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13 March 2014

Why Use Peat-Free Compost?

You may have seen peat-free compost at your local garden centre and wondered why you should use it, or like me have tried it in the past and not been very impressed with it. However the environmental reasons for it's use are convincing.

Peat bogs cover just 3% of the world’s surface but store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests put together. Healthy peat absorbs and stores carbon, but destroying peat bogs releases carbon dioxide. Manchester University research shows that, due to erosion and pollution, bogs in northern Britain could be leaking as much carbon each year as 400,000 family cars.

Amateur gardeners are the UK's main users of peat, using 2/3 of the 3.4 million cubic metres extracted per year.

94% of the UK lowland peat bogs have already been lost and 65% of all peat used in the UK is now imported, mainly from the Republic of Ireland, Finland and the Baltic states. This causes yet further emissions through transportation.

Peat mixed with sand and loam became popular with both commercial and amateur growers in the mid-20th century as a high quality growing medium, but to meet the demand acres of UK peat bogs were drained and destroyed. Peatland is now one of the UK's most threatened habitats though it supports a unique and beautiful range of plant, insect and bird life. Over 3,000 species of insect, 800 flowering plants and hundreds of kinds of mosses, liverworts, lichens and fungi have been recorded at Thorne Moors and Hatfield Moors in South Yorkshire.

Environmentalists, gardening organisations and the government all agree that the use of peat should be phased out and replaced by sustainable, locally sourced alternatives. Although more peat-free and reduced-peat products are being purchased, gardeners still account for most of the peat that is used in composts and growing bags. As the amount of compost we are using continues to increase, we're still actually using about the same amount of peat in our growing media as we did in the late 1990s.

Unless it's labelled 'peat free', most multi-purpose compost contains between about 70 per cent and 100 per cent peat. These tend to be cheaper than peat-free alternatives due to the extra processing required by the latter, making them more attractive to many gardeners. Also, until recently, peat-free mixes have had a reputation for being unreliable, and gardeners tend to stick with products they know and trust.

The quality and consistency of peat-free compost has been improving significantly in recent years, and a price increase of peat-based products might encourage gardeners to move towards peat-free products.

In 2008, the Growing Media Initiative scheme was launched, managed by the Horticultural Trades Association in conjunction with Defra, RSPB, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Growing Media Association and DIY and Garden Centre retailers. It's aim is to increase awareness of the plight of the world's peatlands and the need to use more sustainable materials in gardens. Resources are going into developing the use of green waste as an alternative growing medium.

To help preserve peat bogs, use peat-free compost, or at least a peat-reduced mix.

Follow the instructions on the peat-free packet to get the best results, as it's needs will be different to peat-based compost.

Experiment with different kinds of peat-free compost until you find one that suits your needs.

Avoid using peat or peat-based compost as a mulch or soil improver. Better to use well-rotted animal manures or your own compost. You can also mulch with wood chips, wood shavings and bark.

Steve Berry, Natural England's Wildlife Gardening Officer, made the following statement - "Having destroyed most of our own peatbogs we're now helping to destroy those in places like Latvia and Estonia. Most gardeners live a long way from peat bogs and may not see the appeal or the value of them but every time someone uses peat they're contributing to the destruction of this special and important habitat. There are plenty of non-peat alternatives that work almost as well as peat-based products. The more people that use and ask for non-peat ones, the greater the commercial incentive to improve them further."

We amateur gardeners should be helping to save these habitats and not helping in their destruction.
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