For peat’s sake end extraction for horticulture - Dave Lamont

On a recent trip to a garden centre to buy ericaceous compost (the more acidic variety, which we have found harder to make ourselves), we were once again reminded of the lack of available peat-free options. When asking a member of staff for help, they appeared oblivious as to the reason for the question and we left empty-handed on that occasion.

At home, we aim to produce our own compost through two large compost bins and another dedicated solely to leaf mould. But it’s a challenge to make enough, so we’ve tracked down and tested a small number of peat-free options over time.So, what is the problem with using peat, I hear you ask? Earth is home to 10 billion acres of peatlands (including bogs and fens) and they are the world’s largest carbon store on land, drawing down more carbon than all of the planet’s forests combined. Peatlands also provide unique and intensively biodiverse habitats for wildlife, insects and plant life.According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), it takes a century for just 10cm of peat to form, from partially decomposed plants, while up to 22 metres of peat can be extracted for use during that same timeframe.The UK is home to over five million acres of peatlands, placing it among the top ten countries globally by area. These wetlands hold a similar amount of carbon to that collectively found in the forests of the UK, France and Germany. And 60 per cent of those peatlands are located here in Scotland.I spoke with Sheila George, Food and Environment Policy Manager at WWF Scotland, who described Scotland’s peatlands as “Climate heroes, of unique international importance."Extracting peat for compost is unnecessary and damaging, leading to carbon being released into the atmosphere, which is why we've been calling for the practice to be banned,” she continued.“During the recent election campaign, it has been reassuring to see all main political party manifestos for the Scottish election include policies to phase out peat extraction for horticulture, which must be implemented with some urgency to allow restoration of these bogs to commence."A ban on sale across the UK will also be essential to ensure that we don't continue to import peat extracted elsewhere.”In 2010, the UK Government did introduce a target to end the use of peat in gardens by 2020, and commercially by 2030. The first target will be missed by some distance and new legislation aimed at bringing forward the 2030 date has been widely criticised for not going far enough.In Scotland, the likes of WWF Scotland, NatureScot and the National Trust for Scotland have long sought to highlight the importance of protecting the country’s peatlands, while across the UK, charities including the WWF, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, the RSPB and Plantlife, have campaigned heavily on the subject.Television personalities including Chris Packham and BBC Gardener’s World host Monty Don, who last year described the extraction of peat for horticultural use as “an act of environmental vandalism”, have also lent their voices to the cause.In the lead up to last month's (MAY) International Compost Awareness Week, I was keener than ever to learn what progress is being made. As such, I contacted some of the UK’s largest supermarkets, DIY stores and garden centres to find out more about their plans to go peat-free.The responses were largely underwhelming (or in some cases, non-existent) but the award for the vaguest and arguably poorest effort went to Sainsbury’s, which said: “We continue to offer both peat-free compost as well as standard compost options to our customers in line with the rest of the industry. We are working really hard with manufacturers to make organic products more of a focus in our range and are aiming to move completely to peat-free compost over time.”Thankfully, some companies out there are taking the issue more seriously, don’t view using peat as “standard” and are even prepared to commit to timescales.Of the dozen national retailers I spoke to Dobbies Garden Centres came out on top, telling me: “We have a market leading position in the garden centre sector, as our aim is to be 90 per cent peat-free during 2021 and 100 per cent during 2022. We are introducing a full range of peat-free alternatives this year with details to follow soon."Notably, although the peat-free products are more expensive to produce, we are keeping the retail price equivalent to the peat-based ones.”This chimed with what Dobbie’s CEO, Graeme Jenkins, had told me directly last summer, so it is great to see that the company is on track.Today, there are many alternatives to peat-based compost and the RHS is continuing its research in order to advise on the most effective and sustainable options going forward.These include bought peat-free composts (made from materials such as animal, food or green waste, bark, wood fibre, coir, bracken or sheep's wool), homemade compost and leaf mould.The majority of retailers I spoke to failed to provide a definitive date by which they aim to be peat-free, or indeed details of a road map to get them there. Finding a scalable peat free solution was the most commonly cited challenge (or excuse) given.It is therefore interesting to note then that Dobbies operates the largest garden centre in Scotland (on the edge of Edinburgh) and having taken over a large number of Wyevale branches in 2019, is the largest garden centre chain in the entire UK. If it can achieve the excellent progress being made and take the issue seriously, why can’t everyone? For peat’s sake.SUGGESTED CALL OUT BOX/SIDE PIECEHome Composting – Getting StartedEven if you have food waste and/or green waste collections in your area, home composting can help to reduce your footprint even further, while providing you with nutrient-rich compost for your garden.Compost bins are widely available from DIY stores, garden centres and other retailers. The website also offers an excellent range online. An average 200 litre compost bin should cost under £25. Smaller and larger versions can be bought to suit your garden and needs.Once it has arrived, positioning your compost bin correctly is really important. It won’t be easy to move when in use. Aim for a sunny semi-shady spot, on bare soil. This will allow the worms and insects easy access and ensure good drainage. You will also need easy access, both to add waste but also to turn things (using a spade or similar) roughly every two-four weeks. If you notice the contents drying out, you can also add a couple of full watering cans every now and then – especially during warmer months.A 50/50 mix of green and brown materials is ideal, to keep your compost bin healthy and help the contents to break down.Green materials to add include grass cuttings, leaves and soft prunings, houseplants and cut flowers, fruit and vegetable scraps, tea leaves and coffee grounds (many tea bags still contain plastic so we would avoid them).Brown materials include paper and cardboard (including paper junk mail, toilet rolls and egg boxes), egg shells, straw and hay, woodchip and bark, small twigs and woody prunings, wood ash, hair and fur, the contents of your vacuum cleaner and waste from small pets (such as guinea pigs, gerbils and rabbits).Avoid things like meat, cooked food, dairy products, baked goods, ash from coal fires and cat or dog waste.Unwanted visitors shouldn’t be an issue if you have a healthy compost bin, only add the suggested items and keep it well sealed.It may take up to a year for your first batch of compost to be ready but persevere - it’s rewarding when you get there.