The peat debate – or should we really eat kittens for breakfast?

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

It was not my intention to write about the contentous subject of peat in gardening but a friend of mine sent me an article from the New York Times on the subject, which deserves wider distribution. So, maybe I should take the plunge.

There was a time when, in the UK, we all used lots of peat in gardening, we dug it into the ground as a ‘soil improver’ and used it as the basis for remarkably consistent and high quality potting compost. Some plants did not like it – as it could get terribly soggy in wet winters outside, but on the whole it was a fantastic material for potting compost. It has remarkable stability as it takes a very long time to decay.

Then we realized that in order to supply us with peat, lots of valuable habitat (peat bogs) were being destroyed in order to get at the peat underneath. Conservation organizations began to campaign against its use, and in the UK, they have more or less won, as the NYT piece explains, the government is trying to ban it.

The problem is that in the UK, it is actually quite difficult to have a sensible conversation about peat use. Saying that it still has a use is akin to saying you like to eat kittens for breakfast, or more pointedly since we are talking eco-politics here – are a climate change sceptic. So when I read the NYT piece I was very impressed to see the English organic garden guru Bob Flowerdew quoted as saying that peat still had a role and we should not condemn its use outright. Bob, by the way is actually a cousin of mine, although I have never met him (my mother was the children’s book writer Phyllis Flowerdew). I have always regarded Bob as something of an organic jihadi, which usually goes along with the denunciation of peat use, as being akin to…. well eating kittens for breakfast. So his open-mindedness here really made me sit up and take notice. Good on ya’ Bob.

To be honest, I have not made my mind up about peat. I do not like to make my mind up unless I have all the facts and had a chance to weigh them up. So read the NYT piece and then take a look at my bullet points. These are facts, but I do not know how they all add up:

  • Peat bogs were formed at different phases in climate history. Many British ones were formed during previous wetter phases and digging them destroys them. Much damage has been done by peat digging in the past.
  • In many places however, peat bogs are being actively formed, and careful peat digging does no damage, as the bog vegetation rapidly recovers. Peat, from these bogs (mostly in Ireland, Canada, northern USA and Scandinavia and Baltics) is arguably the only thing you can dig out of the ground which is genuinely sustainable, in the sense that more will be formed (apart from truffles that is). Gold, iron ore and oil don’t grow again.
  • In the USA and Germany, two countries with a strong environmental movement, there has been little concern about peat, compared to the UK. This suggests that British conservation organisations might be making an unnecessary fuss, or on other hand that in other countries, conservationists are curiously unware.
  • Eventually peat dug out will decay and thus add to CO2 in the atmosphere. However it does this very slowly.
  • In campaigning against peat some UK conservation bodies have been remarkably dishonest in their tactics. I have had personal experience of this. This should come as no surprise. Environmental politics is like any other politics, driven by emotion and ideology rather than evidence. It is also a very competitive market for influence and money.
  • The use of peat as a soil improver is arguably extraordinarily wasteful. Especially when nowadays there are vast quantities of local government produced green waste compost to use instead, which they practically give away.
  • Nearly all commercial peat-replacement composts are, in my experience, rubbish. They rob plants of nitrogen, are very inconsistent, poorly graded and can decay quickly. Composted plant material does not necessarily make good quality potting compost.
  • I do know experienced gardeners who think all lightweight potting composts, i.e. anything which is not soil based, are rubbish. Soil-based is jolly heavy though! Using soil-based on a large scale is simply not practical.
  • Some nursery owners I know who make their own peat-free compost appear to be very happy with it. See this from Martin at Sampford Shrubs: then click on  ‘Our Compost’
  • The use of coir (waste from coconut palms) in some peat-free composts involves transport miles which make peat transport miles look tiny.

It would be interesting to know what others make of this conudrum.

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Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Eden October 15, 2012, 10:14 pm

Good article. Thanks.

