Why on earth do we still grow plants in peat?

Matthew Roberts

The battle to protect and restore precious peatlands has been waged for 50 years. The arguments for protecting them are indisputable: peatlands are enormously important for wildlife and store vast amounts of carbon, so are right on the frontline of efforts to tackle climate change and nature’s collapse. Why, then, is peat still being dug up for use in gardens?

To many, peat bogs are the swampy, seemingly inhospitable landscapes of childhood fairy tales, where nothing much grows and in which Sherlock Holmes’ villains sink without trace. In real life, peatlands are home to a wealth of fascinating creatures and wild plants. 

They include the delicate sundew, a tiny bog plant that gets its nutrients by ‘eating’ insects, and sphagnum bog mosses, which form a glorious spongy carpet of rich golden, scarlet and lime-green hues - a feast for the eyes. 
These special mosses hold up to 20 times their weight in water, keeping the bogs wet. This creates ideal conditions for wading birds like greenshank and dunlin, and for the quarter of the country’s dragonfly and damselfly species that are found only on peatlands. The waterlogged conditions are also perfect for the formation of peat. 

Round-leaved Sundew

Sundew ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

But for too long, peat has been extracted for fuel and for use in horticulture, where it’s used to grow plants, or is packaged up and sold as garden compost. While extraction is often described as harmless-sounding ‘harvesting’, the removal of peat is more akin to mining. Peat develops incredibly slowly, at a rate of just one millimetre per year, while extraction can remove a metre or more in one go. Peat is, sadly, a non-renewable resource and removing it leaves behind a devastated, scarred landscape that really is devoid of life. 

As well as providing unique wildlife habitats, peatlands are of huge importance for people too. They help to prevent flooding, preserve buried treasure from centuries gone by, and store huge quantities of carbon.  We must keep remaining peatlands intact, and restore those that have been damaged, to lock up carbon and play our part in limiting global temperature rises. The Government’s own advisors - the Climate Change Committee - say that all the UK’s upland peatlands and up to half of lowland peat must be restored to help tackle the climate crisis. 

peat compost

The Wildlife Trusts want to see an end to the use of peat in gardening, protecting both carbon stores and places for nature.
The UK horticulture industry currently uses more than 2 million cubic metres a year, extracted here or imported from abroad. Two thirds of this is bagged up and sold to gardeners as compost – despite a target set by Government a decade ago for retailers to phase this out by 2020. This approach dramatically failed and, while peat sales have been falling, at the current rate of change they won’t end for another 20 years. 

We recently surveyed 20 major supermarket, DIY and Garden Centre chains about their plans to remove peat compost from their shelves, publicising our findings. Disappointingly, only a handful of respondents had committed to ending sales soon – Travis Perkins this year, and Wickes by 2025.

Our survey got a huge amount of media attention, as well as the support of gardening royalty. Eradicating peat sales was discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Today and Farming Today programmes, while the Daily Mail, Mirror, Telegraph, and Financial Times all covered the story. Quite unusually, our stance wasn’t just reported, it was supported. The Daily Express told readers ‘Speak to your loved ones and other gardening enthusiasts about peat-free compost to ensure they also try to garden peat-free’. The Guardian ran an unequivocal editorial: “The Guardian view on peat: keep it in the ground.”  

Gardener and writer, Monty Don – who once described using peat in gardening as eco-vandalism – backed our call, alongside fellow television gardeners Diarmuid Gavin and Jack Wallington.  

Members of the public were also quick to show their support – and tell of the challenges they’d faced in going peat-free. One person explained, “We have to either have it delivered, or drive to get it as the local garden centre which is literally a walk away won't stock it... ridiculous.” 

Another reported “I went to a large [well-known] supermarket, asked for peat free, and was told ‘we don't sell specialist composts.’” A third said, “Garden centres need to get on board and offer a better choice.” 

Several retailers have since publicised their plans to go peat-free. The Co-op announced they would be selling only peat-free compost by spring this year, while garden centre giant Dobbies confirmed that their compost sales will be 100% peat-free by 2022. The RHS’s compost sales have been completely peat-free since 2020. We’ve produced a table highlighting the peat-free products stocked by retailers, so that gardeners can check where and what to buy. 

Gardener and writer, Monty Don – who once described using peat in gardening as eco-vandalism – backed our call

While some retailers are taking steps in the right direction, our peat bogs cannot afford to wait any longer. After 10 years’ notice, and decades of calls from campaigners, you might consider it a failure on the part of retailers if the Government still had to bring forward a ban on peat compost - but as our survey shows, most are acting far too slowly, so we’re calling for an immediate end to peat compost sales.

It is essential that we find better ways of gardening and growing our food – and all gardeners can help by taking the first step now:  

  • Shoppers can pledge to buy only compost that is peat-free, sending a message to retailers.   
  • When shopping, look for clear labelling. Ingredients lists can be hidden away, and products labelled ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ may still contain peat. If a product isn’t shouting about being peat-free, it probably isn’t.  
  • Ask for peat free compost at your local garden centre – show them that the demand is there. If it’s not available, find out how to make your own compostat home. (Compost heaps are great for garden wildlife too!).    

 We are continuing to apply pressure on the government to introduce legislation that brings an immediate end to the sale of peat compost. This week, we wrote to Rebecca Pow, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to make her aware of our findings, and the urgent changes needed to make sure peat stays where it should be - in the ground. 

Compost

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