Why Peat Free Compost?

What is wrong with peat?

There has been lots of talk on gardening programmes about how we should use peat free but what is wrong with peat?  Gardeners have been using it for years.  What has changed?

Demand for compost has gone up as more people are gardening, meanwhile we have realised that extracting peat is bad for the environment.  Peat is made from decayed plant material compressed in wet conditions over thousands of years.  It has taken so long to form and we are taking more than is replaceable from the peat bogs.  95% of the UKs peat bogs have been destroyed.

There are three major problems with this.

  1. It is a carbon store in its natural state but once it is dug up and used in the garden it quickly releases as carbon dioxide.  This adds to greenhouse gasses and affects the ozone layer.
  2. The disappearing peat bogs are a rare habitat for our wildlife such as wetland birds, sphagnum mosses, butterflies and dragonflies.
  3. Globally the bogs are only 3% of the Earth’s land surface but they store 33% of the soil carbon.

What is peat free compost?

Commercial peat free compost is made of a mixture of organic materials such as composted bark, green waste and coir (coconut fibre).  Sometimes inorganic materials are added to this including grit, sharp sand and perlite.  At the nursery we have been selling and experimenting with peat reduced and peat free for many years.  We have to say that the quality of the peat free compost has improved dramatically.  So, if you were put off in the past then please try the peat free again.  Here at Kiln Farm Nursery we sell Bord na Mona which is a Republic of Ireland state owned company.  We like them because all their compost is peat reduced and they have committed to being peat free this year.  There are also other varieties on the market now.

How to use peat free compost

Peat free compost is a different texture and has different properties to peat.  It takes a bit of adjustment if you are used to using peat but it is not difficult.  Peat naturally holds water so you might need to water and feed your plants more regularly.  We have noticed that it is better to make sure that peat free compost is a fresh batch.  After considering that, you work with it in just the same way as you would any other compost and results are good.

Arguments against peat free compost

There are other considerations.  We have to remember that some of the products, particularly coir and wood fibre, are shipped from other parts of the world.  They are by products of other industries (which is good) but this means that they have their own environmental impacts such as carbon miles into the UK.  The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), of which we are a member, are part of an industry team which created a “Responsible Sourcing Calculator for Growing Media”.  This assesses the different environmental impacts of different components of growing media and generates a score for how responsibly sourced a product is”.  If you wish to read more here is the link https://hta.org.uk/news-current-issues/sustainability-roadmap/growing-media.html

Why is peat free more expensive?

Peat free involves more processing and takes a while to make.  This is because the ingredients need to be mixed and break down.  Also, some of the ingredients may not be readily available or affordable.  This is particularly the case of wood fibre.  This is what increases the cost to garden centres and their customers.  It is a cost that, as more people move over from peat, will have more pressure on it because demand is higher and supply is not guaranteed.  The fact remains that neither peat nor peat free monetary price includes the cost to the environment.

What part can our garden centre play?

In April there was a BBC article about “Garden centres failing to stop peat sales”.  This is worrying because over two thirds of peat consumption in this country is by garden centre customers. We find that many customers are still unaware that their compost choice will have an impact on the environment.  This means that, as garden centres, we must offer alternatives to peat, explain why we are doing this and how easy it is to use peat free.  We have found at Kiln Farm Nursery that we often ask at the till if customers would prefer peat free.  Obviously, this is difficult on busy days but it is reassuring to find more and more of our customers returning for peat free.

Compost is a price sensitive product.  Here at our nursery we have reduced our retail price of peat free to match our other peat reduced compost despite it coming to us at a higher cost.  This has been a personal decision as the environment a subject close to our hearts.  However, we are unable to match the multi-buys. We are hoping that as more and more people realize the impact their choices are having that they will consider the higher price worth it.  We also hope that companies who manufacture compost will not offer multibuys for peat.  Why would you encourage people to buy in bulk when the product is a finite resource?  After all, gardeners are those people who love nature, plants and animals.  As one customer put it to me last week, “What is the point of making our gardens beautiful if we are destroying the environment?”

Ruth Goudy

Kiln Farm Nursery

May 2021