There are much more climate-friendly alternatives to help your garden grow.

Gardeners have long prized the use of peat and fertiliser products containing peat because of its natural ability to retain moisture and oxygen without becoming waterlogged, and its ability to safeguard seedlings from fungal disease.

According to Friends of the Earth, every year gardeners in the UK buy some two million cubic metres of peat for their gardens (the equivalent of 23 Albert Halls full of the stuff), while peat makes up about half of the growing media used by the commercial horticulture trade.

It’s popular because it’s effective. But there’s an increasingly sinister side to peat-use – one that’s contributing to global warming and slowly undoing wider efforts to combat climate change.

What is peat?

Let’s start with the basics. Peat is partly decomposed plant matter that builds up slowly over thousands of years to form peatbogs, moors and fens in areas waterlogged with rainwater. Some peatlands are as deep as 10 metres and have taken thousands of years to form, and it can take a year or more for peat to build up by just one millimetre.

Not all peatlands are the same. Peat forms in blanket bogs, lowland raised bogs, lowland fens and upland flushes, mosses, swamps and fens – very different landscapes and locations but all requiring damp conditions.

Most peat sold to UK gardeners and growers comes from what are called raised peatbogs in low-lying areas, especially in the Republic of Ireland. Here peat is harvested on an industrial scale to sell to the horticulture trade and as a fuel.

What are the benefits of peat bogs?

Peatbogs play an enormously positive role in the environment. For a start, they act as huge carbon stores, sequestering one third of all the world’s soil carbon. In fact, a study by Natural England shows that a 10-metre deep fenland peatbog can store eight times as much carbon as the equivalent area of tropical rainforest.

Additionally, the nature of peatbogs means they’re important in mitigating flood risk (something that will become increasingly crucial as climate change leads to more extreme weather) and in improving water quality. They also provide a vital habitat for rare plant and animal species.

Why is peat mining bad for the environment?

Due to damage and degradation from peat mining, all the benefits listed above are being lost and the consequences are significant.

And it’s not just a question of losing carbon stores. When peatbogs are mined, the captured carbon within them is released into the atmosphere, first when the peatbog is drained prior to mining, and then when the peat is spread on fields and gardens, which adds to greenhouse gas levels. According to Friends of the Earth, losing just 5% of UK peatland carbon would be the equivalent of the UK’s entire annual greenhouse gas emissions.

And once mined, the unique biodiversity of the bog is lost. Rare birds, butterflies and plants disappear – it’s much harder to restore a peat bog than it is to replant a forest.

What is being done to protect peat bogs?

Despite the well-documented consequences of peatbog loss, the government has been slow to act. Back in 2010 it introduced a voluntary phasing out of peat compost with the aim of ending its use in private gardens by 2020 and in the commercial sector by 2030.

The measure was widely criticised for being too lax, and while campaigning has helped to reduce the amount of peat produced in the UK, much demand is now being met by other nations – around 7% comes from Baltic countries, for example.

Fast-forward to May 2021 and UK environment minister George Eustace announced that the sale of peat compost to gardeners will be banned by 2024, and that £50 million will be set aside to restore 35,000 hectares of British peatland.

Again, critics say that these measures are not bold enough. For a start, 35,000 hectares of peatland represents just one percent of the UK’s total, and many argue that legislation should include the horticultural industry rather than focusing exclusively on amateur gardeners who are often unaware of the issues surrounding peat-based products.

Nonetheless, removing peat from composts and grow bags will still make a difference, with experts claiming the move will have the same carbon benefit as taking 350,000 cars off the road.

What are the gardening alternatives to peat?

The good news is that there are lots of peat-free gardening options available, and where they were once more expensive or not as reliable as their peat-based counterparts, they’re now just as affordable and effective.

A great alternatives is natural compost, which gardeners can make at home themselves. Here’s our guide to starting your own compost heap. Other options include pine bark, wood fibre, worm castings and good old manure. Check out Gardeners’ World for a really comprehensive list of options.

More and more garden centres are stocking an increasing variety of alternatives, too, so make sure you look for the ‘peat-free’ label when you’re next shopping for supplies.

The bottom line

Peatbogs are vital to our continued efforts to mitigate climate change, and with good alternatives on the market it makes no sense to keep buying peat-based products. The government ban won’t come into effect for several years yet, but you can making a difference by choosing peat-free now.

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