Gardening without peat

We all know that tropical rainforests are home to a huge variety of plants and animals that cannot survive elsewhere, and that destroying them is bad for the planet. But did you know that the UK’s lowland raised bogs are also home to rare and precious wildlife? Peatlands are amazingly wild places, teeming with birds, insects and unusual plants. Just like the rainforests, the peat in these bogs and the plant life it supports lock up carbon dioxide and help to slow climate change.

Once, there were nearly 95,000 hectares of lowland raised bogs in the UK. Now, 94% of them have been damaged or destroyed, and only around 6,000 hectares remain. Because most of the lowland raised bog in the UK is now protected, we now import roughly 65% of the peat we use, mostly from Ireland.

What makes peat bogs so special?

Sphagnum moss is the building block of peat. When the moss dies it doesn't decompose properly as the ground is very waterlogged. New moss grows on top of the dead moss, compressing it into peat. This is a slow process, and peat grows by around 1 mm each year. Some raised bogs are over 7 meters deep, which makes them at least 7,000 years old. Peatlands are important because they:

  • store carbon – over three billion tonnes of carbon already stored and if repaired, they could remove an additional three million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from the atmosphere
  • both store and clean water as well as help reduce flooding – there’s huge economic value in improved water quality and flood alleviation
  • are fantastic landscapes for wildlife - rich habitats that are home to subtle and unique wild plants and animals, and fabulous wild places for people to enjoy

Without peat bog habitats we could lose a huge range of fascinating and unique species such as the great sundew and the many types of dragonfly that thrive in this habitat.

What impact has gardening had on peat bogs?

Gardeners only started using peat widely about 60 years ago but the convenience and low price of peat has made it a hard habit to kick. Despite many gardeners trying peat substitutes when they were first on the market, many complained that they were difficult to use. This lack of enthusiasm for early substitutes resulted in the continued use of more than two million cubic metres of peat every year - that's the equivalent of 24,000 double-decker buses full of peat, accounting for 66% of the total amount extracted each year. As a result of this huge appetite we continue to destroy priceless lowland bog habitat and all the wildlife associated with it.

Why should we not use peat in the garden?

Peat is primarily sourced from lowland raised bogs, an increasingly rare habitat in the UK and across Europe. Its use for gardening is unsustainable and it's important to go peat-free to stop any further destruction of one of our most precious natural habitats.

Lowland bogs are very fragile: they take thousands of years to form but can be completely destroyed in just a few decades. Harvesting the peat from one part of a bog can cause water to drain away from the surface elsewhere, drying out the sphagnum. This causes the moss to die, and lets scrub species invade. Demand for peat has resulted in the destruction, degradation and fragmentation of lowland peat bogs and their wildlife.

But the good news is that it's easy to go peat free. There are now lots of alternatives to peat available and they produce really fantastic results.

Posted in: Sustainable Gardening on 30 April 2015

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