More on Peat

May 2022

This updated page is based on the leaflet we produced for a market stall in Leighton Buzzard, celebrating the rapid increase in availability of peat-free composts for sale to amateurs, and the huge strides being made by some sections of the commercial growing industry. Spoiler: despite a current publicity campaign by many sections of that industry and a couple of celebrity gardeners saying that you can’t grow commercially in peat-free composts, many others are taking the plunge and joining the list of growers who’re just getting on and doing it.

What is peat?

Peat – sometimes called peat moss – is partly decomposed plant matter that builds up slowly over thousands of years to form peat bogs, moors and fens in areas waterlogged with rainwater.

But peatlands across the world are disappearing fast. Many of us use it in our gardens. Fortunately, it is becoming easier to find cheap alternatives to peat.

Why is peat a valuable natural habitat?

We don’t have lush rainforests in the UK and Ireland. Peatlands are our rainforests, and like rainforests, we’re busy destroying them.

Peatlands are internationally significant nature hotspots and vast carbon cupboards. 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.

All peatlands are important natural habitats in their own right and for the other wild species they support such as carnivorous sundew plants, and uncommon insects such as large heath butterflies, four-spotted chaser dragonflies and picture-winged bog crane flies.

Peatlands are also a natural form of water purification and flood protection. Acting as a huge sponge, peatlands soak up and retain water in the landscape, holding back potentially dangerous floodwaters.

When peatlands do release water, it’s cleaner because peat acts as a filter. Water companies are realising they need peat to continue doing this to help them avoid having to clean and purify water so much before they supply it to us.

Why does the government want to ban peat?

Digging up peat releases a lot of carbon dioxide, which we need to keep in the ground. The world needs to reduce its carbon emissions to keep the planet liveable, and not using peat is one of the easier ways of doing that. Ireland, Germany and Switzerland are already banning the use of peat in the horticultural industry, as they feel the benefits in terms of climate change, flood prevention, biodiversity and water purification outweigh the fact that it’s a cheap and profitable commodity when it’s drained and dug up.

The government says it will ban the sale of peat-based growing media to amateurs (that’s most of us) by 2023, and to ban its use by commercial growers by 2030.

The horticultural industry has said that large commercial growers aren’t able to use other types of growing media. In 2011 they offered to reduce their use of peat voluntarily, but unfortunately they’ve done very little about it.

Despite this, many UK growers have been successfully using the newer peat-free composts for years. Recently, Tesco announced that from now on, its bedding plants will be grown in peat-free compost. If they can do it, anyone can!

Bridge Farm growers, who supply Tesco (photo from Tesco website)

Why is the horticultural industry campaigning against a ban on peat?

– They’d have to make some changes to the way they’ve done things in the past, and the newer composts might cost them more (digging up peat is really cheap and very profitable).

– You need slightly different skills to grow in the newer, peat-free growing media, which might mean some retraining.