Compost is a staple found in every gardener’s shed. But did you know, a large number of composts still contain peat, even today? This versatile product has many uses within your home and garden, but should the use of this product come at the expense of the wider environment? The use of peat in compost comes at huge environmental cost, from the destruction of habitats, to the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. We think it’s time we took the leap to entirely peat-free compost – let us tell you why!
What is peat?
A little bit innocuous, boringly brown and dirt like – peat is often taken for granted. But this soil-like substance is actually something pretty special. Peat is made up of partially decayed, dead organic plant matter trapped in wet, acidic, low oxygen conditions. Peatlands form over millennia, and it’s these rare, specific conditions that slow down the decomposition of the plant matter that mean that these critical environments are so rich in nutrients and take so long to form.
In the UK there are actually three main types of peatlands (a peatland or peat bog being an area that contains and produces peat). There are fens – these are often found at the bottom of a hill and are fed by ground and surface water. There are raised bogs which are smaller localised bogs and blanket bogs which are large spanning bogs fed by rainwater. Bogs are fairly uncommon things with an estimated 13% of the worlds lowland and raised bogs being local to the UK alone.
How is peat formed?
Well, it’s a slow process. It’s calculated that peat bogs grow at a rate of approximately 1mm in depth per year meaning a 1m deep peat bog is approximately 1,000 years old. For peat to form, dead organic plant matter must be subject to some pretty specific conditions to encourage a very slow rate of decay.
Firstly the area must be waterlogged, whether this be through ground water, surface water or rainfall – the area must be saturated with water. You might have heard of Sphagnum moss (peat moss); this amazing little plant carpets the ground in boggy areas, acting like a sponge and ensuring the area stays waterlogged. It can hold up to eight times its own weight in water and is present in pretty much all areas of peatland. It’s pretty vital in the formation of peat and does an amazing job at keeping things wet.
Next, the area must be oxygen free or low in oxygen levels – this minimises the amount of bacteria and fungal activity within the bog, meaning the plant matter is broken down very slowly and incompletely.
Then there’s pH of the bog. For peat to form and persist, it must be subject to acidic conditions. Due to the nature of the decomposition occurring and the presence of organic acids in the plant matter, peat bogs tend to maintain their own acidity levels. However, the pH level of the bog is key as it also helps to keep the rate of decomposition low as well as maintaining nutrients within the soil.
Cold temperatures are also important as this again slows the rate of breakdown.
Over time the partially decomposed organic plant matter is then subject to compression – this breaks the matter up into the smaller, lighter, finer soil-like pieces we have all come to know and love.
Why is peat used in compost?
Due to the slow rate of decomposition and the fact the plant matter only ever decomposes partially, peat is incredibly rich in nitrogen and soil carbon. The partially decomposed nature of the material also means it’s got certain physical properties which make it an excellent medium for growth – it is great at retaining water, it’s light and bouncy so helps to ensure aeration occurs within in the soil, and it also helps to prevent soil compaction.
Peat is also pretty easy and cheap to harvest. Because peat is a kind of top soil, it requires no specialist machinery to harvest, it is simply dug out of the ground and then taken for processing and packing.
As peat is also created in anaerobic conditions, it’s nearly impossible for things like bacteria, viruses and fungi to thrive within it. This means that even when taken directly from the ground peat is almost always completely free from parasites and disease. So, it takes minimal treatment and processing before its ready to become a potting medium.
Why should we use peat-free compost instead?
Peat is an incredibly important natural resource. Not only is it finite, but it’s also a fragile eco-system for a variety of rare and endangered wildlife. Peat bogs are also excellent carbon stores, so by removing them and using their natural materials for compost we’re causing a whole host of problems for the environment.
Firstly peat bogs are an amazing habitat. These incredibly complex environments are home to a whole manner of different ecosystems as well as rare and endangered organisms (such as the Marsh fritallary butterfly). These systems rely on the specific conditions that are provided by the peatlands, and any change to the these environments could cause significant damage to habitats or organisms themselves. When peat bogs are destroyed, habitats and areas for these wonderful creatures to thrive are removed. Unfortunately, the more peat we harvest for compost the harder it becomes for peatland inhabiting creatures to find suitable homes, meaning they are becoming rarer and the biodiversity of these areas in the UK is diminishing. A really sad thought! Peat-free compost does none of this, it is produced sustainably, often from true waste products meaning it causes no damage to fragile ecosystems around the world.
