrients can be lost in water run-off. Feeding when compost is moist (never parched) holds the key to good nutrient take-up, whether you’re using peat or peat-free soil.

A major trial by a leading seed supplier last summer found that more than three quarters of tomato plants growing in peat-free compost showed signs of malnourishment (yellowing leaves) compared to plants growing in peat compost. The good news is that the company’s experts pointed out that this could easily be rectified with extra feeding.

The problem isn’t exclusive to tomatoes and gardeners will need to be alert for tell-tale signs of nutrient deficiency such as yellowing leaves, lacklustre cropping or a lack of flowers.

If any of these symptoms are evident, step-up your feeding regime without delay. Plants will thank you for the extra goodness and they’ll quickly be back on top form.

Have you used peat-free compost to grow plants in your garden? If so, let us know what your experience with using peat-free soil was like in the comments.

Marc Rosenberg bio
Marc Rosenburg at Powderham Plant CentreMarc Rosenberg is a freelance garden writer and editor. A former journalist with Amateur Gardening and Horticulture Week magazines, he holds seven Garden Media Guild Awards. Marc has written for publications including The Garden magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS online.