Going peat-free: The myths… busted

By Sally Nex

Are you making the switch and going peat-free this April?

You may have come across the #PeatFreeApril campaign on social media last year. Well: now it’s back, bigger and better, and more determined than ever to get us all growing in peat-free compost.

Every gardener I know cares deeply about the natural world, and most are increasingly uneasy about the environmental impact of growing in peat. If you garden in peat-based potting composts, you’re contributing to the destruction of a rare and valuable ecosystem, home to gems like carnivorous sundews, marsh saxifrages, wild cranberries and bog orchids.

Harvesting peat contributes directly to climate change © John Allan

Even worse, when peat bogs are dried out and dug up so that you can pot up your petunias or sow your spinach, they release carbon dioxide straight into the air, so you’re also contributing directly to climate change. In fact peat harvesting in the UK alone emits as much greenhouse gas in a year as three coal-fired power stations.

Most gardeners also want to grow the best plants they can, though. And they know that the potting compost you choose can be the difference between a garden bursting with lush, healthy veg; and a frustrating battle to get anything to grow at all. It often seems easier to stick with what you know works well, rather than risking your seedlings on something new.

But many complaints you’ll hear about peat-free composts are based on out-of-date information, or the result of simple mistakes which are easy to avoid. So if you’ve always grown in peat-based compost and you’re hesitating to take the plunge, read on to sort the truth from the tittle-tattle.

Peat-free composts are clearly labelled

My compost is already peat-free, isn’t it?

Compost manufacturers aren’t obliged to say on the bag whether your compost contains peat or not. So unless your bag of compost is clearly marked ‘peat-free’ it probably isn’t: even ‘peat-reduced’ composts contain, on average, over 40% pure peat. ‘Organic’ doesn’t mean ‘peat-free’; nor does ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’. John Innes formulations also usually contain peat.

I can’t find peat-free in my garden centre

Until recently peat-free compost was relegated to a few sad-looking bags hidden in a dingy corner at the back of the garden centre. Not any more. All the major brands are pushing peat-free alternatives now, and both the UK’s largest garden centre chain, Dobbies, and B&Q will sell only peat-free compost from next year.

Peat-free is too expensive

Most peat-free composts are pricier than peat-based, but they vary wildly. Some are only a couple of quid more per bag, and many garden centres offer multi-buy deals for peat-free too nowadays, bringing the price down still further. And peat is set to get much more expensive soon too due to shortages, as peat extraction licenses aren’t being renewed – so the price difference could soon disappear altogether.

Peat is better for your plants

Peat is a useful growing medium, it’s true: but peat-free alternatives work just as well. I’ve grown in peat-free compost for as long as I can remember and never had any trouble: Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and RHS Gardens Wisley run on peat-free compost, and if it’s good enough for their gardeners, it’s good enough for me.

Modern peat-free composts now regularly out-perform peat-based in trials

Peat-free composts are poor quality

Some are (usually the super-cheap ones); but then cheap peat-based composts are pretty lousy, too. I am very fussy about my brand of peat-free compost and avoid the duds by sticking to the ones I know. My top recommendations: Melcourt Sylvagrow (melcourt.co.uk), New Horizon (gardenhealth.com), and Dalefoot (dalefootcomposts.co.uk). I’ve also had good results from MiracleGro Peat-free (lovethegarden.com).

You have to change the way you do things if you grow peat-free

In the old days, peat-free composts were woody and fibrous and drained easily, leading to advice that you have to water and feed peat-free more often. Not so with modern peat-free brands. These have been refined and improved until nowadays you can garden in peat-free in just the same way as you did in peat.

You can’t grow acid-loving plants in peat-free

Yes you can: composted bracken is naturally acidic and a great peat substitute. Both MiracleGro and Sylvagrow produce peat-free ericaceous composts for acid-loving plants like blueberries, heathers and camellias.

Rot down autumn leaves for two years and sieve to make your own peat-free seed compost

What about peat-free seed compost?

It’s always better to sow finer seeds into specially-formulated seed compost (larger seeds can go straight into multipurpose). Dalefoot, Melcourt and Carbon Gold (carbongold.com) do good (though expensive) commercial seed composts; but just as easy is to sieve two-year-old leafmould and sow straight into that. It’s free, too.

You can read more about switching to peat-free in my book, How to Garden the Low Carbon Way.

And you can learn lots more about the different ways you can grow veg sustainably to feed yourself year-round from the garden on my course, Self Sufficient Veg Gardening: sign up here!

Sally Nex

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