Digging the dirt on peat

Gardening & cooking for health and happiness
16th December 2020
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
11th May 2020

By Lynda Brown

Peat has been the gardener’s favourite growing medium for almost a century; it’s cheap to mine (and buy) and works. The cost, however, to the planet has been catastrophic
The sooner we can learn to do without peat the better.  Find out more and join Garden Organic’ s campaign For Peat’s Sake here

NOW is the time for action: This new Facebook campaign for a peat-free April @PeatFreeApril needs your support; and is full of good information. The earth-friendly gardener John Walker, a long time campaigner on peat-free gardening is another excellent resource

  • Preserving peat is vital in the fight to reduce the impacts of climate change:  brilliant for both holding and naturally purifying water, great for biodiversity and wildlife, it stores more carbon than forests: Friends of the Earth calculate that losing 5% of peatland carbon reserves is equivalent to UK’s entire annual greenhouse emissions. 
  • Scientifically, peat is unique Worldwide peatlands sequesters and stores more carbon than all other types of vegetation combined.
  • According to Garden Organic, over 95% of the UK’s peat bogs have become degraded or destroyed.  Friends of the Earth who have been highlighting the degradation of peatlands for some time state that the UK has lost most (94% ) of its lowland peatlands. , and how few remain in their natural state
  • Peat continues to be mined on an industrial scale: this is unsustainable.
  • Finland (7.7K metric tonnes pa) and Ireland (6.6K metric tonnes pa) are the two largest producers of peat.  The largest exporters of peat are Canada, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Ireland.

What are the alternatives?

Gardeners buy around 60% of peat sold in the UK, much of which comes from industrial mining of peat. so switching to peat-free composts  makes a real difference. 

Bought composts:  Almost all peat-free bought seed and potting composts are based on, or contain, coir – the fibrous brown outer shell of the coconut, mainly produced in Sri Lanka, Philippines, Mexico and South America . Ethical brands that stand out are:

  • Fertile Fibre organic, vegan and biodynamic composts.
  • Carbon Gold organic coir plus biochar mix. 
  • Slyvagrow organic fine bark (by-product of sustainably managed British forests), coir , green compost, plus organic nutrients including seaweed meal.RHS approved.

Coir and peat-free composts:  The future – two innovative  ethical producers taking up the challenge are:

  • Earth Cycle, former organic farmers, based in Sussex, produce garden composts from locally-sourced recycled waste.
  • Dalefoot Composts made in the Lake District from bracken and sheep wool.

Coir v peat: calculating its carbon footprint.

We asked Craig Sams, Founder of Carbon Gold, to explain why coir is a better choice for the planet.

“A tonne of peat represents 2 tonnes of CO2 in transport costs to the UK (usually from Lithuania or thereabouts). Same for a tonne of coir even though it travels further as coir has a much lower moisture content – you add the water here in the UK.  

A coconut tree sequesters about 2 tonnes of CO2 every year in its wood and in the soil and after 100 years is almost always used as a building material so that carbon is sequestered in a house or other building.The coconut tree itself produces a highly concentrated nutrient-rich food and also a hard shell that makes activated charcoal for water purification and the outer husk is the coir, which used to be burned but is now pressed into bricks and shipped to growers in Europe and elsewhere.So there is the economic value and calorific value to coconut which you don’t get with peat – all you get is the coir equivalent.A rough estimate is that a tonne of peat costs the planet 2 tonnes of CO2 and a tonne of coir actually adds to the planet’s store of CO2 by 3 tonnes, so a 5-tonne difference.OK maybe that’s optimistic, but in principle it is true.

But today peat is cheaper as nobody has to pay for the carbon footprint.If you did then coir would be cheaper as it would earn carbon credits while peat would have to pay a carbon tax.The actual saving to a tomato growers from using peat in propagation instead of a coir based compost is about 1/2p. As a tomato plant will produce at least 30 tomatoes, the extra cost per tomato is 1/60th of a penny.”

Thanks Craig! To read Craig’s great Blog on food, growing and health click here

 Homemade seed & potting composts:

The ultimate planet-friendly compost; totally sustainable and costs next to nothing. Until relatively recently, most gardeners made their own  – time to get started again.

There is a mine of info and YouTube videos on the web. One of the best starter guides is . Garden Organic’s. They also produce a detailed leaflet on homemade potting composts, which explains all you need to know. Click here.

There is no magic formula and don’t worry about it being perfect – we gardeners are not professional horticulturists. Standard ingredients used in various combinations are sieved homemade compost; well-rotted leafmould; sharp sand; good loam (upturned grass turf layered and left to rot down is perfect, or molehill soil); and worm compost.

The simplest seed compost mixture we’ve found is equal parts of home made leaf mould, garden compost and sharp sand.  Give it a try and let us know.

Here’s a great tried and trusted potting mixture from our YouTube videos presenter, and Weleda’s former head biodynamic gardener, Claire Hattersley.

Claire’s soil-based potting compost:

7 parts good loamy soil (mole heaps are good!)

3 parts washed gritty sand

2 parts mature compost from your compost heap

Sieve everything and thoroughly mix together.

This is a nutrient-rich compost for plants that are going to be in their pots for a year or more.

Claire says: “Additional tweaks can be made by using coir and/or vermiculite to lighten/fluff up the mix but these do come with environmental question marks.”

Where next ?

We’re on a mission to get everyone making their own seed and potting composts. Please share your favourite recipes/tips/experiences either via the BDGC Facebook Group or email.