Secondly, peat is a non-sustainable natural resource. It is formed at an extremely low rate due to the specific conditions required for it to be produced. Although it can be carefully restored with human intervention, naturally peat takes thousands of years to form – meaning once we dig it up it’s not coming back. Some people think of peat as similar to fossil fuel (after all, it was once burned as a fuel medium), it’s finite and contains lots of soil carbon – not to mention the fact that it is one of the stepping stones in coal formation too. If we continue to use peat as a compost medium it will eventually run out, so it’s important that we take steps now to reduce our reliability on peat as a gardening material and make use of the excellent peat-free alternatives we have available to us!
Finally, peat bogs are amazing at storing carbon. Peatlands make up only 3% of land on earth, but they hold over 30% of the worlds soil carbon! Beneath peatlands, there are tonnes of carbon stored away, some stored in permafrost and some stored in the form of carbon dioxide gas and even more in the decomposing vegetation itself. In fact some people refer to bogs as carbon sinks, as they’re so good at sinking carbon back into the ground! As we remove peat from the ground carbon dioxide escapes, the permafrost beneath the peatlands melts releasing even more carbon, and the decomposing vegetation is exposed to the air, meaning this also starts to breakdown more quickly releasing other greenhouse gases. The draining and destruction of peatlands has been a significant contributor to the increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Approximately 15% of the world’s peat bogs have been drained or destroyed – with many more still at risk. Choosing peat-free compost reduces the need for peat harvesting. It helps keep peat in the ground where it should be, and helps to ensure no more excess carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere – reducing your carbon footprint and in turn helping to slow global warming.
But, peat-free compost doesn’t work as well:
Back in the day, this might have been the case. But, modern peat-free composts now work as well, if not better than composts that do contain peat. It’s all about picking the best peat-free compost for the job! Companies have spent millions of pounds researching into the materials and methods to produce excellent, nutrient dense, effective peat-free compost, so you can rest assured there will be the perfect peat-free potting soil for the job.
These days, there’s a huge variety of peat-free composts available, some specialist and some more general purpose. The materials used to produce the compost will dictate the nutrients and densities of minerals present within the growth medium. We’ve put together a few of the most common types of peat free compost, so you have a little more information to help you decide what’s best for your garden:
General purpose peat-free compost:
Your all-purpose peat-free composts tend to be made up of a blend of different mediums. But, the vast majority will have a large amount of composted wood fibre in there. These general purpose composts will contain all of the nutrients and minerals required for pretty much all plants to grow, they’re nutrient rich, effective and very easy to use. Generally they’re a pretty complete compost choice. You may find that generic peat-free compost doesn’t hold onto water as well as some its more hygroscopic counterparts, and that it compresses quite easily. But overall it’s a pretty fantastic growing medium!
We think wool composts are utterly fantastic! Not only are they sustainable, environmentally friendly and easy to use. They are incredibly nitrate rich! The only truly wool based compost available in the UK at the moment is produced by Dalefoot composts. Their wool compost is made of entirely sheep’s wool, bracken and comfrey to provide plants with an array of nutrients to ensure they grow big and strong. Dalefoot compost is now soil association approved so by choosing this peat-free compost you can be rest assured that you’re getting the absolute best for your garden. We stock two varieties of Dalefoot wool compost, their original wool compost and their wool compost for seeds, but there’s something for every gardener. Wool compost is the best peat-free option if you need a compost that will retain good amounts of water. It’s also light, airy, provides excellent soil aeration and is generally just pleasant to use.
Coir based composts:
Coir is another common material used in the production of peat-free compost. CocoPeat is made entirely of coconut husk fibres, that have been mulched down into a delightfully light and fine compost. It’s sustainably made as it makes use of coconut shells which would have otherwise gone to landfill. CocoPeat is an excellent potting medium, or growth medium for smaller plants. It contains a variety of nutrients which aid in plant growth plus it’s nice and light – so very easy to use. It also comes in handy blocks that are easy to store. We currently offer larger CocoPeat blocks for bigger projects, smaller coir blocks for little projects or individual plants as well as coir coins – the perfect medium for sprouting seedlings before you transplant them into something bigger!
Home made compost:
Now this is type of compost is the absolute ideal. Not only can you tailor the composts contents exactly to your requirements, but you can also track the source of all its ingredients and ensure they’re sourced ethically, they’re environmentally friendly as well as entirely peat free. Many home composts are made up of a mixture of ingredients but the most common include leaves, plant matter, hedge trimmings, food waste and tree bark/ sticks. Home composting is an excellent choice for lots of people, whether that be in the form of small rotary composters, larger open composters such as our recycled plastic composter or even just a simple compost heap. There’s a little bit of work involved when it comes to creating your own compost, from collecting leaves into compostable leaf bags, rotating and aerating the compost, as well as ensuring its conditions are kept optimal, making your own compost is very rewarding – and we’re pretty sure your garden will love you for giving it a go!
