Everything you need to know about ditching the peat in favour of more eco-friendly alternatives
What is peat?
When mosses and other plants in acidic waterlogged swamps die, they only partially decompose. They form a thick chocolaty compressed layer of organic material, rich in nutrients and with excellent water retaining properties. Gardeners know this as peat. Blended with fertiliser and minerals, we know this as potting compost.
So what’s the problem?
We all want to create beautiful environments around us - but should that be at the expense of the wider environment? Consider our peatlands as the UK’s rainforests. Lowland bogs and blanket bogs take thousands of years to develop. Compared with peat, our homemade compost might be considered the Usain Bolt of the composting world. Peat forms very slowly. In fact, it takes 1,000 years for just 1 metre of peat to grow.
Over time, these peat bogs create exquisite eco-systems. They clean up chemicals, and lock in carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes), reduce flooding and support incredible habitats for sphagnum mosses, butterflies and dragonflies, not to mention nesting sites for birds. We also depend on the soils for growing food, and for drinking water from river catchments.
But 80% of our peatlands are in a sorry state. Drainage channels have been cut into the peat to aid sheep grazing and grouse shooting, some of it is burnt in power stations – and large amounts are cut up to create the compost we find in garden centres.
As peat is used, eroded, or damaged and dried out, it not only damages habitats but releases industrial scale carbon into the atmosphere.
What is peat-free compost?
Most peat-free is made from wood fibre, composted bark, sawdust, wood or paper waste, but there are also products made from wool, bracken and coir (coconut husks) and composted green waste. Generally, these ingredients are muddled with coarse particles such as grit or perlite, and sometimes fertilisers, to create a balanced composition needed for good root growth.
Why should you buy it?
If there isn’t demand, there won’t be a need to supply it. The good news is the government has pledged to be completely peat-free by 2030, and phase out peat in garden products by 2020, and The National Trust and The Eden Project have already banned it. This has led to garden centres and manufacturers starting to produce more peat-free due to demand, though not all of it to a good standard…
How to buy?
It’s really important to read the label. Words such as ‘organic’ or ‘eco-friendly’ don’t mean a compost is peat free, and if there is no peat-free label, then the compost is most likely to be 60-90% peat. While many people complain about peat free not being as good as peat – in reality, it’s usually down to poor choice or poor usage. Always look for:
- BSI PAS100 - A certification for green compost
- Clock the price. You tend to get what you pay for, so really cheap peat-free will be dusty and nutrient-poor.
- Great choices include: SylvaGrow (www.melcourt.co.uk), a unique blend of bark from sustainably managed British forests, and coir; coir based Fertile Fibre Multipurpose (www.fertilefibre.com); Dalefoot Wool Composts (www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk) made from British sheep’s wool and bracken from the Lake District.
How to use?
Use a peat-free in the same way as peat and you may not get the results you want. This isn’t because the peat-free is not as good; it just needs a bit more thought.
- Always read the label - each mix will be suitable for different purposes, and it’s no good using a seed compost for hanging baskets.
- Some brands recommend specific fertilisers to go with the compost to create the right nutrient balance. You may need to feed over a longer period too: some experts recommend trying twice a week with 50% of the quantity.
- Many professional gardeners like to mix peat-free with their own homemade compost 50/50 – but experimentation is the key.
- To heighten moisture levels, it is recommended you water little and often over longer periods.