Using less peat

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

For peat's sake, try an alternative

Peat helps our vegetables to flourish and our borders to bloom. But if we don't use less of it, warn scientists, the future of the planet will not be nearly so rosy.

Peat bogs cover just 3% of the world's surface, but they store twice as much carbon as all the world's forests combined. Destroy the Amazonian rainforest and we're in trouble; destroy the peat bogs and we've had it.

Unfortunately it looks like we're using more and more of the stuff. Between 1993 and 1997, our peat purchases rose by 57%. An area of Eire the size of 250 Trafalgar Squares is dug up every year to nurture our boisterous bulbs and tasty tomatoes.

There are plenty of products you can try instead.

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Photo: Using less peat

Saves up to 11kg of CO2 a year per person

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How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • 94% of UK bogs have already been lost
  • Peat forms at a rate of only 1mm per year, whilst peat extractors remove up to 22cm a year
  • Scottish bogs are still absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, while those close to England's traditional industrial heartlands are net sources of CO2
  • Apart from gardeners, whisky distillers are big users of peat: the single malt Laphroaig is marketed for its distinctive peaty flavour
  • 250,000 cubic meters of peat are used each year for growing mushrooms in Britain and Ireland

Released into the atmosphere, peat bog carbon is a major contributor to climate change. Britain's peat bogs store the equivalent of ten times the country's total CO2 , according to the National Trust.

Due to erosion and pollution, bogs in northern Britain could be 'leaking' as much carbon into the atmosphere each year as 400,000 family cars, according to the University of Manchester.

Between 1,200 and 1,900 billion tonnes of carbon are buried in global bogs and British bogs alone, if flushed of their carbon, would release 1.5 billion tonnes of it - 20 years' worth of our national emissions. Left alone, however, fewer than 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 leak annually.

On top of that, 65% of all peat used in the UK is imported from other countries, including Eire and the Baltic states, adding emissions from transportation to the mix.

So where do you fit in? Simple - 70% of the peat used in the UK goes on our gardens.

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How do I do it?

Just substitute one of the following:

  • Only buy compost specifically labelled as 'peat-free', which makes use of 'coir peat', a sustainable coconut by-product
  • Mulch: tree bark, cocoa shells, shredded prunings, hay, straw, coir (a tough, fibrous, pithy material removed from coconut husks)
  • Soil conditioners: animal manure, leaf mould and garden compost
  • Soil acidifiers for alkaline ericaceous shrubs such as rhododendron, camellia and azalea: pine needles, composted heather or bracken
  • Make your own compost

Avoid specialist gardening stores when buying compost. They came bottom of the list recently compiled by the RSPB on successful phasing out of peat. Big home-improvement stores will sell 'peat-free' options, however.

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Comments

Pickle 2009-02-08

There are so many alternatives that you can put on/into the soil to improve what you have. Grass clippings/manure/rotting vegetation/comfrey, paper/and then covering it up to let the worms etc do their thing!....etc etc. Easy and cheap

Hungerford89, Flintshire 2009-01-21

Peat-free compost is just SO easy to get hold of! This and a bit of home composting... job done!
p.s. We're not expert gardeners by any means - and only get to spend a minimal amount of time in our garden at the moment...

Adrian, Caerffili. Wales 2009-01-16

Never, ever use peat at all on my gardens, or I never buy peat based compost.

The Bloom Team, London 2008-08-11

Once upon a time it made sense to use peat to boost moisture and nutrient levels in our soils - there was lots of the stuff lying around and climate change wasn't an issue. But these days, as you rightly point out, there are loads of cheaper and lower-carbon alternatives which are just as effective - if not more so. For example, you can improve soil with compost (see our article on Home Composting: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bloom/actions/composting.shtml) and well-rotted animal manures. All the best, the Bloom Team.

Anonymous 2008-07-19

Good to see this, but the first sentence on this page in neither helpful nor true. Peat contains no significant nutrients, it's compost that helps vegetables flourish and flowers to bloom. Why begin the article by implying that alternatives are not so good? Research increasingly shows that they are better, and better products still are being developed all the time!

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon
Carbon is the fourth most common chemical element in the universe, and carbon compounds - in other words, carbon chemically combined with other elements - are the basis of all known life forms on earth. Pure carbon appears in many apparently diverse forms, from diamond to graphite to charcoal, but it is much more commonly found in substances such as coal, oil, natural gas, wood and peat that we use for fuel. When we burn these substances to provide energy - either directly in our homes as heat, or in power stations to produce electricity - the combustion process produces 'oxides' of carbon, including the gas CO2.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Emissions
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Sustainability
Sustainability - whether applied to energy, technology, industry, agriculture or just consumption of resources in general - refers to the concept of using things at a rate that, while meeting our own needs, does not compromise future generations' ability to meet theirs. In environmental terms, a process or industry is unsustainable when it requires natural resources to be used up faster than they can be replenished.

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