I know, that was a terrible pun… However, the protection and conservation of peatlands is an urgent environmental topic, representing a requirement to protect both our climate and our precious wildlife. We, as gardeners, can help the destruction of peatlands – but just what is a peatland, why are they important, and what is our contribution to their preservation?
Peatlands – A quick introduction
While the mention of a peatland to most people doesn’t conjure up an exotic, glamorous mental image as you would when you mention a luscious tropical rainforest or a vibrant coral reef, their contribution to planetary health is just as invaluable. These “Cinderella habitats”, overlooked, underappreciated, and not as “glamorous” as many other important habitats, are complex and valuable systems, strongly associated with waterlogged conditions and high rainfall. There are many types of peatland, including upland blanket bogs (upland habitats that cover >10% of the UK’s land area, including “wildernesses” such as Dartmoor and the North York Moors), lowland fenland, upland and lowland moors. They provide a plethora of “ecosystem services” that are useful to society and biodiversity. They can help to prevent flooding, mitigate climate change, provide clean drinking water, support biodiversity, and bring hikers to the local area…and all of this is possible due what lies beneath the hikers’ boots.
Peatlands are characterised by the presence of a wet, acidic, and strange soil-like substance, which, you guessed, is called “peat”. Peat is an incredible substance; this unassuming, yet actually pretty neat, stuff is formed when deceased Sphagnum (a botanically very simple group of around 400 species of moss that can live on damp ground and in mildly acidic upland pools) is left to partially and slowly rot in water-logged, anaerobic conditions. The result is a very unique and awesome substance that is water-retentive, damp, mildly acidic, and relatively light. However, unlike loamy and clay-y (that’s a real description, I promise!) soils, it doesn’t tend to be compacted, which is what makes it so fantastic at preventing floods. It is also nutrient-poor, making it ideal for a wide range of upland plant communities, and, again, compared to loamy and clay-y soil, it is porous, allowing for air exchange. While the peat itself is also relatively low in nutrients, it is also awesome at retaining fertiliser. Finally, as the peat is formed without oxygen, there is an extremely low risk of introducing bacteria, fungi, and parasites to your garden. These properties make it prized and valued for many gardeners; peat is often added to improve the water retention of dry soils (especially sandy ones), mixed in with commercial composts, or can be applied as a mulch. On the surface of things, it seems like a miracle product – certainly, to an ecologist, it is.
A very finite source indeed…
80% of UK and the majority of Irish (where the UK gets the majority of its agricultural peat) peatlands are in a poor condition. Many factors are behind this terrible statistic: draining for agriculture, burning, climate change, overgrazing, pollution, and now demand for horticulture. The issue is that peatlands are slow forming. As the decay process in anaerobic and nutrient-restricted, it is excruciatingly slow; therefore, thick and expansive layers of peat often take several centuries – even millennia – to form. To form just 1mm of peat, it takes a year. Thus, digging up large quantities of peat from the uplands leaves long-term scars on the landscape, representing the loss of up to 500 years or more of accumulation in just a year. Imagine spending thousands of years on something, only to have a huge chunk of that work removed in a comparative instant!
Far from being just an aesthetic scar, however, the digging of this precious habit compromises the peat’s ability to hold water, increasing flood risk. The quality of our drinking water also decreases significantly, requiring more expensive treatments to make it safe or more palatable to drink. Even more significantly, peat has the wonderful ability to store huge quantities of carbon. The 3million km2 of peatlands around the world store approximately 400 million tonnes of CO2 every year – more than all forests, marine habitats, and other vegetation systems combined. However, if you damage peatlands, you release a heck of a lot of this carbon back into the atmosphere: the IUCN states that damaged peatlands release 6% of the global anthropogenic carbon emissions every year. Additionally, removing just 5% of the UK’s peatland would release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, signifying a priority conservation priority in the fight against climate change.
So, what can the gardener do?
Two-thirds of the commercially extracted peat ends up in our gardens; most of that is woven into the large bags of compost to add life to dry soil, especially sandy types. That ability to hold water without flooding your beloved garden is of great value to water-loving plants. Additionally, the mildly acidic property of the peat is valuable for growing acid-loving plants such as strawberries, blueberries, camellias, rhododendrons, and magnolias.
However, it is apparent that using peat is not good for the planet. While the UK government has promised to phase out peat-based compost by 2030, the target is nowhere near close to being attained. Sales of peat have only reduced 12%; garden centre usage of peat by just 1%. However, you should not blame yourself for the loss of peatlands. It is not your fault, rather the supply chains’. What you can do, however, is to reduce the demand for it, and to speak out against peat’s use.
