It’s April, spring getting nicely underway. Planning permission for a Scottish peat bog causes a ripple across media channels. Largely good weather brings a flurry of gardening at a late Easter-time. Garden centres are ready, stocked high for a seasonal retail boom after a late winter lull.
Shouldn’t we question those stocks, find out about what’s behind the bags of compost we bring into our gardens?
Yes, we did question those stocks. A ‘we’ that is a pretty strong gathering: Friends of the Earth, Plantlife, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts. We’re all really concerned about peat bogs - more later - and the stalled change towards replacing peat in gardening, despite Government targets to achieve this. So, we asked people to find out what composts are on sale in their local gardening store.
The results are disappointing. Just 19% of the compost products found our surveyors found were clearly labelled as peat-free. More than half were mainly peat based and another 11% claimed to be ‘peat-reduced’. Most of the rest were not clearly labelled at all. Lesson 1: if you want a bag of peat-free compost (of course you do) you have to hunt for it.
More disappointment on price. 50% of the peat-frees on sale appear to be more expensive than other composts – although 5% were found to be cheaper. Lesson 2: you’ll probably have to pay more for a decent bag of peat-free compost.
But are there ‘decent bags’ of peat-free composts? Yes – although there are also some poor ones, which have dragged peat-free’s reputation down in the past. The RSPB’s wildlife gardening expert has been peat free for over 20 years and even reckons the new peat-frees can be good for seeds – if you sieve them. Lesson 3: you might have to slightly adjust how you use your compost.
It’s just one bag of compost - does this really matter? Absolutely. Those ‘just one bags’ add up to around 1.5 million cubic metres of peat sold in gardening outlets. Can you imagine what that looks like? Lesson 4: you make a difference, especially if you talk to others about peat – including your local gardening retailer and your MP.
And that big mound of peat has to come from somewhere. A place that could be a colourful, wet boggy landscape of Sphagnum mosses and other specialist bog plants – including carnivorous sundews and butterworts, bog asphodel and bog rosemary. With dragonflies hunting over bog pools, rare butterflies nectaring among the petals and wading birds huddling their nests among the hollows and hummocks. But which, instead, has been stripped of its plants, drained to a dustbowl and subject to giant machines scraping way the dried-out soil in a slow, methodical crawl from horizon to horizon. I’m not exaggerating, honest – I’ve seen it. Lesson 5: your bag of peat comes at great expense to a wonderful place for wildlife.
Peat extraction at Bolton Fell Moss, Cumbria OllyWatts/RSPB
Climate change – is everywhere. Including peat bogs: formed over thousands of years through the slow accumulation of bog plants, Britain’s peat bogs hold more carbon than our forests, many times more carbon than the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Keeping this carbon safe in the ground is essential to our responsibility to fight climate change – yet it escapes to the atmosphere when bogs are drained and excavated. Lesson 6: take an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint; your children, and grandchildren, will thank you. One day.
So we, this gathering of environmental organisations, want to finally put the peat issue to rest. We’re not alone: the Government in England has clear targets to end peat use, our four countries’ environment ministers have pledged peat progress, and forward-looking gardening companies are making changes. Yet the UK’s garden industry is still only around 50% peat-free. So we’re going to work renewed, to work through that remaining half of the problem. And with your help, we’ll get there faster. Lesson 7: we will all be peat-free one day – let’s get there as soon as possible.
Enjoy your garden this Easter.