Liz October 16, 2012, 4:51 am

I’ve looked into it myself a bit and I agree with you. For potting soils, especially seed starting mediums, I have no desire to stay away from peat. I think one difference between the UK and here is that most of our peat is sourced from Canada where it is more sustainable than locations used for the UK. There is still plenty of people against using peat, and I would also avoid for situations like soil amendments where there are better options (good old compost) available. For many potting mixes though, I think the use should be maintained.

Arthur in the Garden! October 16, 2012, 7:43 am

I strongly believe that everyone would use the leaves each year from their yard instead of sending them to a landfill all of their compost needs would be met! Luckily, here in Raleigh, North Carolina, the city has a yard waste center where the much the limbs and leaves and then it is given back to the citizens to use in their yards.

Debbie October 16, 2012, 9:07 am

Recently I participated in a tour of the prep greenhouses at the Chicago Botanic Gardens (a jewel just 10 mins away) and they are experimenting with non-peat potting soils. Coir is the current fad but transportation is an obvious concern. I wish our town did more in the yard waste compost field. With a somewhat small back yard it’s hard to compost the lawn clippings and oak leaves – lots of trees, not a lot of space to have proper compost piles. I haven’t bought peat moss in a few years and my plants seem to be doing just fine.

HA / Cameragardening October 16, 2012, 12:28 pm

It is very nice to see that you wrote sanely and objectively about this issue. I got the link to that same article via Kitchen Gardens International’s facebook feed a few days ago and almost wrote an article for my blog about it.

I decided against publishing it since I have some former ties (and minor current) to a soil manufacturing company that uses a lot of peat and my blog is more about the pretty aspects of gardening.

But, I’m from Finland and we are part of the peat belt as I’ve heard it being called. Over here peat is seen as genuinely sustainable (with some people thinking otherwise) and the whole peat ban idea seems very foreign.

It seems as if a British problem is being totally overblown since the U.K. has such a strong voice globally in gardening matters. It feels a bit like everyone else is being crushed by the old Empire in this issue 😉

Personally, and as a professional gardener I love peat. I have seen soil tests being done personally and I have seen results in RHS’s ”The Garden”. “The Garden” seems to be somewhat against peat usage, but even in the test that they ran it was quite evident, that for example raising seed and taking cuttings was not as successful in any other soil as the peat based ones. Especially root formation is superior in peat.

If I make my own soil, I always use a lot of peat based horse manure (the horses were stabled on peat, common in the Nordic countries) and I mix it with compost. Compost alone is just not as good. It doesn’t have the same moisture retaining capabilities, it does not give the soil structure and it’s just not as light and airy. Peat is almost flexible. Compost alone is just too wish washy and will erode away quite easily. I love rhododendrons and could not imagine growing them on anything that was not heavily peat based.

I think my Trilliums would miss peat based soil and I also really like my peat edges (sawed from peat blocks) that I have in some parts of the garden. I have also made a small island in my pond out of peat blocks – I really do not want to go without it!

This got to be quite a long response, but most of it was already waiting on my computer, I’m glad someone else is talking about it!

Doug Baker October 16, 2012, 12:54 pm

HeHeHe…Bob Flowerdew…favourite speaker at women’s clubs, those well known forward thinking hotbeds of reason.
These days peat as a general soil improver is pointless – as you say local government composts are widely available, and are excellent for this purpose. But like you, I’ve never found a satisfactory 100% peat free potting compos ( although the reduced peat formulas can be very good, and I find can hold their structure better than those with more peat.)
I agree the conservation lobby seem have screwed us over here… a genuinely sustainable solution would be to open up markets for municipal compost as we have done), but continue the responsible extraction of peat based scientific facts.

Cathy October 16, 2012, 1:41 pm

Just a quick note…. I also saw the NYT article and until then, was blissfully ignorant of the debate over peat in the UK.

My thoughts on your well written and carefully thought out article are as follows:

1. Not everything is appropriate everywhere. IOW, it may be very appropriate to limit the harvest (not necessarily the use of per se) of peat in the UK based on ecologcial and environmental considerations. But the issues in UK seem unique to that geographic area and any actions taken as a result may not necessarily be appropriate to other locations, as you’ve pointed out. Is it practical to import it? (I have no clue and this is just a rhetorical question.)

