Couple gardening

Can our gardens survive without peat?

The world's peatlands are a vital tool against the climate crisis. But a lack of action together with ulterior motives mean these precious habitats are still exploited. Find out why the UK government should protect peat (and why our gardens won't suffer without it).
  Published:  30 Mar 2022    |      4 minute read

Many people think the sale of peat, a soil substance used as garden compost, ended years ago. That was the government’s aim. But despite public concern about the need to protect peatlands, which are a natural carbon store, and the desire to switch to using non-peat products, people are largely unaware that the “compost” they’re buying is most likely peat.

That may sound odd, but a survey by the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) found that most people (57%) have no idea what's in the compost bags they buy.

Why peat matters

Ending the sale and use of peat is long overdue. Instead of being dug and bagged up for us to put in patio pots, window boxes and garden borders, peat is best left in the ground where it supports nature, stores carbon, reduces flood risk, and purifies and provides plentiful water.

Although they cover just 3-4% of the Earth’s land surface area, the world’s peatlands are essential to curbing climate breakdown and the UK can’t hit its climate and nature aims with degraded peatlands.

Photo of re-flooded peat workings, Thorne & Hatfield Moor
Reflooded peat workings, Thorne & Hatfield Moor
Credit: Christine Wilmot/CC BY-SA 2.0

The government missed its own target, set in 2011, to end the sale of peat by 2020. Its target for professionals to end their use of peat by 2030 is also off course.

Now, after decades of delay and dither, the government says it wants to end peat use once and for all. Its own advisers, the UK Climate Change Committee, has recommended ending peat sales to the public by 2023.

Is using peat necessary?

While we need peat to help restore nature and store carbon, we don’t need it to grow produce and garden successfully.

We never used to use peat so much. Using peat to garden and to fill pots and window and balcony boxes is a relatively recent trend. People have grown and gardened successfully for years – long before peat became so widely available and commercialised.

Peat supports an array of wildlife if it’s left where it belongs, but once it’s been dug and bagged up it has few nutrients for gardening. Most plants will grow perfectly well in existing garden soil and simply need a good water and feed and care.

Even the government says using peat is largely pointless:

"Retail growing media is frequently misused by consumers, for example being used as a soil improver rather than a medium in which to propagate plants. Dedicated soil improvers that do not contain peat are widely available and are much more effective."

Ulterior motives

Key to the continuous supply of peat is the horticulture industry’s reliance on people thinking that peat is needed to improve the soil in their pots and borders or to propagate plants.

In fact, one of the industry's wildest claims about the "dangerous" consequences of ending peat use is that “gardens will be paved over…”.

The government's relaxation of planning rules means the loss of front gardens to hard surfaced driveways is already rampant, and has had knock-on effects for the loss of local green space, wildlife and for increased flood risk and excess urban heat.

Yet the horticulture industry did not raise this practice as a concern. Indeed, many DIY and garden centres sell the hard paving slabs used to cover over gardens. For the industry to claim that people will cover over gardens if they can’t buy peat displays little faith in the public’s ability to acquire new skills and in its own role in helping people grow and garden without bagged peat.

It's unwise to take advice about the need for a product from an industry that profits so obviously from its continued sale.

Gardening without peat

People tend not to know that peat isn’t needed to grow and garden successfully. Why would they, when all we’ve been told about and sold for decades is peat?

Most people just want a soil substance to help their tomatoes grow and their pots, window boxes or garden bloom. The substance could be anything, but it’s been mostly peat because that’s what the trade has become dependent on.

The industry has grown rich on selling peat to an unsuspecting public. Peat stacked high and sold cheap by garden centres, DIY stores and even some supermarkets is often the only thing on offer.

But there's no shortage of alternatives to using peat for gardening, and there's plenty of help at hand to gain confidence from growing without peat:

Even leading gardeners back peat-free growing:

"I urge you not to buy any peat products for the garden. Look for alternative potting composts. Make your own. Every time you use a peat-based compost in the garden, you are deliberately participating in the destruction of a non-renewable environment that sustains some of our most beautiful plant and animal life. No garden on this earth is worth that." – Monty Don

"Peatlands are fragile, important habitats that act as huge carbon sinks, absorbing greenhouse gases from our atmosphere. It makes no sense to damage one home to make another." – Alys Fowler

"Is it right that we should destroy peat bogs and the wild plants they contain just so we can grow them in our gardens? I don’t think so. Our peat bogs are so intrinsically important to the future of this planet as carbon stores, flood defences and natural habitat for wildlife that we can no longer look lightly on the use of peat in our gardens." – Robbie Blackhall-Miles

Less peat, more skills

A peat-free future doesn't restrict our choices, it creates new and exciting opportunities.

Learning to grow plants and produce without peat could result in the public becoming better informed and gaining more skills, knowledge, and confidence. It's also a great chance for individuals and groups to join together in action for nature, climate, health and exercise and recreation.

Proper advice and support should be provided from a range of independent sources as part of a government-backed push to build skills and confidence.

Ending peat use could also be the start of a huge rise in home composting of garden waste and kitchen scraps to make real compost. As a 2020 study for the horticulture trade states, “research and information to help gardeners to, for example, make their own growing media mixes may offer opportunities to take the sustainability of gardening activities to an even higher level.”

Easing away from using peat is also an opportunity to revolutionise waste streams, creating local supply chains by collecting and processing garden waste and kitchen scraps and selling it back to households as low-cost quality compost. This in turn supports new skills building, employment, and local economies.

We don’t all need to become the next Alan Titchmarsh overnight, but a little confidence can go a long way and has its own rewards.

Everyone deserves green spaces, clean air and safe waters

Everyone deserves green spaces, clean air and safe waters