5 Things Home Gardeners Can Do to Address Problems with Peat

Blog post by Fay Edwards


1. Buy Peat-Free Composts

This Ethical Consumer/Friends of the Earth pdf has a guide to peat-free products on p.24-25. The best performers according to this guide, in terms of their impact on the environment, animals, working conditions and product sustainability are: Dalefoot CompostsFertile Fibre and Carbon Gold GroChar 100% Peat-Free CompostSylvaGrow by Melcourt is another 100% peat-free compost, made from bark from sustainably-managed British forests, green waste and coir. To find out more about the different ingredients used in these composts, visit the RHS web page on peat alternatives.

Dalefoot Composts provide a list of stockists that will help you to find a seller of their products in your area. For Peat’s Sake also have a helpful map which shows where to find UK sellers of peat-free compost and plants.

Floralive provide peat-free compost for carnivorous houseplants that, in nature, grow in peat-bogs. Their formula is called Thrive®.

2. Buy Peat-Free Plants

Garden Writer, Nic Wilson, has compiled an extensive list of peat-free nurseries that provide plants grown without peat. Floralive also sell peat-free carnivorous houseplants. Hear more about Sean Higgs’ journey to create the peat-free medium, Thrive®, on episode 103 of Jane Perrone’s On the Ledge podcast.

3. Buy Peat-Free Biodegradable Pots

Beware of biodegradable pots and growing kits that contain them. There’s no easy list here, you need to check labels to see whether they contain peat. If there is no information, they likely do.

4. Volunteer to Restore Peat Bogs

The IUCN Peatland Programme map is where to look to find peatland restoration projects near you. You can then contact these projects to find out whether they need volunteers..

The RSPB had this to say about their peatland restoration projects: ‘The RSPB and United Utilities work in partnership over 4000 hectares of blanket bog in the north of the Peak District National Park, restoring it from its recently degraded state to something that will provide us all with high levels of biodiversity (including lots of birds!), cleaner water (to reduce treatment costs and customers’ bills), that will sequester carbon, reduce downstream flooding and be more resilient to fires and droughts. The RSPB and our amazing volunteers from the local community work to raise the water table by installing gully blocks and restore the plant communities by planting sphagnum moss. It’s hard work in all weathers, but if you would like to join us then please email ryan.lloyd@rspb.org.uk.’

RSPB volunteers planting sphagnum mosses © 2019 RSPB

Your local Wildlife Trust may also need help restoring peatlands. Get in touch with them to see if you can help.

5. Support People Doing Right by Peat

You can share this page to spread the word as well as follow and share the work of these people on Twitter:

@TheFayEdwards, @DalefootCompost, @FertileFibre @IUCNPeat @for_peats_sake @PeatFreeApril @Moorsforfuture, Buglife = @buzz_dont_tweet, RSPB = @Natures_voice, @PEATLAND_action

You can also make charitable donations to the RSPBBuglife, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in support of their work restoring peatlands.

Information about Peatland Restoration & Sustainable Harvesting

For information on peatland restoration and why it’s important, see the Cumbria Wildlife Trust page on peatlands and bog restoration as well as the Moors for the Future Partnership website to find out more about their work restoring damaged peat bogs, which features lots of incredible facts and figures. See the Moors for the Future Carbon Audit to compare how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere by the partnership’s restoration work versus how much is removed by the bogs that are restored. Moors for the Future featured on the Today programme in 2019.

BEFORE: Black Hill peat bog before restoration by Moors for the Future © 2019 Moors for the Future

Dalefoot Composts also restore peat bogs. Jane Barker’s husband, Simon Bland, uses his mechanical excellence to create machinery that exerts such little pressure, it is capable of driving over extremely unsteady bare peat. Jane told me that their machines exert around 1.6 psi (comparatively, the average human exerts 16 psi). In particular, Bolton Fell Moss has been restored with the help of Dalefoot Composts. The restoration has been such a success that Bolton Fell Moss was declared a new National Nature Reserve by Natural England in July 2019. See the Natural England video on bog restoration in Cumbria for more information.

AFTER: Black Hill peat bog after restoration work by Moors for the Future © 2019 Moor for the Future

Buglife are also actively restoring peat bogs. Read more about their Slammanan Project in Scotland (mentioned in the show), where they’re busy restoring 230 hectares of bog to its former glory. This bog was damaged largely due to horticultural peat extraction.

For more on the effects of degraded peat bogs on water quality, see Natural Capital Scotland’s information booklet and the Moors for the Future page on this topic.

Find out more information on paludiculture here – the process for harvesting peat bogs sustainably (not yet a viable option) – mentioned in the show by Dr Flo Renou-Wilson.

Peat Bog Dependent Bugs

The Bog Sun Jumper Spider (Heliophanus damfi) prefers raised bogs (the type that are often mined for horticulture) and can only be found on a handful of sites in the UK. Here’s a map of the spider’s UK distribution.

The Sun Jumper Spider (Heliophanus damphi) © 2019 Lorne Gill

The White-Faced Darter Dragonfly’s UK distribution can be seen on the British Dragonfly Society website along with other interesting facts.

White-faced Drafter Dragonfly © David Pryce

Bog Specialist Ground Beetle, Agonum ericeti, distribution is better as it can live on most peatland sites. You find out more about the Pot Beetle here.

See the Buglife article from March 2019 about the alarming reduction in pollinator numbers, including pollinating flies, that were mentioned in the show.

