Peat-free gardening tips and making peat-free compost
It's a myth that peat is necessary for a healthy garden. This is just not true. Trust me, I'm a botanist.
Peat and the bogs where you find it in the wild, however, are hugely important for plants, the wildlife that depends on them and ultimately for us humans too.
These soggy, often gloriously deserted spaces, help reduce flood risk, have a part to play in cleaning drinking water, and store massive amounts of carbon.
Yet despite peat's environmental importance, peat use is on the rise in gardening and we're still digging up this precious resource for use in compost mixes.
Although extraction still takes place in the UK, the majority of peat sold here is now imported from Ireland and Baltic countries, where the industry is also responsible for destroying wildlife habitats.
- Peat grows by only 1mm a year
- Commercial extraction can remove over 500 years worth of ‘growth’ in a single year
- Amateur gardening accounts for 69% of peat compost used in the UK - we currently use some three billion litres of peat every year in our gardens
- 32% of our peat comes from the UK, 60% from Ireland and 8% from Europe.
Why do people use peat in gardening?
Peat is popular in gardening because it holds water well and has a predictable, consistent quality which is good for growing plants, including fruit and vegetables.
Many of us don't realise that multipurpose composts contain peat, unless they're labelled peat-free.
But there is absolutely no reason to use peat in the garden, as the beautiful gardens of the National Trust, where there is a peat-free policy, more than demonstrate.
Instead you can make your own peat-free compost or buy products that have no peat in them.
How to make your own peat-free compost for wildflowers
- Collect loam (aka soil)
I’ve never understood our obsession with using huge amounts of artificial potting compost to grow plants.
Because they prefer infertile soils almost all our native wildflowers grow beautifully in very loam-rich mixes, so you can reduce the amount of compost being used.
f you can, collect loam from mole hills in your garden or with permission from a friendly farmer. It has a wonderful texture and fewer weed seeds than topsoil. If you don’t have access to molehills, use a good quality sterile topsoil from the garden centre.
- Make your own garden compost
Use clippings and trimmings from your garden and green kitchen waste, either in a ready-made compost bin (many types are available) or by building your own (cue a pile of wooden pallets and a spare weekend).
Don’t add any seed-heads or perennial weed roots to your compost or you run the risk of spreading problems around the garden.
- Make your own leafmould
This stuff is pure magic. Collect fallen autumn tree leaves and allow them to rot down for a year or two, either in an open heap or in a plastic bin bag. There’s nothing else quite like it; rich, free-draining and with a superb texture.
- Now mix your own peat-free compost
This is the fun (and deeply satisfying) bit. Mix your compost to whatever formulation you like. I use 3 parts loam, 2 parts sieved home-made garden compost and one part leafmould. This gives a good, loamy compost that’s fertile and retains moisture.
Other ways to reduce your use of peat in the garden
- Only buy plants from peat-free growers. Before buying any plants ask the supplier if they’re peat free. If not, don’t buy. That way you not only avoid supporting the peat trade but also send the retailer a clear message.
- Buy peat free compost. Peat-free potting composts contain mixtures of organic material – such as composted bark, coir (coconut fibre), woodfibre and green compost – mixed with inorganic materials such as grit, sharp sand, rock wool and perlite. A mix of coarse and fine particles is needed to create a balanced compost containing enough water and air, which are essential for root growth. If you have to buy compost there are lots on the market, but in my experience many are pretty grotty – too rich and full of bits, being poorly made from all sorts of green waste. Two brands come highly recommended by Which? magazine though - SylvaGrow (also endorsed by the RHS) and Fertile Fibre (available mail order). If you have a favourite brand, ask your local garden centre to stock it.
- Recycle used compost from pots. As long as you feed your plants well the compost will maintain its structure and, while you might get a build-up pot weeds like bitter-cress and annual meadow grass, these can be suppressed with a thick mulch of fresh leafmould, bark or grit. And, of course, you can compost your spent compost – it’s a great addition to the heap.
- Even the most acid-loving peat-dependent plants, like insectivorous sundews and butterworts, can be grown on good peat-free composts. Use ones that are based on a mixture of milled pine bark, perlite and grit.
- Bog gardens don't need peat. They are fantastic places to grow water-loving plants but, since most other composts are too fertile, people often fill them with sphagnum peat. Instead, recycle your own homemade compost that’s been used to grow pots of bedding plants or shrubs for several years, decreasing its fertility.
Best plants for a peat-free garden
Growing annuals from seed means you can dispense with peat entirely.
Bright and cheerful cornfield annuals like cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold and poppies can be sown directly into your garden soil where you want them to flower, so there’s no need for any trays or pots of compost.
Many meadow plants prefer infertile soils and their seeds will grow perfectly well in pots and trays of infertile, loamy compost. Try growing seeds of oxeye daisy, betony, field scabious, meadow clary and harebell in a mixture of 3 parts loam and 1 part sieved garden compost.
Seaside plants also don’t need any peat or compost in the soil. Grow sea kale, sea campion, thrift, kidney vetch and viper’s-bugloss in very sandy soils or homemade compost with lots of sharp sand added (1 part garden compost or loam to 3 parts sharp sand).
Clumps of native perennials and bulbs like chives, ransoms, bugle, wild daffodil and bluebells can simply be lifted, divided and replanted back into the soil straight away without any need for compost. This is best done in late autumn when the roots are starting to go dormant.
Many trees and shrubs can be grown from seed planted directly in your garden soil. Hawthorn, oak (acorns), ash (keys), elder (berries) and roses (hips) are particularly easy. Cover the seeds with about 2.5cm topsoil in autumn and mark their position clearly. They should germinate readily in spring.