Peat and its use by gardeners has once again featured heavily in headlines this year. In this two-part feature, find out why going peat free is important, what garden centres and retailers are doing and how you can make your own compost
On a recent trip to a local garden centre to buy ericaceous compost, the more acidic variety which we have found harder to make ourselves, we were once again reminded of the lack of available peat free options.
When asking a member of staff for help, they appeared oblivious as to the reason for the question and we left empty handed on that occasion.
At home, we aim to produce our own compost through two large compost bins (bought at a discount through Wokingham Borough Council) and another dedicated solely to leaf mould.
It’s a challenge to make enough so we’ve tracked down and tested a small number of peat-free options over time.
So, what is the problem with using peat, I hear you ask? Earth is home to
10 billion acres of peatlands (including bogs and fens) and they are the world’s largest carbon store on land, drawing down more carbon than all of the planet’s forests combined. Peatlands also provide unique and intensively biodiverse habitats for wildlife, insects and plant life.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), it takes a century for just 10cm of peat to form, from partially decomposed plants, while up to
22 metres of peat can be extracted for use during that same timeframe.
The UK is home to over five million acres of peatlands, placing it among the top 10 countries globally by area. These wetlands hold a similar amount of carbon to that collectively found in the forests of the UK, France and Germany.
Yet, according to Forestry England, “In the UK, at least 80% of peatland habitats have been lost or damaged,” for a variety of reasons, ranging from energy to horticultural use.
In May, the Government announced plans to ban the sale of peat compost to gardeners from 2024. It will also consult on how peat can be phased out in the horticultural sector. But, to an extent, we have been here before. In 2010, the UK Government introduced a target to end the use of peat in gardens by 2020, and commercially by 2030.
In fact, the volume of peat sold in the UK actually rose by 9% in 2020, due to increased demand and the impact of the pandemic on alternative supply chains.
Television personalities including Chris Packham and BBC Gardeners’ World host Monty Don, who last year described the extraction of peat for horticultural use as “an act of environmental vandalism”, have also lent their voices to the cause, while charities including WWF UK, Friends of the Earth, The Wildlife Trusts, The Woodland Trust, The RSPB and Plantlife have campaigned heavily on the subject.
In the lead up to May’s International Compost Awareness Week, I was keener than ever to learn what progress is being made. I contacted garden centres, super-markets and DIY retailers in and around the Borough. Find out in the next edition how they responded.
Meanwhile, why not give making your own compost a go…
Even if you are making good use of the food waste and/or green waste collections in our area, home composting can help to reduce your footprint even further, while providing you with nutrient rich compost for your garden.
Compost bins are widely available from DIY stores, garden centres and other retailers. They (and water butts) come in a range of sizes and at a discount via Wokingham Borough Council. Order via www.wokingham.gov.uk
Once it has arrived, positioning your compost bin correctly is really important. It won’t be easy to move when in use. Aim for a sunny semi-shady spot, on bare soil. This will allow the worms and insects easy access and ensure good drainage.
You will also need easy access, both to add waste but also to turn things (using a spade or similar) roughly every two-four weeks. If you notice the contents drying out, you can also add a couple of full watering cans every now and then – especially in warmer months.
A 50/50 mix of green and brown materials is ideal, to keep your compost bin healthy and help the contents to break down.
Green materials to add include grass cuttings, leaves and soft prunings, houseplants and cut flowers, fruit and vegetable scraps, tea leaves and coffee grounds (many tea bags still contain plastic, so we would avoid them).
Brown materials include paper and cardboard (including paper junk mail, toilet rolls and egg boxes), egg shells, straw and hay, woodchip and bark, small twigs and woody prunings, wood ash, hair and fur, the contents of your vacuum cleaner and waste from small pets, such as guinea pigs, gerbils and rabbits.
Avoid things like meat, cooked food, dairy products, pasta, bread, sweet treats, ash from coal fires and cat or dog waste.
Unwanted visitors shouldn’t be an issue if you have a healthy compost bin, only add the suggested items and keep it well sealed.
It may take up to a year for your first batch of compost to be ready but persevere – it’s rewarding when you get there. When you have what looks like moist and earthy compost, simply use it as you would normally on your plants and around your garden.