The latest edition of Which? Gardening magazine has compared various brands of compost for effectiveness and value for money. Their horticultural experts planted hundreds of flowers and vegetables in 21 different brands of compost – and guess what? Peat-free came top of the pots yet again.

New Horizon Peat Free compost wins for the second consecutive year. This goes to show that peat-free can produce the kind of results gardeners demand. Kew Gardens already know this because they don’t use peat. Ditto, the National Trust, Monty Don, Charlie Dimmock and a host of others. Geoff Hamilton, the unofficial patron saint or all amateur garden potterers, was a great champion of peat-free gardening.

Peat digging in Northern ireland.  Photo - Karl PartridgeCase closed, you’d think. But to quote from an RSPB report which went to ministers earlier this week,

The voluntary approach to resolving the problem has failed. Indeed, in recent years the transition towards alternatives has virtually stalled and peat use in the UK fell only 1.63% (around 50,000 m3) between 2007 and 2009. At this rate of decline, the horticulture industry will not be peat free for another 120 years.

So if there are decent alternatives available that don’t cost any more (10p a litre for New Horizon is about average for compost these days), why the snail’s pace progress in moving from the environmentally destructive, unsustainable, greenhouse gas emitting peat based brands to the harmless peat free alternatives?

Well, let’s look a little closer. The brand which fared worst in the Which? Gardening survey was also peat-free (Miracle-Gro Organic Choice, you have been named and shamed) and several other peat-free brands produced poor results.

And after a quick perusal of a few popular gardening forums it seems that although most decent gardeners know there is good peat-free stuff out there, they can’t buy it down their local garden centre.

The Which? article comments: “It’s odd that some manufacturers seem to be further encouraging the use of peat. We have noticed three of the big compost producers are bringing out new peat-based products this year. The launch of these products comes at a time when the peat-free market has never looked so rosy. Sales of New Horizon (a Best Buy compost for containers in this year’s trial), shot up by 35 per cent between August 2009 and July 2010.

On this evidence neither peat producers nor retailers seem to be fully behind the push to phase out peat. The retailers aren’t producing enough high standard peat-free products whilst at the same time bringing out new peat based products, and the garden centres aren’t stocking bags of the proven decent stuff.

Why? I’m sure they will cite ‘market forces’ and ‘commercial reasons’, but then they are businesses and can hardly be blamed for trying to make money. So why doesn’t the Government, which can’t hide behind such excuses, subtly change those market forces by introducing a levy on peat-based products, as we suggested in our report this week?

If peat-free is cheaper, people will buy more of it and the industry will invest in production and distribution. It’s a no brainer really. The budget is on March 23, watch this space...

Anonymous
  • The Glendoick 'policy' is largely opinion parading as fact and contains few attributions for the claims it makes.

    Understanding is growing, painfully slowly among gardeners, that peat is simply not renewable based on the amounts we actually use. It's been an act of sheer desperation by pro-peat gardening pundits to start spinning the line that anyone concerned about green issues should carry on using peat because it is forming faster than it is being used. It's simply smoke and mirrors from those in the horticultural industry who kick violently at just a whiff of doing anything for the environment that might sting their bottom line.

    Gardeners are key to ending peat use and the sooner we can all start growing plants in peat-free compost of a standard that successful commercial growers enjoy, the better.

    These articles I've written on peat and peat-free composts might be of interest:

    www.kitchengarden.co.uk/.../the-peat-delusion

    www.kitchengarden.co.uk/.../compost-crisis

  • Olly Watts

    You have made yet another mistake because the Glendoick website is citing the example from where your erroneous statement arose. You say sphagnum growth is really slow at 10mm per year and this is a very generalised statement and in many cases is wrong. Sphagnum girgensonii and sphagnum fimbriatum grow in wet birch and pine  woodlands and can produce aprox 15cm of growth in a good wet year. I know this from experience of  gathering sphagnum moss (with permission ) for hanging baskets. The moss was gathered from the same small area each year and each year it had regenerated by a vast amount!

    You have such a blinkered aproach to this peat debate that you are missing out on the true way forward which is sustainable harvesting of peat. This is perfectly possible. Lastly raised peat bogs in the UK are SSSIs if they have any nature conservation value and are already protected. Some large areas of raised mire also belong to English Nature.

    Please comment on the cultivation of peat soils in the fens and state what the rspb is doing to stop this destruction of peat resources which are dissappearing rapidly due to farming practices increasing decomposition.

  • Thanks Mirlo for spotting an error – you’re quite right that it’s 94% of the UK’s lowland raised bog habitat that has been lost; if we’d lost all that bog habitat, things would indeed be in a terrible state!  A slip of an important word on our part, yet ironically the Glendoick website you refer to makes a similar mistake, equating peat extraction to all bogs, and not the lowland raised mires which peat extractors use. This error knocks their sustainability claims awry – focus on lowland raised bogs in biogeoegraphic areas, and the sustainability picture is very different.  

    Of course also, if we don’t curb or end the demand, new bogs will have to be found to continue gardeners’ peat habit; whether these are in the UK or not, it seems wrong to export a damage we don’t want to see at home.  And lowland raised bogs are not just in poor shape here in the UK – it’s the only habitat in the EU Habitats Directive with a ‘degraded’ category, requiring member states to restore damaged sites, which says a lot for the poor state of these bogs across Europe.

    There’s an important difference in the greenhouse gas emissions of peat and their alternatives: the latter come from rapidly renewing sources such as wood chips, green compost and coir. In contrast, digging peat up adds carbon to the active carbon cycle: it’s is similar situation to fossil and renewable fuels. And finally, Sphagnum growth is jolly slow, just10 mm a year producing 1 mm of peat – peatbog restoration is a long-term undertaking to re-create the conditions of lost lowland raised bog habitat.

  • Thanks Mirlo for spotting an error – you’re quite right that it’s 94% of the UK’s lowland raised bog habitat that has been lost; if we’d lost all that bog habitat, things would indeed be in a terrible state!  A slip of an important word on our part, yet ironically the Glendoick website you refer to makes a similar mistake, equating peat extraction to all bogs, and not the lowland raised mires which peat extractors use. This error knocks their sustainability claims awry – focus on lowland raised bogs in biogeoegraphic areas, and the sustainability picture is very different.  

    Of course also, if we don’t curb or end the demand, new bogs will have to be found to continue gardeners’ peat habit; whether these are in the UK or not, it seems wrong to export a damage we don’t want to see at home.  And lowland raised bogs are not just in poor shape here in the UK – it’s the only habitat in the EU Habitats Directive with a ‘degraded’ category, requiring member states to restore damaged sites, which says a lot for the poor state of these bogs across Europe.

    There’s an important difference in the greenhouse gas emissions of peat and their alternatives: the latter come from rapidly renewing sources such as wood chips, green compost and coir. In contrast, digging peat up adds carbon to the active carbon cycle: it’s is similar situation to fossil and renewable fuels. And finally, Sphagnum growth is jolly slow, just10 mm a year producing 1 mm of peat – peatbog restoration is a long-term undertaking to re-create the conditions of lost lowland raised bog habitat.

  • Looked up New Horizon and looks almost competitive and can be used for seeds so if readily available it may well be the break through for gardeners.