Bog Specialist Beetle (Agonum erecti) © 2019 Scott Shanks

Peat-Free Success Stories

As noted in the episode, going peat-free does not mean sacrificing quality. Hippopottering Maples are entirely peat-free and have won Chelsea Gold five times since 2001, including a gold medal at the 2019 show.

All National Trust gardens are peat-free and even their trickiest plants are grown in peat-free mixes. The National Trust encourages home gardeners to go peat-free.

RHS gardens are entirely peat-free except for a select few plants, but they are trialling alternatives for these too. See the RHS peat policy for more information.

Full list of bug species that are dependent on lowland raised bogs for habitat and are threatened by peat mining for horticulture.

Resources, Facts & Figures on Peatlands

The BBC Ethical Peat Page has a good collection of facts and figures about peat use. One of these states: ‘The most recent government figures for the use of peat… in the UK show that although the quantity of alternatives has increased in the six years from 1999 to 2005, the amount of peat we’ve used – 3.4 million cubic metres (or more than 48 million standard (70-litre) bags of multi-purpose compost) in 2005 – hasn’t changed greatly.’

The UK government page on peat consumption (updated in 2010) says: ‘The UK currently uses three million cubic metres of peat per annum for horticulture.  69 per cent of this is used by amateur gardeners and 30 per cent is used by professional growers.  As peat is effectively a non-renewable resource, the extraction of peat for horticulture is unsustainable, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and damage to rare habitats and archaeology.’ See the government’s latest statement on peat use in horticulture, in which they say ‘we encourage gardeners to switch to peat alternatives.’

Where did I get the 3000 jumbo jets figure from? Calculation as follows: In the UK, approximately 3 million cubic metres of peat are used every year (figure taken from the two sources just mentioned). The BBC source states this equates to around 48 million 70l bags of compost. According to this source, 40 standard bags of compost weigh between 600kg and 1300kg. So, say around 1000kg. That means that while bags of compost weigh different amounts, on average, they weigh approximately 1000kg/40 = 25kg each. 48 million bags, therefore, weigh approximately 1200 million kg. Assuming that 70l bags of peat weigh roughly the same as compost, I found a figure for the weight of a jumbo jet on take-off, which is approximately 333,400kg. So, to find out how many jumbo jets are equivalent in weight to 3 million cubic metres of peat, take 1200 million and divide it by 333,400 = 3599 jumbo jets. To allow for a margin of error, I rounded this down to 3000. The figure is supposed only to be approximate and to give listeners a sense of how much peat is still being used in the UK.

How did I figure out the comparable numbers of cars on the road if we released the carbon stored in a rainforest versus in a peat bog? I used Dr Flo Renou-Wilson’s figures—that Amazon rainforest contains 300 tonnes of carbon per hectare, while Irish peat bogs contain 3000 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Then, I used the United States Environmental Protection Agency calculator to figure out how many miles releasing each amount of carbon would be equivalent to driving. If you do the calculation yourself you’ll see that 300 tonnes of carbon is equivalent to 2,689,486 miles driven by the average passenger vehicle, while 3000 tonnes is equivalent to 26,894,866 miles. I expressed these as ‘nearly 3 million’ and ‘nearly 30 million’ so the listener can easily hear the figures and the massive difference between the two.

IUCN Peatland Programme’s Peatland Strategy gives lots of information, facts and figures about peatlands and the effects of mining peat on the environment. You can also see the IUCN Peatland Programme’s website for more information on peatlands in the UK and around the world.

Other useful resources includes the University of Oxford’s PDF about peat and its environmental impact, Linda Chalker-Scott’s (Associate Professor of Horticulture at Washington State) fact sheet on peat and its use in the garden industry and the Office for National Statistics report on peatlands with interesting statistics.

Government & Garden Industry Positions on Peat

UK Government’s 2011 White Paper ‘The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature’, discusses the need to protect peatlands from p.28 onwards. It notes that a previous voluntary target to remove peat from composts (originally set for 2010) has not been met and that the market at the time of printing was ‘only 57.5% peat-free’. It sets a new voluntary target of all home gardening products to be peat-free by 2020 and peat to be removed from commercial horticulture as well by 2030. The various implementation updates that review whether targets set out in the original white paper are being met are available here.

Government 2017 press release on £10 million of funding being given to peatland restoration projects all around the UK, one of which is the Moors for the Future Partnership who appear in the show.

I requested a representative from the Horticultural Trades Association appear on the podcast, but my request was not responded to. However, the HTA did agree to supply a statement about peat use in the garden industry. Facts and figures from this statement were used in the creation of the show. The statement also discusses the introduction of a traffic light system on labels for growing media, much like the nutrition traffic light warnings on food products in some supermarkets. This would help to make clear to consumers what the environmental impact of each product is so that they can make informed decisions. View the full HTA statement on peat here.

Credits

Special thanks to the following people for helping me to complete this project:

  • Tom Kirkham who enthusiastically wrote and recorded all of the music for the show.
  • Tom Clements for the spectacular artwork.
  • Joff Elphick for constant time, attention and practical advice to help me record and publish this podcast. His own gardening podcast is called Pot and Cloche.
  • To Alex Geddes for coming up with the show’s name.
  • And, of course, to the many friends and family members who have supported me on the journey to produce this whopping episode. Especially Louisa Troughton and Simon Teare.