Spring is well and truly here – we had a beautifully sunny Easter weekend and I got my hands dirty in the garden for the first time this year. As I was digging I had a great idea of starting a new occasional series of green gardening tips and ideas on Moral Fibres, much like my occasional energy saving tips and food waste tips. Of course, gardening is green by it’s very nature, but some gardening practices are less than planet friendly. So, now and again I’ll be sharing some easy eco-friendly gardening tips to make your garden or allotment as green as can be.
My first tip is close to my heart. I’d arguably say it’s the most important green gardening tip, but that’s just me:
Choose peat-free compost.
You may be wondering what the big deal is about peat. Peat forms from semi-decomposed plant material, in waterlogged oxygen-poor bogs at about a rate of 1mm a year. Peat bogs are unique habitats, home to all sorts of rare plants, animals and invertebrates that you seldom find outside of peat bogs. And the other completely amazing thing about peat bogs is that they act as carbon sinks – capturing all the carbon that plants absorb while they grow.
Peat was rarely used in gardening until the mid 20th century. It has no nutritional benefit to soil, but at this time it was discovered that it holds water, oxygen and nutrients well, making it a good medium for growing plants and vegetables in. It’s usage reached it’s peak in 1997, when a staggering 99% of the compost sold in the UK contained peat.
To meet demand from gardeners, acres upon acres of peat bogs across the UK have been drained and dug up. As peat bogs form at such a slow rate, this rate of extraction is completely unsustainable, meaning that peat bogs are now one of the most threatened landscapes in the UK. This loss of our peat bogs has two main impacts. Firstly, peat extraction releases carbon into the atmosphere – contributing to climate change. Apparently the carbon released from peat extraction is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 100,000 households a year. Secondly, extracting peat destroys the home of the rare flora and fauna associated with the bogs – we’ve lost 94% of the UK’s lowland peat bogs, and now we’re importing peat from the Baltic states, Ireland and Finland, adding to it’s already colossal carbon footprint.
Another indirect impact of the loss of peat-bogs is the increase in flooding. Peat bogs can hold up to 20 times their weight in water – their sponge like quality means they rapidly absorb any torrential rainfall and slowly release it afterwards. Remove the peat bogs and you remove this fantastic natural flood defence.
Using peat-free compost sounds like a total no-brainer, right? You’d think so, but whilst sales of peat-free and reduced peat compost are on the rise, gardeners still account for the highest use of peat in the UK. And just two months ago Which? Magazine told it’s readers not to bother with peat-free compost varieties. Yet there plenty of feasible alternatives to peat compost out there.
Where can you buy peat-free compost?
We used to buy ours from our local Co-Op, but for some inexplicable reason this year they started selling only 80% peat free compost, which is 20% too much peat if you ask me. The best thing to do is have a look at your local garden centre to see what they have. Do take care: some compost bags may be labelled as “eco-friendly” but unless it’s specifically labelled as peat free then you might be surprised to know that even these “eco-friendly” bags could contain as much as 70 to 100% peat. Also, be prepared: although the environmental costs are high, peaty compost is normally the cheapest compost you can buy. Peat-free compost is normally more expensive as it has to be processed a bit more.
If your local garden centre doesn’t stock any tell them that you’d like them to stock 100% peat-free compost. If they won’t order any in then online brands selling 100% peat free soil include Carbon Gold and Earth Cycle. I’ve also found this article to be incredibly helpful.
Some people say they don’t like using peat-free compost as it doesn’t give them the yield that they’re looking for. To be honest we’ve noticed no difference in what we grow.
If you don’t want to fork out (pun intended!) for the peat-free compost, then you could try home-made compost, bark, coir, or wood waste. Alternatively you could buy a bag of high-quality peat-free compost and make it go further by mixing it with some home-made compost or coir.