Compost: Time to say goodbye to peat

The massive market in peat-based compost is contributing to carbon emissions and destroying precious natural habitats. Susan Murray goes in search of the planet-friendly alternative in Lewes – plus a link to The Wildlife Trusts’ petition to ban peat-based products. 

It’s that time of year when we get busier gardening, whether it’s on a windowsill, in the garden or on the allotment. Like everything, though, there are important decisions to be made about the right thing to do for the planet. A very significant one involves our choice of compost for potting or for topping up vegetable beds.  

Many people will be making their own compost but if you need to buy in an extra bag or two then it is vital to ensure it is peat-free. Why? Well peat is hugely important to our planet – it acts as a carbon store, it’s an essential habitat for wildlife, it has a role in water management, and even preserves things well for archaeology. 

What is peat?

A peat bog is a type of nutritionally-rich wetland whose soft, spongy ground is composed largely of living and decaying sphagnum moss, which can store 20 times its own weight in water. Evolving over millennia, peat bogs are found throughout the world primarily in northern regions where they can be supported by cool temperatures and adequate rainfall. It’s estimated that peatlands cover as much as 5% of the world’s land surface. 

Peat bogs are wonderful carbon sinks, storing carbon away for ever unless we mine the peat for gardening. In the UK, it’s estimated that there are over 3 billion tonnes of carbon stored in our peatlands – equivalent to all carbon stored in the forests of the UK, Germany and France put together!

What’s the damage?
When we do choose to mine peat, however, three things happen: 

  1. A peat bog is drained prior to mining and immediately starts emitting greenhouse gases. After mining, the remaining peat continues to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
  2. The carbon in peat, when spread on a field or garden, quickly turns into carbon dioxide, adding to greenhouse gas levels.
  3. The unique biodiversity of peat bogs is lost. Rare birds, butterflies, dragonflies and plants disappear. It is much harder to restore a peat bog than to replant a forest.

Peat is popular with gardeners and its dirt cheap, but it is not a renewable resource. A paper by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that we would have to reduce our peat use to 2% of the current level in order to balance what we take out with what builds up every year. Peat use currently emits some 400,000 tonnes of carbon every year so it’s crucial that we think about the future and stop using it now. 

Going peat-free sounds so easy to do, but there is a big problem. Despite the government being aware of the issue and making suggestions to compost manufacturers and garden centres about the need to stop using peat in their products there is no legislation in place to enforce anything. Hence there is still plenty of compost based on peat available commercially and it can be quite difficult to find a peat-free version when you visit a garden centre.  

Buying peat-free compost in Lewes
All is not lost, though. Locally, the place to go is Fi’s Yard in North Court off Cliffe High Street in Lewes. Fiona makes a real feature of her commitment to locallygrown plants, sold in peat-free compost and recycled plastic pots. Plus, of course, you can buy bags of peat-free compost as well. It’s a delightful spot that’s doing its bit for Lewes and the planet.  

Perhaps a bit less delightful is the Ham Lane waste depot, but if you are going there you can buy bags of what they call soil conditioner composted from our kitchen and garden waste. Slightly further afield Goldcliff Garden Centre on the road to Uckfield also stocks peat-free, while a little bird tells me that the Lewes Garden Centre in Kingston stocks seven different types/brands of peat-free compost.  

And if your favourite garden centre doesn’t sell peat-free well there is nothing like pester power from customers to make them consider changing their ways – and ideally stop stocking peat-based compost all together. 

Happy gardening. 

The UK’s Wildlife Trusts have set up a petition asking for peat-based products to be banned – you can sign it and share it here 


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