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What is Peat & why is the UK changing to peat free compost?

Written by Sarah Talbot

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Posted on 24 May 2021

Peat is best!  Gardeners have relied on it for years - it retains both moisture and air and is pretty much free of pests and diseases.  This gives a consistent growing experience so that gardeners know when to water and how to go about growing.   

It has been a staple in British garden centres since the 1960s, So why use peat free compost? The reason is that just because we all do it, that doesn't make it right!

What is Peat?

peat cutting ahead of the ban on peat in garden centres 2024Peat is the partially decomposed remains of ancient plants and animals and if you leave it it then eventually it would turn into coal.

If you look at the definition of compost "decayed organic material used as a fertilizer for growing plants" you can see that peat is the epitome of what compost should be. 

But peat is extracted from peat bogs, fens and marshes where it took thousands of years to form. Which means it is not easily or quickly renewable so not ideal at all. The supply taken for gardening along with burning peat to heat our houses in the past has taken its toll. 

Peatlands cover only around 3% of the world's land area, but they store almost one-third of soil carbon, making them the largest soil carbon store. In Europe the peatlands contain five times more carbon than forests.  So when we dig it up and pop it in nice plastic bags to grow our broccoli this CO₂ is released back into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

How is the CO₂ released? As soon as peat comes into contact with air, its carbon combines with oxygen in the decomposition process, and is then released as carbon dioxide.  

Banning Peat Sales

The UK government plans to ban peat use among amateur gardeners by 2024. They are also pledging to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland across the country by 2025.

It had originally hoped Garden Centres would voluntarily stop selling peat-based products by 2020. But gardeners aren't yet in the know.  They are still too happy to buy it, peat is cheap and swapping it for compost made from alternatives is too much of a learning curve for some. As a result, peat still accounts for around 35% of compost sales and is actually increasing.

The ban has forced retailers to act now though so you should be seeing more and more alternatives coming through.  If this has sent you into a panic don't worry - there are alternatives.

What is Peat-free compost?

The nature of peat free compost has change since the first attempts to find peat  alternatives, back in the 70s.  These used composted waste materials like grass and tree clippings, manure and food processing by-products such as spent brewers grain.

These composts were not very successful as they didn't give a consistent result. They weren't a peat free multipurpose compost either as they didn't work with all plants.  This meant that home gardeners could not rely on what worked last year to work again this. As a result the experiment back fired and hobby gardeners became more wedded to using peat rather than less. 

Thankfully behind the scenes research has been going on into using different materials – especially bark, wood and coconut fibre.  A reduction of green materials in the blend has lead to a much more consistent result and these materials now perform as well as peat in all areas.

Which peat free compost?

There is an increasing range of peat free composts in Garden Centres but not all are created equal!  So if you are wondering what peat free compost to use make sure you read what's in it. Coir is one of the most popular mediums but contains little or no nutrients.  This is one of the reasons that gardeners have struggled with the transition from peat.  So if you choose coir you might find that you need to use fertiliser where you previously wouldn't have.  

Growlite

Growlite coir Peat free compost alternativeHaxnicks developed its own peat free growing medium 4 years ago which is one of the best peat free composts.  It is called Growlite and is made from a precise and consistent composition of coir pith, fibres and chips.  This blend ensures optimum drainage, balanced water retention and excellent oxygenation for a healthy root system. 

To combat the lack of nutrients naturally present in coir, GrowLite has a unique Haxnicks premium formula of organically derived soil constituents added to it for faster growth & healthier plants.

This includes nutrients, trace elements and minerals to produce balanced nutrient retention within the coir.  It also increases delivery and absorption through plant roots as well as foliage resulting in increased photosynthesis and respiration rate.

Some coir products become compacted during use cutting off the oxygen the plant needs for healthy growth.  We add anti-compaction agents to prevent this and ensure excellent long term drainage and aeration.

Different plants absorb different levels of nutrients but your Growlite Premium coir mix will support plants for up to 3 months from germination or for up to 2 months for small plug plants. After that time fertiliser will need to be added.

Make Your Own compost

Compost sacks to make your own compostDon't forget that you can always make your own compost.  From Leaf Mould to a compost bin - check out how to do it in these three Composting Blogs.  You can also see it in these Composting videos which include a couple of handy product like the Easy Riddle Garden Sieve to sieve out twigs etc, Compost sacks for making Leaf Mould and even the Rollmix Composter if you don't have room for a Compost bin.    



                                                                                           

What will you do?

So, the stage is set for peat-based compost to disappear from garden centres in 2024 and be 100% replaced with peat free compost.  But a parting thought - we can make this happen sooner.  By choosing alternatives now we can reduce demand and they will not stock it if we don't want to buy it. 

If you haven't gone peat free yet - will you try peat free compost now?  

If you have already bitten the bullet and want to do more then The Wildlife Trust are trying to get it banned earlier so click here to sign up to help.

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