Is your garden making the climate emergency worse?

“When peat is mined, it releases carbon. This means peat extraction is not only removing the planet’s ability to regulate the climate, it’s contributing to global heating.” Peat composts are a very common form of fertiliser used in gardens across the UK, but the carbon impacts of its use represent a heavy cost for the climate. Mark Binnersley explains how switching to a peat-free compost can help gardeners do their bit to combat the climate emergency.

Junction of drainage ditches in the peatland of A' Mhoine, Scotland.
Junction of drainage ditches in the peatland of A' Mhoine, Scotland.

Image: Chris and Meg Mellish

Junction of drainage ditches in the peatland of A' Mhoine, Scotland.

Mark Binnersley

When it comes to tackling climate breakdown, we all know what we need to do, right? Give up flying or fly less, drive less, eat a plant-based diet and so on. Joining the Green Party and supporting its campaigns for a greener, fairer economy are essential too. These are important ways in which individuals can help efforts to protect the planet. 

Growing your own produce is also beneficial, as it can reduce food miles and help to remove potentially harmful chemicals from our diets. But if you’re not careful, your veg patch could actually be exacerbating the climate crisis. 

This is thanks to the type of compost that dominates the shelves in garden centres and supermarkets across the land: peat-based compost. 

Anyone who grows their own food, knows that you either need a nutritious growing medium or that your soil needs to be enriched annually, particularly if you’re growing fruit and vegetables in raised beds. As a result, there is a huge market for soil enrichment products but many of these are peat-based and come at a significant cost to the environment. 

To put things into perspective, around three per cent of the world’s land area is peatland. It’s the world’s largest terrestrial carbon store, holding 550 gigatons of carbon – twice the amount stored by the world’s forests.

Peatlands are important for biodiversity and play host to a range of plants, insects and birds 

A total of 10 per cent of the UK’s land area is peatland and 80 per cent of this is in a poor or damaged state due to farming, grouse moor heather burning and extraction for horticulture. 

It’s incredibly sad, but when you begin to understand the importance of peat to our climate, it’s also terrifying. 

When peat is mined, it releases carbon. This means peat extraction is not only removing the planet’s ability to regulate the climate, it’s contributing to global heating. 

On top of this, healthy peatlands are capable of absorbing high volumes of rain and reducing water flow off uplands. As the climate warms and extreme weather events become more commonplace, peat is one of the best tools we’ve got when it comes to flood prevention.  

Peatlands are also important for biodiversity and play host to a range of plants, insects and birds, some of which are threatened species. 

In the UK’s amateur and municipal gardens, we use around three million cubic metres of peat each year and one third of this is from British peatlands. The rest is imported, largely from Ireland, making it another way in which we are outsourcing our emissions. 

Despite long-standing calls in the UK to phase out peat-based compost, it’s obvious to anyone who’s visited a garden centre this year that this is nowhere near becoming a reality; pallets of peat-based compost abound.

Up until now, Westminster politicians have shied away from an outright ban on peat compost, and in my opinion have opted instead to pander to the professional horticulture lobby. 

We use around three million cubic metres of peat each year and one third of this is from British peatlands. The rest is imported, another way we outsource our emissions

In 2010, the then-Environment Secretary Hilary Benn MP called for peat in compost to be phased out by 2020. Last year, the government’s 25-year Environment Plan kicked it further into the long grassy marsh by setting a 2030 target. 

As an avid gardener/permaculturist, I’m trying to change this and there are a couple of things you can do to help.

Firstly, always avoid peat-based compost and choose a peat-free alternative. Better still, make your own from green waste – and humanure if possible.

Most garden centres will stock a single type of peat-free compost, amid 10 or so peat-based products. I tend to combine soil from my garden with homemade and peat-free composts and get good results in seed germination right through to maintaining healthy plants through to maturity. 

Secondly, sign my UK Government and Parliament petition calling for a ban on peat compost.

Peat-free alternatives are available, so there really is no excuse for the government not to outlaw this environmentally-devastating practice as soon as possible. 

If gardening is to be anything, it should be the one area in life in which people and nature work in harmony. But as long as garden centres insist on stocking peat-based composts, it’s pretty much the opposite of that. 

The government has committed to making the UK a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050. An easy, early win would be to protect the country’s peatlands. Let’s get our politicians to take action.