Over the fence: the peat debate
How can we stop using peat in gardening?
What can gardeners and compost makers do to achieve the Government’s commitment to halt its use by 2020?
Those who think there isn’t wilderness left in Britain haven’t visited Munsary Peatlands, Plantlife’s 3,000-acre reserve in Caithness. Munsary is a vast, undulating plain under huge skies. There are sleet storms in June and walking on it is like wading through porridge but it’s worth it for its beauty and wildlife: carpets of colourful mosses and cotton grasses dotted with bog asphodel, marsh violets, cuckooflowers, sundews and common butterwort. These wild plants support butterflies, dragonflies and birds, including snipes and skylarks. Peatland also reduces flood risk, cleans drinking water and stores vast amounts of carbon. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “A loss of only 5% of UK peatland carbon would equate to the total annual UK greenhouse gas emissions”†. And we still think it’s okay to dig it up and pop it round our pot plants! Did you know that gardeners used three billion litres of peat last year? And it grows at just 1mm a year. Did you also know that the Government is committed to phasing it out in the amateur gardener market by 2020? Plantlife, working in partnership with the RHS (97 per cent peat free and counting), National Trust (100 per cent peat free), RSPB, Friends of the Earth and The Wildlife Trusts, is encouraging its members and the Government to honour this commitment. Just imagine if BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine’s one million readers went peat-free this Easter? Peat is like a bad lover – we know it’s wrong and it’s time to move on. Even the most acid-loving, peat-dependent plants like sundews and butterwort can grow in good peat-free composts. We’ve got two years. Why wait?
Ithink the question ought to be: “Should we stop the use of peat in gardening?” or even “Why should we stop the use of peat in gardening?” The reality is there’s not enough available material to create a sufficient quantity of peat-free compost to replace all the peat-based products on the market – and that is a problem for the gardener. Moreover, it’s my opinion that peat-free composts don’t perform well for gardeners, other than as a soil conditioner. So why not take a more sensible approach and use a blend? We’re adding a number of peat-free materials into our blend, which also contains peat. For obvious reasons, we don’t divulge our recipes, but I will say we’re using 8,000 tonnes of peat-free materials a year, most of which would have previously gone into landfill. This reduction in the use of peat goes some way to limit environmental impact. It also helps to make our valuable peat reserves last longer while enabling us to still meet the supply demands of our customers. If we are to avoid a crisis by creating a shortage of available compost, surely this is a more pragmatic way to approach the issue. And as part of the focus on reducing peat in products, after extensive research, we have developed a blend of recycled materials that benefit the environment by enabling a reduction in the use of peat and help to produce a longlasting nutrient boost to plant growth. Our company ensures best practice techniques in the extraction of peat, such as comprehensive after-use restoration, to create areas of natural regeneration and habitat for wildlife as part of our environmentallyaware policy. Of course, this work is ongoing, as we all try to be environmentally aware without compromising quality.
Dr Trevor Dines is a botanical expert at conservation charity Plantlife and has appeared on BBC1’s Countryfile Chris Durston is director of his family business, which produces both peatreduced and peat-free composts