Why is peat a concern for the environment - and what alternatives can gardeners use?

·4-min read
peat natural areas plants flowers environment concern gardening alternatives
peat natural areas plants flowers environment concern gardening alternatives

You can't scroll through Instagram these days without seeing a new plant mum or dad - beaming with pride as each day their beloved green things grow. However, what few gardeners seem to appreciate is that most commercially available plants are still grown in peat-based compost, despite the fact that the mining of peat is now widely condemned as unsustainable, environment-wrecking and carbon-emitting.

Like coal or oil, peat is effectively a finite resource. It does regenerate, but only forms at a rate of 1 mm annually.

Despite the millennial gardeners and younger generations being reasonably clued up on environmental matters and ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle, few budding houseplant lovers seem to be aware of the peat issue. Despite social media campaigns such as #PeatFreeApril and the disapproval of TV gardener Monty Don (along with the rest of the gardening media), the reliance on peat in the horticulture industry is still not a widely shared subject on social media.

However, there are signs that change is slowly coming - Dobbies, for example, the UK’s largest garden centre retailer, confirmed on June 25 that it will be peat-free in six months, in relation to bagged compost, bringing forward the original target of 2022. B&Q also announced in June that it is set to become peat-free across its bagged growing media range by 2023.

It is good news that peat-free growing media will become more widely available; however this does not address the fact that the majority plants for sale (mostly imported from Holland) will still be grown in peat-based compost. Here we look at why the peat habit so hard to break – and why peat is an environmental issue.

What is so special about peat?

soos nature reserve peatland bog area czech republic gardening plants flowers environment
soos nature reserve peatland bog area czech republic gardening plants flowers environment

Peatlands are a unique ecosystem that support biodiversity and serve as carbon sinks. Peat releases huge amounts of stored carbon dioxide when it is harvested, which adds to greenhouse gas levels.

Peat mining is effectively unsustainable – it grows back at just 1 mm a year.

What is the UK government doing about this?

In 2020, the Government’s voluntary deadline for ending sales of bagged peat compost to the amateur gardener was missed. This summer, Defra will launch a public consultation on the use of peat in horticulture. Defra says it will “consider further measures to end the use of peat”.

The voluntary phase-out date for the use of peat by professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants is 2030.

The EU and peat

Vast areas of Scandinavia and the Baltics are peat bogs; farming and using peat is long-established on the continent and is not the environmental issue it is in the UK and, more recently, Ireland.

The Netherlands is the centre of Europe’s horticulture industry and is robust enough to protect itself against environmental campaigns that might cost it money – peat is cheaper and more readily available than alternatives such as coir or bark.

While, legally, the UK could ban imports of plants grown in peat, it would be difficult to police what substrate imported plants are grown in.

In the Republic of Ireland, the biggest peat exporter to the UK, planning permission is now required to harvest. Semi-state peatlands board Bord na Móna has stopped digging up peat. In England, no new harvesting licenses are being granted.

How to go peat-free

peat-free compost gardening plants flowers environment
peat-free compost gardening plants flowers environment

Ian Drummond, of Indoor Garden Design, has been in the business for 25 years. He repots plants into Vulkaponic mineral culture substrate. Home gardeners can use products such as Evergreen Garden Care’s Miracle-Gro peat-free houseplant potting mix.

Any peat-free multipurpose compost is fine for most indoor plants, but to prevent it from compacting and suffocating the roots, add one fifth horticultural sand to compost. Or, for cacti and succulents, use a 50:50 sand/compost mix.

Perlite (mined volcanic glass), vermiculite (a mined silicate) or biochar (a charcoal) all do the job too, as does growing or buying your plant in a hydroponic water/fertiliser solution (featherandnest.co.uk).

How to grow your own plants rather than buy them in peat-based compost

plants peat free soil gardening environment flowers
plants peat free soil gardening environment flowers
  1. Grow your own succulents from a leaf: try sedums, echeverias and kalanchoes.

  2. Pull off a leaf. Fill a tray with half compost and half horticultural sand or grit. Put your leaf on top and regularly mist with water and the leaf should root. Alternatively, remove plantlets that have sprung up alongside the mother plant and repot.

  3. You can also grow certain houseplants from stem cuttings. Aeoniums are suitable. Cut a stem, dry for a few days, strip the lower leaves, plant the base in peat-free compost, water.

  4. Grow houseplants from seed: Suttons launched a range last year, including lithops, bat flower and coffee plant (from £2.49).

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