While, admittedly, it is difficult to completely replicate the one-of-a-kind properties of peat, there are a few things you can do, depending on which properties it is you are looking for. You absolutely do not need peat to ensure that your garden is healthy. Just take a look at the beautiful gardens of the National Trust: this charity has a zero-peat policy. So, if they can grow a broad array of plants in huge quarters all year round, we can do it, too. All you need to do is to be aware of the alternatives, adjusting as required and according to the requirements of the plants you are trying to grow.
- Manure. An excellent source of nitrogen is herbivorous manure. While peat itself is low in this vital nutrient, it is retentive of any nitrogen you add to it. You can add some well-decayed poop to your flower bed for a constant supply. However, please do not use carnivore manure, as it may contain harmful bacteria. You must also ensure that the manure is sufficiently rotted, as the fresh stuff (sorry) can damage your plants due to having too many nutrients. You may also wish to place it in an area where you know you won’t be offended by the smell…
- Coconut coir. This was used heavily prior to WW2, but fell out of favour for the peat. However, it is slowly making a comeback. Used correctly, coconut coir can help to retain water, while still allowing for drainage and gaseous exchange. Coconut coir is also anti-fungal and is easy and simple to rewet if it dries out. It is also not overly acidic. However, you must also provide a fertiliser due to the low nutrient content, and you must keep an eye out for coir that has not been treated with salt water and other chemicals, to avoid injuring your plants. It is also normally imported from Sri Lanka; while you may be weary of the air miles, it is important to bear in mind that the coir is mostly made from the waste of the coconuts, and, as coconuts are nowhere near as finite as peat, it’s still a far more environmentally friendly option by far.
- Compost. Ah, yes, we all love compost, as do most plants. Garden centres increasingly sell peat-free compost; however, these may be expensive or inaccessible. If that is the case, then you can easily make your own. Compost is awesome at retaining water, allowing for drainage, and, depending on the mix, high in nutrients, and rich in beneficial bacteria, while reducing food waste and being cheap. However, you would need to replace it every one to two years as the nutrients become used up, making your compost may be time-consuming, and it must make up no more than one third of your flowerbed mix.
- Pine needles. These are acidic and have been used for many centuries due to their availability. There is also the bonus that they can form a lattice mat on the soil, helping to prevent your plants being blown over in the wind! However, keep in mind that they are nutrient-poor, so you will need to add something else, too.
- Leaf mulch/mould. Literally decayed leaves! This helps to increase and enhance water retention, often at low cost and with great ease. The mulch is also mildly acidic, which can be great for certain plants. However, the DIY process is extremely long (up to 1-2 years!), so you may have to trek up to your local garden centre.
- Tea leaves. Used sparingly, tea leaves are a nice source of nitrogen and a little bit of tannic acid, beneficial for many plants. You can add used tea leaves directly to the soil or add it to your compost. Word of caution, though: if you are not 110% certain that the tea bag itself is biodegradable (i.e., marked and certified on the box), then please remove the leaves from the bags to prevent adding plastics to your soil.
Hints, tips, and other ways to help.
Now that you are aware of the plight of our precious peatlands, you can use your voice to raise awareness and help to reduce the demand for peaty compost. The more people are aware of this problem, and the more people who join the movement to leave the peat in the ground, the better.
- Phase out peat in your garden. If you have a bag already half-used, you may wish to finish it off, but make sure you don’t buy it again.
- You can always write to your MP. Always be polite and courteous, but make sure that you are informative, reminding them of the UK government’s pledge to phase out the use of peat in gardens by 2030.
- Inform your gardening friends. Obviously, you don’t want to be off-putting or preachy. Inform them about the plight of peatlands and make them aware of the many alternatives available.
- Spread the word on your social media platforms, if possible. Invite more people to action.
Last words of wisdom: You may have heard of “Greenwashing”. This is where a company attempts to lure you in under the guise of supposed sustainability, but you’re still paying for a product that’s pretty harmful. It can apply to just about any product (here at RYVIAS, we have discussed it in places such as our fast fashion and sustainable diet courses!), including to compost. Beware of bags of compost at the garden centre that try to lure you in with the words “organic”, “eco-friendly”, “natural”, and similar language, without the correct certification. Just because a pack of compost uses this wording, it does not mean that it is peat free. Unfortunately, in the current situation, one has to search for the words “Peat free” labelled explicitly on the packet. The same goes for potted plants available at the garden centre: unfortunately, most plants are sold in tubs of peat.
Gardening can – and should – be a most wonderful experience, with the opportunity to create a network of eco-friendly enthusiasts. Check out our Sustainable Agriculture Course for more information!