If you enjoy gardening as a hobby or even as part of your livelihood, it’s likely that you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the use of peat, particularly peat compost, by individuals and professionals all over the UK. With government legislation due to come into place banning peat use by the end of 2024 for amateur gardeners and by December 2026 for professional growers, retailers and consumers can no longer deny nor delay the inevitable transition to a peat-free future.

In this blog, Gaby explains the basics, including what peat is and why it’s so widely used by horticulturalists, the problems involved with using it and the reasoning behind why it’s so important to make the positive change towards becoming a peat-free nation.

Pretty Plants Grown in Peat-Free Compost at GardenSite HQ (Hall's Garden Centre)
Pretty Plants Grown in Peat-Free Compost at GardenSite HQ (Hall's Garden Centre)

What is Peat?

 A staple and plentiful ingredient found in the majority of composts sold in British garden centres since the early 1960s, peat can be defined as the partially decayed or decomposed remains of ancient plants found in terrestrial wetland ecosystems. The water-logged conditions of these unique locations (called ‘peatlands’ or ‘peat bogs’) inhibit plant material from fully decomposing, meaning the production of plant matter exceeds its decomposition, thus resulting in a gradual accumulation of ‘peat’ over time.

Despite the fact that peat is actually not very nutritious for most plants, this organic material quickly rose in popularity as a reliable fertiliser for 4 main reasons:

  1. Peat has a unique ability to retain moisture and nutrients - it locks water in which makes it ideal for dry or sandy soil types.
  2. Peat has low pH levels which is perfect for growing plants that require higher acidity soils to thrive, such as azaleas or blueberries.
  3. Peat is virtually pathogen-free. It rarely contains any harmful bacteria or microorganisms which creates the desired environment for seeds to germinate and establish strong roots.
  4. Peat is plentiful and inexpensive, making it a cheap and cheerful option for every grower and every budget.

Why is Peat Compost Being Banned?

Horticulture enthusiasts will know that using peat is damaging to the environment. Peatlands are precious biodiverse habitats that are vital for both nature and the climate. Not only do they store copious amounts of carbon dioxide (3 billion tonnes to be exact) but they are also home to some of the country’s most specialised and rare species of wildlife, from red-listed birds and mammals to the carnivorous plant known as ‘sundew’. What’s more, peatlands provide hydrological benefits and services - they effectively act as huge sponges that help to prevent flooding.

The main issue lies in the extraction of the peat. For peat to be healthy and function effectively, it has to remain wet at all times, however, its extraction for both day-to-day human use and commercial trade dries it out (and can often trigger wildfires). What’s more, the action of removing peat causes the fragile habitat to become degraded and dismantled, the direct result of this being that the resident wildlife suffers (i.e. animals lose their homes) and the stored carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. To give some context, here in present day, emissions from peatlands make up over 4% of all of the UK’s annual greenhouse emissions - that’s equivalent to the carbon footprint of just under 2 million British citizens. 

Peat Free Compost Sold at GardenSite HQ (Hall's Garden Centre)
Peat Free Compost Sold at GardenSite HQ (Hall's Garden Centre)

What Are the Alternatives to Peat?

If you want to contribute towards protecting precious peatland habitats, you’ll need to make the conscious decision to stop buying compost that contains peat. But don’t worry - there are loads of suitable alternatives that will allow you to keep growing effectively but won’t leave you with a guilty conscience.

In most garden centres, you’ll already be able to buy peat-free composts (which are excellent substitutes if used in the correct way). Most peat-free composts are made up of a variety of organic materials such as wood fibre, green waste, composted bark, coconut fibre (coir) and even sheep’s wool. Peat-free compost should be easily identifiable, displaying a ‘peat-free’ label. Remember that bags labelled as ‘reduced peat’ are NOT completely peat-free.

Alternatively,  you can even make your own compost. Seed-sowing compost can be made at home with a mix of leafmould, sand and finely sieved garden loam. If you’re worried about your plants getting enough nutrients and moisture, why not add a thin layer (approximately 5cm) of mulch on the top layer of soil to create a more varied soil structure? Mulch also helps towards preventing water loss which is key during the hotter summer months.

What's In Peat Free Compost Graphic
What's In Peat Free Compost Graphic

How Do I Care for My Plants Using Peat Free Compost?

Transitioning from peat to peat-free will take a bit of getting used to, even for the most experienced and enthusiastic gardener. However, with a bit of trial and error and a little patience, your plants should continue to thrive. Below are our top 3 tips for caring for your plants when using peat-free compost:

  1.  Be careful when watering seeds planted in peat-free compost - a lot of peat free composts, especially those with a high bark and/or coir content, can look deceivingly well-watered on the surface but are actually very dry around the roots. Be hyper aware of this to ensure your seeds get enough to drink.
  2. Monitor the level of feed contained in peat-free compost - small amounts of fertiliser are found in most peat free composts, however, they usually run out in around 4-6 weeks. After this time period, if you notice that your plants growth or flowering slows down, apply a liquid feed to give them a boost.
  3. Add a controlled-release fertiliser to your peat-free compost - any plants that sit in containers or pots for prolonged periods of time will benefit from a controlled-release fertiliser that will provide improved nutrient efficiency and support healthy growth and long life.

Final Thoughts on Transitioning to Peat-Free Compost

Given all of the above information, you should now (hopefully!) be more willing and confident to make the move towards becoming peat-free, and I hope this blog has somewhat educated you on the importance of our ecosystems and why it’s absolutely essential to not only protect them but also begin to restore them. 

By opting to purchase peat-free compost, you’re helping the environment more than you know. Precious ancient habitats (peatlands) will be kept alive for longer and our beautiful and biodiverse wildlife will get to live another day.

If you ever hesitate, always remember that the only plants that need peat to survive are those that live on peatlands! It takes hundreds of years for peat bogs to form, but humans and our modern machinery can destroy them in a matter of days, so take the pledge to go peat-free today.