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Why is peat bad for the environment - and what are the best sustainable alternatives gardeners can use?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 05/07/2022 Matthew Appleby, Amira Arasteh
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You can't scroll through Instagram these days without seeing a new plant mum or dad - beaming with pride as each day their beloved green things grow.

However, what few gardeners seem to appreciate is that most commercially available plants are still grown in peat-based compost, despite the fact that the mining of peat is now widely condemned as unsustainable, environment-wrecking and carbon-emitting.

Like coal or oil, peat is effectively a finite resource. It does regenerate, but only forms at a rate of 1 mm annually.

Despite the millennial gardeners and younger generations being reasonably clued up on environmental matters and ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle, few budding houseplant lovers seem to be aware of the peat issue. Despite social media campaigns in 2021, such as #PeatFreeApril, and the disapproval of TV gardener Monty Don (along with the rest of the gardening media), the reliance on peat in the horticulture industry is still not a widely shared subject online.

However, there are signs that change is slowly coming - Dobbies, for example, the UK’s largest garden centre retailer, is now completely peat-free in six months, in relation to bagged compost - with a target of 2030 for a peat-free plant range. B&Q also announced in June 2021 that it is set to become peat-free across its bagged growing media range by 2023.

It is good news that peat-free growing media will become more widely available; however this does not address the fact that the majority plants for sale (mostly imported from Holland) will still be grown in peat-based compost. Here we look at why the peat habit so hard to break – and why peat is an environmental issue.

What is so special about peat?

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Peatlands are a unique ecosystem that support biodiversity and serve as carbon sinks. Peat releases huge amounts of stored carbon dioxide when it is harvested, which adds to greenhouse gas levels.

Peat mining is effectively unsustainable – it grows back at just 1 mm a year.

What is the UK government doing about peat's impact on the planet?

In 2020, the Government’s voluntary deadline for ending sales of bagged peat compost to the amateur gardener was missed. Defra has launched a public consultation on the use of peat in horticulture and says it will “consider further measures to end the use of peat”.

The voluntary phase-out date for the use of peat by professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants is 2030.

England's Peat Action Plan was published on the government website in May 2021, outlining the long-term vision for the management, protection and restoration of peatlands across the country.

According to the website, the plan includes:

  • the announcement of the Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme through the Nature for Climate Fund
  • a commitment to end the use of peat in the amateur horticulture sector
  • a new spatial map of England’s peatlands

The EU and peat

Vast areas of Scandinavia and the Baltics are peat bogs; farming and using peat is long-established on the continent and is not the environmental issue it is in the UK and, more recently, Ireland.

The Netherlands is the centre of Europe’s horticulture industry and is robust enough to protect itself against environmental campaigns that might cost it money – peat is cheaper and more readily available than alternatives such as coir or bark.

While, legally, the UK could ban imports of plants grown in peat, it would be difficult to police what substrate imported plants are grown in.

In the Republic of Ireland, the biggest peat exporter to the UK, planning permission is now required to harvest. Semi-state peatlands board Bord na Móna has stopped digging up peat. In England, no new harvesting licenses are being granted.

How to go peat-free in 2022

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Ian Drummond, of Indoor Garden Design, has been in the business for 25 years. He repots plants into Vulkaponic mineral culture substrate. Home gardeners can use products such as Evergreen Garden Care’s Miracle-Gro peat-free houseplant potting mix.

Any peat-free multipurpose compost is fine for most indoor plants, but to prevent it from compacting and suffocating the roots, add one fifth horticultural sand to compost. Or, for cacti and succulents, use a 50:50 sand/compost mix.

Perlite (mined volcanic glass), vermiculite (a mined silicate) or biochar (a charcoal) all do the job too, as does growing or buying your plant in a hydroponic water/fertiliser solution.

How to grow your own plants rather than buy them in peat-based compost

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  1. Grow your own succulents from a leaf: try sedums, echeverias and kalanchoes.
  2. Pull off a leaf. Fill a tray with half compost and half horticultural sand or grit. Put your leaf on top and regularly mist with water and the leaf should root. Alternatively, remove plantlets that have sprung up alongside the mother plant and repot.
  3. You can also grow certain houseplants from stem cuttings. Aeoniums are suitable. Cut a stem, dry for a few days, strip the lower leaves, plant the base in peat-free compost, water.
  4. Grow houseplants from seed: Suttons launched a range last year, including lithops, bat flower and coffee plant (from £2.49).

This article is kept updated with the latest advice and information.

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