The environmental damage caused by the commercial extraction of peat is now both well-documented, and undeniable. The UK alone uses a staggering 3 million cubic metres of peat each year, 60% of which is imported from Ireland. And yet, until the 1970s, no-one used peat in gardening. Home-made compost, and loam-based mixes, were the only option – and plants still grew perfectly well. Peat is supposedly appreciated by the large growers for its predictability and its low cost (in cash, if not environmental, terms). It lends itself to the commercial mass production of plants – particularly those plants then left to wither and die in their hundreds outside DIY sheds and supermarkets. But the environmental impact alone does not justify the continued use of peat as a growing medium by ordinary gardeners.
What, then, are the alternatives? I have used ‘New Horizons’ peat-free compost for a number of years, and both seem to be perfectly good. At Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury we are in the process of switching to peat-free growing for plants which we either use to re-stock the garden, or sell at our events. Last Friday we had a delivery of Sylvagrow peat-free compost, which we’ll be using from now on. This compost has been endorsed by the RHS and has come out top in Which? surveys of composts for both containers and raising young plants. It is 100% peat-free, and doesn’t contain any green waste: it’s made from bark, wood fibre and small amount of coir – all from sustainable and traceable sources. With credentials like those, I am confident that it will make a big difference to our plants.
Of course, one of the keys to all compost use is not to treat it as a single substance. ‘Multi-purpose’ never means multi-purpose in quite the straightforward way many gardeners would like to think. Compost always needs to be mixed with grit, loam, leaf-mould, perlite, sharp sand and the like to produce the best possible medium for different kinds of growing. Seeds need a growing environment quite different from that which suits cuttings, and the compost needs to reflect that. I am also keen on sieving composts, as even the best will invariably contain the odd lumps which need removing – certainly for most seed-sowing it’s essential to have a layer of sieved compost to sow into.
Similarly, the drainage and nutrient-retention properties of peat-free composts are not the same as those of peat. It tends to benefit from more regular watering than peat (little and often), but also to need the addition of grit or sand to aid drainage in winter. If dropping the use of peat requires a little thought and changing of gardening habits, then that seems a small price to pay.