Here at Chimney Sheep we’re passionate about all things planting, growing and composting. That’s why we’ve put together an extensive natural gardening range. We’ve even got everything you might need to start your own home composting project (you’ll just need to collect your trimmings!). Take a little browse, your garden will thank you!
What are the best ways to go peat-free?
How do I know I’m purchasing peat free compost:
This ones easy! If it doesn’t say peat-free on the packet it definitely contains peat. All peat-free composts take advantage of the fact they are peat-free and display this loudly and proudly on the packaging. Some packs of compost will say things along the lines of ‘low peat’ or ‘low peat content’ – these are not the same as peat-free and do have some peat mixed in there. If you’re interested, many compost brands are now displaying the peat content in terms of percentage on the back of compost packs, so you can take a look at the different brands of compost and figure out which are the worst offenders.
How to avoid peat when potting plants:
Peat is sneaky! If you look closely in garden centres, super markets and plant nurseries you’ll often find that plants are stored and grown in growing mediums that contain vast amounts of peat. When potting plants, or planning your garden for the year it’s important to take certain precautions if you want to ensure your project remains entirely peat-free!
Firstly, double check the medium your potting plant or seedling has been grown in. Most supermarkets and garden centres do use mediums that contain peat, and this isn’t always stated on the container. If in any doubt ask a representative, but do check packaging carefully! If a plant is grown/ potted in a peat-free medium it will be stated loudly and proudly so take care to check for a peat-free statement. We’ve started to notice a shift in some businesses. More and more are moving towards peat-free soils. However, they are still few and far between!
If you can’t seem to find a seedling or potting plant in a peat free soil consider growing your own in peat-free compost from seed. Seeds are always peat-free as they contain no soil or growth medium. This means you can ensure your plant never ever touches peat right from the get go!
A note on fertilisers:
Whilst the vast majority of fertilisers and feeds don’t use peat at all – as they get their rich nutrients from other plant/animal based sources- a couple do use derivatives of plant matter sourced from peat bogs. If you’re in any doubt as to how your fertiliser or plant feed has sourced its contents we’d advise you do a little bit of research just to ensure your favoured brand of soil enricher doesn’t contain peat matter – just to be on the safe side!
What is Chimney Sheep doing to help restore peatlands?
Here at Chimney Sheep we’re committed to helping restore and re-wild our local environment. To do this we’re investing 20% of our profits and collaborating directly with the community interest company Buy Land Plant Trees CIC. The aim of BLPT is to undertake rewilding projects. We plant and restore native woodland, helping to restore natural habitats and improve biodiversity in the area. One of our key aims is that we’re trying to restore the natural landscape of these local environments, which in turn over the years will help to prevent storm and flood damage.
One of the projects BLPT is currently undertaking is the rewilding of Low Fell. Amongst other things, one of the efforts we are undertaking is the restoration of the depleted blanket peat bog which is located at the foot of the fell. This bog is in a pretty sorry state. The reason for this is drainage cuts. Over the years lots of drainage ditches were cut into the side of Low Fell (in an area named Crab Tree Beck Valley) to improve the flow of water through the land. This caused water to run off the fell at faster rates, washing away the peat and lowering the water level of the bog. Over years this has caused the bog to shrink, damaging habitats and reducing the amount of peat stored in the ground.
But, there’s a plan in place to rectify this. We, in collaboration with BLPT, are planning to use locally sourced wool stuffed inside local Carvetti coffee sacks to fill these drainage ditches to help stem the flow of the water. This plan takes advantage of the hygroscopic nature of sheep’s wool and its ability to hold on to huge amounts of water as well as the wool’s ability to plug spaces effectively. This will help raise the level of the water table in the area, replenishing the peat bog with moisture it so desperately needs. This in turn will cause expansion of the bog, the production of more vital peat as well as encouraging growth of vital Sphagnum mosses which help to further perpetuate the peat bog cycle.
The natural materials used in the ‘drainage plugs’ (sheep’s wool and jute hessian) are also an excellent natural growth medium. By using these natural biodegradable materials it’s hoped that local plants such as grasses and mosses will take root in the materials, causing the plugs to become even denser, ensuring they remain efficient over time. As the ‘plugs’ biodegrade nature should take over and the roots and growths that form should continue to efficiently plug the land, ensuring that even in years to come the water table stays high and the bog remains plentiful.
It is hoped by helping to restore the Low Fell peat bog we can help improve biodiversity in the area, maintain the habitat of the rare peatland creatures that need it to survive and ensure that the carbon in the peat is kept in the ground – exactly where it should be!