2. Here in New England (Northeast USA), we use it liberally and as noted, it is a sustainable product here. But we also mix it with other green waste and home made compost. We are trying to be as ecologically and environmentally responsible as possible.

3. Whether we are talking rain forests or peat bogs, hardwood forests or rivers and lakes, tar pits or drilling under the ocean, any considerations or proposed actions have to be appropriate to the location, and they well may not apply to every place that it’s found on the planet. Peat is a case in point.

4. But you touch on a much larger issue with this post and that is that we as a planet need to really step back, take stock, and take care to protect and conserve of all of our natural resources if this planet is to survive.

I am dismayed that greedy developers and governments are destroying rainforests at an alarming rate. Toxic waste polluting the oceans is another dirty secret that is affecting a major source of food for a majority of the planet’s population. Civil wars have disrupted agriculture and led to starvation in too many nations. Destroying the ground that food is grown in serves no one. And none of that takes into consideration the effects of acid rain and greenhouse gasses.

We will be the cause of our own undoing if we don’t make fundamental changes in the way we approach all natural resources. Few of them are truly “renewable” at the rate and in the way that we are abusing them and we must be responsible consumers if we expect them to sustain us long term.

DAY October 16, 2012, 4:40 pm

Another hand-wringing from those who Know Nothing.

The AMOUNT of peat consumed by gardeners can be measured on the Grand Scale by the teaspoon.

I am a potter by trade, and so ‘clay’ is my ‘peat’. And we artists use so little of the stuff- – compared to industry, agriculture, and the grand entropy of the planet called “Earth”- that even the teaspoon is an exaggeration by a magnitude equal to the chasm separating humble gardeners from the aforesaid “Know Nothings”. AKA NYT columnists..

allan becker October 17, 2012, 1:13 pm

Coir merchants in the far east believe that by compacting it into dense bricks, they reduce the carbon footprint of shipping this product to market.

Diana of Elephant's Eye October 17, 2012, 4:03 pm

one of the German garden bloggers I read, has an sketch on her sidebar. A bag of peat, as a frog burst open by the gardener’s trowel. There are German gardeners who don’t do peat.
Where peat is replaced by nature, it is very slow. Not exactly sustainable in my book.

Hap October 19, 2012, 9:26 am

Peat is an amazing product, but at this point I have given it up (except to grow carnivores, but we are trialing coir based recipes to grow them as well). Coconut Coir is a value-added, by-product that is sustainable and since it ships to California via ocean has a fairly limited carbon footprint. Peat shipped down from Canada is truck and rail shipped across the country so uses much more fuei to reach us. Luckily Coir has similar structure and while it is usually pH neutral we can acidify with local Grape Seed Pomice (Napa Valley wineries). We also use local composted ricehulls in our soils which also has great potting mix qualities, but does not bind nutrients as well as the coir. At this point I believe the best use of North American Peat is to leave in in the ground sequestering carbon and for Horticulture to use other options as much as possible.

Garden services North London October 19, 2012, 12:46 pm

you are totally right about the peat , alot of it is truly rubbish, does anyone know were the best source for peat is?

excellent post thank you

Deborah B October 19, 2012, 10:43 pm

I garden in the Catskills area in upstate NY, and I don’t think U.S. gardeners are unaware of the peat issue. Maybe the pressure to give it up is not as intense here as in the UK. I’ve never heard anyone say before that some peat bogs are more sustainable than others. That’s an interesting theory. My understanding is that regardless of location, peat takes many centuries to create.

I do think it’s a good idea to move toward more sustainable practices, meaning to source materials locally where possible. In our county, some friends have a small factory to create grass pellets, made from the haying taken from poorer quality fields (i.e., not suitable for animal feed). The pellets are used as fuel for a type of pellet stove. But they’re not as popular as wood pellets, so they are also being marketed as a soil conditioner and potting soil component. I have used them instead of peat this year. I wet the pellets to expand them and then mix with compost etc. I like them for planting – they’re sterile, since they’re baked at high temperatures, and they make a good additive for the heavy clay soils here. Not sure yet about their use for potting, but some friends have had success there also.

