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Peat-free gardening

Peat in its natural state. Image credit and copyright: Rodney Burton Gardening is a hugely popular pastime and amateur gardeners use almost 60% of the peat used for horticulture in the UK.

What is peat?

Peat is a type of soil made up of waterlogged partially-decomposed plant material including sphagnum moss and other acid-loving plants, which has built up over something like 10,000 years in poorly-drained wetland habitats.

Why do gardeners use peat compost?

It has been used because it holds quantities of air and water and because it is relatively free of weeds and disease. Most gardeners don't realise how much damage is caused to the environment that the peat comes from. Also, gardeners are only slowly becoming aware that other products are just as good - and often better - than peat.

So what is wrong with using it?

Peat cutting in Somerset, England. You can really see the impact peat cutting has on the landscape! Image Credit and Copyright: Rodney Burton More than 94% of lowland bogs in the UK have been destroyed or damaged. Much peat collection is done on a large industrial scale which totally destroys vast habitats which have taken centuries to form and so cannot be regenerated - they are gone for ever. Living in these habitats are many rare and endangered species of plants and wildlife. Boglands are home for lots of different birds, butterflies and dragonflies. Water tables are affected by large-scale peat extraction and as the land dries up, the bog dries out and will die. Garden plants don't actually need peat, whereas bog plants growing in the wild do. For a case study of how peat extraction damages the environment look at the Wingecarribee Wetland Collapse in Australia.

What can gardeners use instead?

There is now a wide range of peat-free garden products, designed for use as growing composts, mulches and soil improvers. These are being used very successfully, though they need to be used in a slightly different way from peat-based composts. Many garden centres refuse to sell plants in peat-based composts, but there is still a need for the use of peat to be banned totally.

Look out for peat-free, or reduced peat grow-bags

Other alternatives

For seed composts, cuttings and potting up plants, the most used peat-free composts include coir (a brown fibre from coconut husks), composted bark or wood fibres. Nutrients are added to help plant growth.

Peat adds very little nutrient for plants - garden compost and leaf mould are much better. For vegetable gardens and herbaceous borders, a well-rotted manure provides a nutrient-rich addition.

Peat is sometimes used as a mulch - a layer on the soil surface to retain moisture and to prevent the growth of weeds. But peat tends to dry out and blow away, and is not nearly so effective as a mulch of chipped bark would be.

What can YOU do to help our peat bogs?

Make sure you and your family garden with peat-free compost. Build your own garden compost heaps. Only buy plants grown in peat-free compost. Mulch with bark chippings or well-rotted manure.