For the sake of the peat! This summer, it’s time to look into compost alternatives

  • Undisturbed bogs hold and store huge amounts of fossil carbon
  • The sale of peat-based compost will be banned in the UK from 2024
  • According to Nigel Colborn, alternatives for growth media include wood fiber and coconut

We need to learn how to garden without peat. Climate change and past environmental damage mean that what remains of the world’s peat reserves is better left untouched.

Undisturbed bogs hold and store huge amounts of fossil carbon. To protect this land, the UK will ban the sale of peat-based compost from 2024.

So if, like many others, you are using peat-based potting soil in your garden, you need to look for an alternative.

Peat moss has played a crucial role in horticulture for more than a century. Peat mops up and holds back excess water so it can drain away.

In a pot, this helps maintain the vital balance of moisture and air in the components of the potting soil.

Experiment: Substitutes can be just as good, with extra sand for better drainage

Peat-free composts are much less versatile. No matter how well they are formulated, they lack the unique quality of blotting paper.

If they are soaked, they can damage roots. If allowed to dry out, they quickly become drought stressful and can be difficult to rewet.

For example, peat-free gardening can seem daunting at first. However, once you understand how these composts behave, your results may be just as good.

LOTS OF CHOICE

Alternative composts have been used successfully for decades. The late TV gardener Geoff Hamilton was peat free 30 years ago. Today his son Nick owns and runs the fantastic Barnsdale Gardens and Kindergarten organically and without peat.

Peat substitutes for growing media include wood fiber, coconut (coconut fiber), composted bark, treated garden waste, and even wool. The non-organic additives include mineral plant fertilizers as well as sand or coarse grain for better drainage.

In some peat-free products, rock wool or perlite is added to improve moisture retention and maintain root development. You can also add water-based gels to compost. These hold water and reduce the rate at which the growing medium dries.

It is worth choosing high quality peat-free composts, which are more likely to contain moisture regulators. However, if going peat free is brand new, there are several products you should try before settling on one.

As with all growing media, used potting soil has value. Save the old growing medium to mix in with new garden compost. If you’re not making compost from garden waste, this is what you should do – it’s a free soil conditioner.

SHOCK OF THE NEW

Switching to peat-free may seem exhausting. When you open your first bag it might feel lumpy and should break. Some products also have a strange smell. And wood fragments or chunks of bark could be visible.

I am currently planting summer pots with two options: Miracle-Gro Premium All Purpose Compost and Levington Peat Free. They contain coconut and composted bark, and they both look dark and are pleasant to work with.

Although compost is made from by-products, it is expensive, whether peat-free or not. But you’ll probably find it worth paying extra for premium products.

Some bags may have “With Added John Innes” printed on them. This is the name given to certain recipes developed at what was then the John Innes Horticultural Institution in 1938. All JI recipes contain clay, sand, and peat. They are not that peat-free.

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