Earthdave October 20, 2012, 1:02 pm

I’m glad you are stimulating a discussion on this critical issue.

Having taught a unit on the development of fossil fuels to my science students last year, I had to look up a lot of resources. They were not about gardening per se, but the issue of peat being considered ‘sustainable’ did come up.
Peat is actively growing in many places in the world, but putting aside the very significant issue of how changing temperatures worldwide will alter that, the rate of peat bog development is WAY behind the rate of extraction. In some places in northern Europe (not naming names), peat is burned for energy production. This is a LOT of peat going up in flames every hour of every day.

In tropical regions, the bogs there are being drained on a horrendous scale to make palm oil plantation, in large part of supply the insatiable demand of the processed food industry. Just try to find a packet of cookies without palm oil. We all have the choice to mitigate that crisis by just not buying products with palm oil. This leads to enormous amounts of carbon dioxide being released.
Finally, as someone who has taken field trips into Western Canada’s largest raised bog (part of which has the Vancouver landfill/dump on top of it!), the bogs are under every sort of development pressure. Companies either want to change the drainage and drain the bogs to use the land, or they cut big pools and grow cranberries for companies like Ocean Spray to make drinks. The cuts made nearly a hundred years ago look like outdoor swimming pools now. They have not recovered at all and won’t for hundreds of years.
Just say no to peat. Use compost, Or mulched woody material or leaf mold.
(keen gardener in the French countryside)

Sandie Anne October 21, 2012, 8:02 am

I have used peat moss in my compost when I had no other carbon source but only once. Here on the east coast of the USA we have a tremendous source of carbon if we would just utlilize it: autumn leaves. They do work much better in compost or as a mulch when they are shredded which involves some work. After they are shredded they work really great!

Jo October 22, 2012, 9:38 pm

As a small nursery here in New Mexico, we use a lot of peat growing mixes for starts, etc. Tried coir but ended up mixing it with peat and lots of perlite, and seedlings still weren’t happy. Tried mixing our own compost/soil etc–works well for plants in gallons or larger pots, but not the smaller pots.

In veggie and ornamental beds, we use huge quantities of compost, mostly manures mixed with leaves, whatever. Not a lot of grass clippings here (not a lot of grass) so county programs (which are great as far as they go) are mostly woody chippings which can (and often do) contain pallets, mdf, and other construction woods. We still use it. New Mexico soils are alkaline and notoriously poor–virtually no organic material in many places. Our clients often ask for peat under the mistaken idea that a bale or two will bring down the pH. Compost is wonderful stuff–does just that or at least makes the nutrients available to roots. I didn’t know there were earthworms in NM until I added compost.

Somewhere out there, someone is making a mix that is mostly finely chopped bark–the plants I received growing in it were wildly happy. Our local yards are mystified, but i think it’s the answer.

Brigitte October 24, 2012, 4:07 pm

Interesting post, that is.

In my experience, concern about peat in compost is already rather widespread in Germany and Austria – Diana of Elephant‘s Eye has already mentioned the frog emblem (
Lower Austria’s ‚Natur im Garten‘ („nature in the garden“) movement, for instance, has banned the use of peat in gardens of NiG members – and it is spreading to neighbouring countries. Another example is the availabily of peat free potting compost in many supermarkets.

Personally, I don‘t use peat. When planting out, I cleanse the rootball as good as possible. Peat based potting compost does not as good in our garden‘s soil as it does for the commercial grower. But I do keep the compost to pot on plants for our local plant swap in spring.

For my two or three larger containers I’ll switch to a potting compost with excellent soil structure I came across recently.

Anne Wareham November 1, 2012, 5:43 am

It’s always good to see your voice of sanity on these issues. And you are right – I have found the substitute composts rubbish – indeed I can’t find a decent one any more and am very grateful that my mega seed sowing and cutting taking days are over.

Can people be peatsceptics?

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