Moving away from peat use in horticulture

The industrial harvest and sale of peat has a range of environmental ramifications. Nick Bowett, a Huddersfield Green Party member, explores alternatives.

Nick Bowett

Peatlands are great carbon sinks as they store over 30 per cent of all soil carbon and are often biodiversity hotspots, but unfortunately, peat is still harvested at an industrial scale for use in horticulture. Peat is cut out abroad, and also extracted in the UK, before being sold into the UK horticulture trade. The UK Government is set to ban peat sales to amateur gardeners by 2024, and to professional growers by 2028. 

Three per cent of the entire land area of the world is made up of peatlands and they are present on every continent. In temperate and boreal countries, such as the UK, there are many extensive peatland landscapes in the form of bogs (where sphagnum mosses dominate) and fens, while in tropical areas, peatlands can be found beneath lowland swamp forests and occasionally at high altitudes or in coastal mangroves. 

About 12 per cent of the UK's land space is comprised of peatlands; most of them are situated in the uplands, but some are located in the lowlands. Peat arises as a result of vegetation dying into waterlogged ground, wherein the wet conditions starve the matter of oxygen which slows the process of decomposition, so that, as time passes, large amounts of peat can accumulate which stores vast quantities of carbon underground. 

Peatlands, like wetlands generally, protect communities against flooding, because they absorb water. Within the UK, spectacular raptors, waders, hares, dragonflies and butterflies contribute to an impressive level of biodiversity. Drainage, soil erosion, climate change and peat extraction all have damaging effects on these ecosystems and lead to the release of carbon. 

Peat isn’t used widely to generate electricity anymore, but it is still used for domestic heating in some countries, including the UK. Although there are far better ways to heat a home, it must be remembered that heating is essential, whereas peat for horticulture isn’t essential, because there are other avenues growers can go down to nourish and foster their gardens or landscapes. 

Gardening is a popular pastime in the UK and should be encouraged – it improves the health and well-being of those who partake in it and can support the natural world, increasing food and nutrition security. Indigenous plants, such as wildflowers or native shrubs, tend to thrive without any soil improvement, so focussing on cultivating them is one way to get around the problem of peat. Traditionally, gardeners have found peat useful because it retains moisture well, holds on to applied nutrients well and provides a good soil structure. Peat is especially useful for growing ericaceous plants, such as heather, because it is slightly acidic, and for growing seeds, because its low nutrient content doesn’t overwhelm seedlings. For simply enriching garden soil, homemade compost or soil conditioning products are generally more effective, but for those who require a peat alternative, many options are available. 

Useful alternatives to peat include wood fibre, pine bark, bracken, green waste compost and coconut fibre (Coir). Convenient, local, supplies of wood fibre and pine bark can be increased by planting more trees domestically. 

Coir is a fibre that is taken from the outer husks of coconuts – a by-product of coconut farming. White coir is harvested from unripe coconuts and is used to produce items such as rope and fishing nets, while brown coir is harvested from ripe coconuts and used to make products such as brushes and doors, and it is also used as a peat alternative in horticulture. A drawback of using coir in horticulture, however, is that it has to be transported from tropical countries, such as Vietnam, so the long supply chain increases its carbon footprint. Better labelling detailing environmental credentials is what I would like to see – so that sustainable shoppers are guided appropriately. 

Rather than purchasing compost, which often still contains peat, gardeners should be encouraged to make their own in their own garden or at their local allotment. Composting serves to cut down on methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) because the process enables organic waste to decay aerobically. At the national level, improving waste management systems in the UK will increase the amount of compostable waste that is turned into useful compost.

Numerous professional horticulturalists have lauded peat alternatives, perhaps because horticulture is, in its very essence, about creating an attractive, harmonious, inspiring and often productive, connection between humanity and the land. Despite resultant widespread awareness of the destructive repercussions of extracting peat, many still buy it because of price, accessibility or preference, so the peat market clearly needs regulating. 

Banning peat or charging extra for peat products and ensuring the extra funds go towards environmental projects, such as peatland restoration, are two ways in which we could address the issue of mass peat consumption. The temperate climate of the UK makes the gardens invariably verdant and vibrant, while the prestigious horticultural history of the UK makes them culturally fascinating to many all over the world, so we should ensure we shine a favourable light on those gardens that use environmentally-sensitive growing mediums and follow other ecological principles. 

Peatlands mitigate flooding, provide habitats for spectacular wildlife and, most topically, serve as natural carbon stores, so they should be conserved. Banning peat for use in horticulture, or at least legislating to radically reduce its sale by other means, is a sensible way forward. Effective peat alternatives are made at the business, home and community levels so horticulturalists won’t be held back.