The peat debate – or should we really eat kittens for breakfast?

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

It was not my intention to write about the contentous subject of peat in gardening but a friend of mine sent me an article from the on the subject, which deserves wider distribution. So, maybe I should take the plunge.

There was a time when, in the UK, we all used lots of peat in gardening, we dug it into the ground as a ‘soil improver’ and used it as the basis for remarkably consistent and high quality potting compost. Some plants did not like it – as it could get terribly soggy in wet winters outside, but on the whole it was a fantastic material for potting compost. It has remarkable stability as it takes a very long time to decay.

Then we realized that in order to supply us with peat, lots of valuable habitat (peat bogs) were being destroyed in order to get at the peat underneath. Conservation organizations began to campaign against its use, and in the UK, they have more or less won, as the NYT piece explains, the government is trying to ban it.

The problem is that in the UK, it is actually quite difficult to have a sensible conversation about peat use. Saying that it still has a use is akin to saying you like to eat kittens for breakfast, or more pointedly since we are talking eco-politics here – are a climate change sceptic. So when I read the NYT piece I was very impressed to see the English organic garden guru Bob Flowerdew quoted as saying that peat still had a role and we should not condemn its use outright. Bob, by the way is actually a cousin of mine, although I have never met him (my mother was the children’s book writer Phyllis Flowerdew). I have always regarded Bob as something of an organic jihadi, which usually goes along with the denunciation of peat use, as being akin to…. well eating kittens for breakfast. So his open-mindedness here really made me sit up and take notice. Good on ya’ Bob.

To be honest, I have not made my mind up about peat. I do not like to make my mind up unless I have all the facts and had a chance to weigh them up. So read the NYT piece and then take a look at my bullet points. These are facts, but I do not know how they all add up:

  • Peat bogs were formed at different phases in climate history. Many British ones were formed during previous wetter phases and digging them destroys them. Much damage has been done by peat digging in the past.
  • In many places however, peat bogs are being actively formed, and careful peat digging does no damage, as the bog vegetation rapidly recovers. Peat, from these bogs (mostly in Ireland, Canada, northern USA and Scandinavia and Baltics) is arguably the only thing you can dig out of the ground which is genuinely sustainable, in the sense that more will be formed (apart from truffles that is). Gold, iron ore and oil don’t grow again.
  • In the USA and Germany, two countries with a strong environmental movement, there has been little concern about peat, compared to the UK. This suggests that British conservation organisations might be making an unnecessary fuss, or on other hand that in other countries, conservationists are curiously unware.
  • Eventually peat dug out will decay and thus add to CO2 in the atmosphere. However it does this very slowly.
  • In campaigning against peat some UK conservation bodies have been remarkably dishonest in their tactics. I have had personal experience of this. This should come as no surprise. Environmental politics is like any other politics, driven by emotion and ideology rather than evidence. It is also a very competitive market for influence and money.
  • The use of peat as a soil improver is arguably extraordinarily wasteful. Especially when nowadays there are vast quantities of local government produced green waste compost to use instead, which they practically give away.
  • Nearly all commercial peat-replacement composts are, in my experience, rubbish. They rob plants of nitrogen, are very inconsistent, poorly graded and can decay quickly. Composted plant material does not necessarily make good quality potting compost.
  • I do know experienced gardeners who think all lightweight potting composts, i.e. anything which is not soil based, are rubbish. Soil-based is jolly heavy though! Using soil-based on a large scale is simply not practical.
  • Some nursery owners I know who make their own peat-free compost appear to be very happy with it. See this from Martin at Sampford Shrubs: then click on  ‘Our Compost’
  • The use of coir (waste from coconut palms) in some peat-free composts involves transport miles which make peat transport miles look tiny.

It would be interesting to know what others make of this conudrum.

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Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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