Peat is the horticultural world’s dirty secret.
Huge amounts are sold in bagged compost. And yet we know that peat bogs are rapidly disappearing. This means the loss of a rare and special habitat, but also the destruction of one of the earth’s greatest carbon stores.
Using peat in gardens destroys the planet. And it simply isn’t necessary.
We look at: what is peat, why it became so popular with the garden trade and the sad history of the lack of will to ban it.
What is peat?
Peat comes from peat bogs, it is an accumulation of partially decayed organic matter. Because it is stored underwater, it doesn’t release carbon as it decays. Peat bogs are the largest and most efficient carbon store on earth (10 times more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem, including forests) and they are an important defence against climate change.
Many peatlands have been growing undisturbed for thousands of years, and they hold nearly 30% of all the carbon stored on land. In an age of climate emergency, extracting peat is environmental vandalism. For instance, a loss of only 5% of UK peatland releases enough carbon to equal UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Peat bogs are also a very particular ecosystem. Their damp conditions and rare mosses provide a home to a wealth of plants, birds and insects. Many of which, such as the Large Heath Butterfly and wading birds like dunlin, can only survive in these rare conditions
Their cool, wet climate helps bog mosses and other plants break down very, very slowly to form a layer of peat, interspersed with plants, rocks and small water bodies.
What other benefits do peat bogs bring?
Peat bogs and moorland offer a rare experience of wilderness, solitude and inspiration. They are evocative of bird song, windswept fresh air and clear, clean water. In the words of the Scottish Government, they “contribute to making human life both possible and worth living.”
On a more practical level, the bogs are a flood defence and water clarification system.
Archaeologist use peat bogs as time capsules. Pollen and other plant material, which has been held in the bog for thousands of years, tell us about the climate and wildlife conditions of our ancestors. Destroying the bogs through peat extraction is like tearing up our history books.
Are the peat bogs really disappearing?
Of the 70,000ha of lowland raised bog in the UK, estimates suggest that only 3,800-8,000ha remain in pristine or near-natural condition. That’s just between 5% - 10% left. And with nearly 95% degraded or gone, restored peatland won’t be seen in our generation - or our children or grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren. It takes a whole year to create just 1mm of peat. That’s 1,000 years before the bog can start functioning again.
So why is peat popular with the horticultural trade?
Peat is easy to dig out and process into bags. Put it with other growing materials - such as loam and nutrients, minerals and fertilisers – peat will provide an excellent medium for plants to thrive.
Dried peat is also light and easily transported, unlike heavy garden soil. Its structure helps with the key issues of drainage and water retention.
Although it is not fertile itself, peat excels at holding artificial fertilisers added to the bagged compost. These CRFs (controlled release fertilisers) have been developed by the industry to give the consumer an instantly effective growing medium.
The long, sad history of the battle to get peat removed from horticulture
- The 1960s The UKs peat extraction scales up for the horticultural industry
- 1970s Conservationist David Bellamy raised the issue of peat bog damage
- 1990 A consortium of 14 leading wildlife and archaeological conservation organisations launched the Peatlands Campaign to emphasise the damage caused by peat-based industries, and to promote the use of alternatives.
- 1999 The UK Biodiversity Action Plan said 90% of the UK growing-media/soil improvers market should be peat-free by 2010, but the industry failed to meet the target.
- 2011 A natural environment white paper proposed ending the use of peat in England in the garden and hobby market by 2020, and the commercial horticulture sector by 2030. Garden Organic launches the I Don’t Dig Peat campaign, generating significant public awareness around the issue and pushing for change. A Sustainable Growing Media Task Force was set up with a target of getting results by 2015.
- 2015 The target was missed.
- 2019 A revised deadline was created for the end of this year. Garden Organic launches a second campaign in order to keep pressure on the industry.
- 2020 The government and horticultural industry still not banning peat. The Sustainable Growing Media Task Force still deliberating.
- 2021 The government is to announce its Peatlands Strategy. Industry, at last, is beginning to heed the call for peat-free growing mediums. But they are putting the onus on the consumer – you and me – without addressing the professional growers with any urgency.
For more information and tips on how to grow without using peat, please download our peat-free growing guide