For Peat’s Sake?

When it comes to the green agenda, gardeners and plant growers are caught in the crossfire – on the one hand we are the good guys adding to the flora bio-mass while doing our bit for insects, birds and wildlife habitats; on the other, we are part of the problem with our pesticides, fungicides, hoses and Sunday trips to the garden centre.

Am I therefore a villain because I grow and deliver 50,000 lavenders a year or a little bit of a hero because those plants will feed countless numbers of bees?

In truth, if I am to be labelled a villain, it will probably because we use peat. There, I’ve said it. We pot our plants in peat. Why? Because peat:

  • Has excellent drainage, helping to ensure roots are never waterlogged

  • Has an a slightly acidic pH that accommodates most plants

  • Retains nutrients exceptionally well

  • Is light. The carbon footprint of transporting it is therefore relatively low – certainly far better than that of, say, Sri Lankan coir

  • Has a high and proven success rate – with peat we lose 10% fewer plants

This last point is important because the anti-peat lobby often claim that people like us continue to use peat for no other reason than we are used to it, that we don’t like change and are therefore no more than die-hard stick-in-the-muds.

Nonsense.

Anyone involved in horticulture, amateur or professional, is always learning, always looking for better ways of getting better results.

That’s why we have been running trials for 30 years on all aspects of how we grow our hedge plants and lavenders– including (especially) the potting media. And the result of those 30 years of experience and experiment during which we have grown sufficient plants to create over 2.000km of new hedges has remained constant – nothing does the job better than peat.

The abolitionists also claim that we continue to use peat because the first peat-free alternatives introduced in the late 1980s weren’t up to snuff and that has put us off for good. Certainly, those early alternatives were so poor that even the weeds avoided them; but the idea that because I had a disappointing experience 30 years ago, I haven’t tried anything new since is insulting. Of course we test alternatives and, yes, they are much improved and now of a quality that we can fully endorse the RHS’s statement that “the purchase of peat to be unacceptable for the primary use of soil incorporation and ground mulching;” But their performance remains inconsistent and they offer neither a guarantee they are free of weed seeds nor proper traceability.

The best plants still start their life with their feet in peat.

Another accusation is that the attraction of peat is (purely) financial. Our job is to produce the best possible plants. No more, no less. And if that is deemed a ‘commercial interest’ then so be it. But if it was just about the money, then we certainly wouldn’t be using peat. We could fill our pots with all manner of cheaper stuff, add a few chemicals and send it out to our unsuspecting customers, proudly claiming our ‘peat free’ credentials. That’s how you could really make money in our game – and to hell with the customer. But that’s not what drives our business.

Moss peat is a remarkable organic substance and should be treated with respect, if not reverence, and must never be wasted or used inappropriately. Peatlands cover around 4 million km² (3%) of the world’s land area across 175 countries. Of this about 7% has been, or is being, commercially cut or forested. In Great Britain there are around 70,000 hectares of lowland raised peat bogs – the type suitable for horticultural use. Of this, just over 5,000 hectares are in a condition capable of regeneration and c. 3,750 hectares (equivalent to 5,400 football pitches) are in near natural condition. In Ireland (from where 2/3 of Britain’s peat is imported), the government designated 31 raised bog as SACs (Special Areas of Conservation) in February 1998 but this move has, so far, been ineffectual. As ineffectual as the UK government’s own 1994 target of 90% peat reduction by 2010.

The peat debate had come to a head four years earlier with the launch of a peat-free campaign that demanded the immediate banning of the sale and cutting of peat. Such a strident and uncompromised position inevitably had the effect of rallying opposition from just about everyone who sold or used peat. There could be no meeting of minds. And there’s the rub – a change like this must be managed with acceptable alternatives in place. You can’t expect people to stop using their car without access to reliable and affordable public transport to take them to where they need to go.

Fortunately, tempers have cooled since then and, in the UK at least, a far more sensible and achievable approach is being adopted. Over the last decade or so, the UK government has spent significant sums compensating selected companies who were extracting peat from our own bogs to cease operations and restore the habitat. And in January this year, the government pumped another £1m into research projects to develop peat alternatives – a welcome move but also confirmation that work does, indeed, still need to be done.

So, where does that leave us? In, I would like to think, a position for the debate to continue based on mutual understanding and action. Action that includes the following:

  • Gardeners and growers must use peat ONLY as a potting medium – NEVER as a mulch or soil improver. Once a plant is established, it does not need peat to sustain it
  • High quality and effective alternatives to peat offering consistency and traceability need to be developed
  • Realistic targets for reducing peat consumption should be set – and based around the development of alternatives as above
  • The governments of both exporting and importing countries need to work together
  • A meaningful number of the remaining pristine bogs need to be properly and securely protected

Does this mean that our plants will one day be sold with that ‘peat-free’ sticker?

I think it is inevitable – when that sticker also means that the plant in the pot is still the best possible plant.