A growing concern: peat is bad for the planet – and for plants

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The gardening world can be slow to change and, as much as that can frustrate – even infuriate me at times – I love the reassuring familiarity and nostalgia. In an ever-changing, unpredictable world, it’s an anchor for traditions and our sense of identity. However, sometimes this resistance to change can lead to curious outcomes, that I would argue not only get in the way of us becoming better gardeners, but ironically even hamper our connection with our gardening heritage.

I never would have imagined when, as a teenager, I first read about the debate surrounding peat, that I would still be seeing it rage on decades later. As much as I think in gardening, as in all creative pursuits, a diversity of views is essential, it is an objective reality that the continued use of peat as a growing medium can not be defended from an environmental point of view.

I came to know peat after moving to the UK in 1999, because in Singapore – following Victorian British tradition – our horticultural growing medium was a mix of garden soil, sand and charcoal in roughly equal quantities. It wasn’t really until the middle part of the 20th century that the horticultural industry in Britain swapped from similar formulas over to peat, largely because its lower weight made it cheaper to transport, and thus more profitable. Red flags were being raised about its environmental impact as early as the 1980s, just a couple of decades after its adoption into widespread use, but resistance to giving it up lingers today, 40 years later.

But here’s an even weirder thing: not only is peat not a traditional growing media, it isn’t even necessarily a very good one. It contains little to no nutrients and growing in peat-based mixes ties the grower to constantly applying fertilisers to keep plants healthy. Aside from being costly and extra work, most of these fertilisers will not contain the same broad range of minerals and biologically active compounds found in soil, meaning plant health can often be on the back foot.

By growing in peat you are essentially growing hydroponically in an inert substrate – with all the drawbacks and none of the benefits. That’s before we get on to the fact that peat can become hydrophobic (water-repelling) quite quickly when it dries out. If you have ever watered a parched plant and seen the moisture literally run off the surface and down the sides of the pot, that’s what’s happening. This forces manufacturers to add “wetting agents” (basically detergents) that break the surface tension of the water, to allow peat to do its job.

If you want to be kinder to the environment and get better gardening results, ditch peat for a soil-based growing medium. By simply mixing a peat-free, all-purpose compost with regular garden soil in roughly equal parts, you can create a version that’s much cheaper, and involves lugging far fewer bags around. And if it helps to convince you, remember this is actually far more “traditional” than using peat.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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