Article 51 – ‘Peat! the hue and cry’

Introduction Evidence indicates that the use of peat also known as turf dates back to Roman times where it was used for domestic purposes – heating and cooking and in the 7th century continued to play a significant economic role in countries where trees were scarce; for example, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Estonia.

Peat is the formation of plant material that has not fully decayed in acidic or anaerobic conditions, it is comprised of wetland vegetation, bog plants, mosses, sedges, and shrubs. Peat as it forms holds water, which slowly creates wetter conditions allowing the area of wetland to become more extensive. Peat harvested usually in blocks (briquettes) is left to dry prior to being used and in some countries it is used today on an industrial scale to generate electricity; elsewhere peat is mainly used in horticultural applications.

Peat harvesting

The hue and cry – Peat is unique to natural areas called mires, bogs, moors or muskegs, which cover approximately 3% of the global land surface that are highly significant to global efforts in combating climate change. According to environment correspondent Matt McGrath “Peat Is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet, because peatland plants capture carbon dioxide (CO2) naturally released from the peat, maintaining an equilibrium.” Meaning that the carbon stays in the bog, locked away from the atmosphere, but it takes thousands of years for peatlands to develop.

In the UK there has been a huge drive by the government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to phase out the use of peat by both amateur and professional gardeners their argument is as follows:

“When we mine peat for gardening we unlock those reserves of stored carbon and three things then happen:

1. A peat bog is drained prior to mining. It immediately starts emitting greenhouse gases. After mining, the remaining peat continues to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere

2. The carbon in peat, when spread on a field or garden, quickly turns into carbon dioxide, adding to greenhouse gas levels

3. The unique biodiversity of peat bogs is lost. Rare birds, butterflies, dragonflies and plants disappear. It is much harder to restore a peat bog than to replant a forest.”

In 2011, the UK government set voluntary targets to end sales of peat-based compost for domestic use by 2020, Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon stated that “The horticultural industry has made real progress in reducing peat use, but I want to see peat eliminated from the amateur gardener market by 2020”. In a letter to Environment secretary George Eustace, signed by TV gardeners Alan Titchmarsh, Kate Bradbury and James Wong, “this has been an abject failure.”

Others joining the ‘Hue and cry’ are a few garden centres including B&Q and the Blue Diamond group of garden centres who sated they were committed to phasing out peat but gave no date as to when. Asda, Lidl and others said they had targets to reduce peat sales but not yet to end them, Wyvale Garden Centres, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have yet to respond to the survey.

Nonetheless, gardeners love peat because it delivers superb results in gardening, but some argue that peat is not the only way to get organic matter into soil, and it’s not even the best way; so why is it making a comeback? Because it’s cheap peat bogs are cheap to buy – cheaper than farmland. You drain them, dig out the peat, put it in a bag and it’s ready to sell. Nothing sustainable can compete with peat on price, so it enjoys fat profit margins. Profit margins that the above mentioned garden centres will not relinquish; does the word hypocrisy spring to mind here.

But is there an alternative to peat? – Carbon Gold was created by Craig Sams, founder of Green & Blacks Chocolate, in 2007 as an organic, peat-free planting aid for the retail sector. The company has created composts that mimic the properties of peat. Peat is a blend of black carbon and lignin the fibrous woody matter, whereas black carbon is made by using charcoal making techniques that convert woody materials into pure horticultural carbon or ‘biochar’.

According to a Sams spokesperson, “We blend it with lignin-rich woody material such as coir from coconut husks, to reproduce the profile of peat.” “It works as well as peat in the garden and it stays there much longer, the carbon in biochar remains for centuries and is porous, so it represents a long-term investment in improved soil fertility.” The Sams spokesperson added that “Commercial organic growers, who are looking for a high-performing peat-free alternative, are adopting it on an increasing scale.”

But carbon gold is expensive over 23€ for 20kg and this does not include the cost of delivery, much more than the price of peat – the above cost may seem trivial but much depends on the amount required. Finland is the world’s leading manufacturer of peat supplies and according to recent reports, said Finnish government is now looking at ways to reduce its peat consumption – but at what cost and to whom? Moreover, since the present pandemic (C19) took hold unemployment has risen prices have sky-rocketed as products have diminished, hence 30 million new gardeners have joined the horticulture brigade and the numbers are increasing.

Perhaps peat harvesting or mining will eventually be phased out, but there still remains many arguments and debates on this issue both for and against. Taiga Bonzai’s policy is not to get involved in controversy, but to bring to our readers attention issues that concern all aspects of horticulture including the husbandry of miniature trees. Until next time, BW, Nik.