Ashridge Blog & Recipes

For Peat's Sake

Peat has long been a hot topic amongst gardeners and climate change activists. We are proud of our reputation of being ahead of the times in how we have handled the issue. We asked writer Sarah Newitt for her view:

Ten years ago, Julian and Frances de Bosdari, owners of Ashridge, stopped using peat in all onsite nursery production.

Ahead of their time, they recognised the devastating impact of destroying peatlands, which are habitats for rare flora and fauna that provide an increasingly threatened and irreplaceable (in anyone's lifetime) natural resource.

Peat soil cut into slabs Peat soil cut into slabs

It was a brave and far-sighted move that pre-empted the government’s ban on sales of peat to gardeners in 2024 by more than a decade, and plans to ban peat use in the professional horticulture sector by nearly 20 years.

Alan Titchmarsh, Kate Bradbury and the late, great Peter Seabrook are just a few of the gardening luminaries who back the ban, whilst Monty Don describes the inclusion of peat in compost as ‘environmental vandalism’. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that of the nearly 3 million cubic metres of peat used in UK annually, 70% is used as growing media by gardeners.

So what is peat?

Peat is the black gold of the bog, formed over thousands of years in acidic wetlands where, despite the less than hospitable environment, marshy plants (including trees, grasses and mosses) thrive.

Peat bale formed over thousands of years Peat bales formed over thousands of years

Once they die, however, the party’s over. Those hostile acidic and anaerobic bog conditions prevent organic plant matter from fully decomposing, and it’s this partially decayed vegetation that eventually becomes peat. In the best case scenarios, a metre of peat takes around 500 years to form, but the average is one or two millennia: that's between a millimetre to half a millimetre per year.

Why is it important, and what are the consequences of extracting it?

Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon sink, trapping as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests.

Destroying them is an eco-catastrophe. It releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, depletes peat stores that took centuries to form, and drains wetland habitats. The peat that remains has much less capacity to reduce flooding and filter water.

Peat and horticulture

In the horti world, peat is undeniably a miracle worker. It increases the moisture holding capacity of sandy soil and the water infiltration rate of clay soils, and it acidifies soil for pot plants.

The advent of plastic packaging in the 1950s enabled peat to be bagged without rotting. Come the 1960s, horticultural peat had developed into a major market, requiring industrialised peat extraction to satisfy demand.

Peat and heat

Dried peat is a mighty energy source that's been used as an alternative to firewood for cooking and heating for thousands of years. Back in the day, it was the Romans who first extracted it from the Somerset Levels in large enough quantities for export.

With the advent of gas and electricity in the 20th century, domestic peat use fell, but rocketing demand for electricity led to peat-fuelled power plants and large-scale peat extraction. As a relatively easily accessible alternative to expensive fossil fuels such as oil and gas, peat is still an attractive option for struggling people in many parts of the world.

What now for gardeners?

Peat-free composts have come on leaps and bounds, as Julian and Frances can testify. Take a look at our peat free range of compost and soil improvers, which mimic the qualities of peat and are made entirely in the UK from the waste products of sustainably produced biogas by Somerset based Rocket Gro.

For gardeners, it’s the way forward. Losing our native peatlands and their unique creatures is too high a price to pay for a peat-fuelled garden.

RocketGro peat free soil improver RocketGro zero peat soil improver: fat free, high in fibre, and utterly delicious (for worms)

4 thoughts on “For Peat's Sake”

  • Laurel

    My local nursery is going peat - free, in future all their composts will be peat free. However they have stocks of compost which contain peat which they are selling at a reduced price to clear their previous stock. My conflict here is, should I buy it, as it will just get chucked if not sold. I have just acquired an allotment, so in the process of preparing no dig beds.

    Reply
    • Ashridge Nurseries
      Ashridge Nurseries 7th February 2022 at 3:43 pm

      Laurel: it is your call. They aren't putting it back in the bog whatever happens, and an allotment is a worthy cause.

      Reply
  • Andy Ecelson

    Some years ago I wanted to plant camellias and I made my soil more acidic by adding large amounts of peat.
    I have recently moved house and want to plant camellias again. What is the best way of acidifying the soil without adding peat?

    Reply
    • Frankie Meek

      Hi Andy

      Thank you for your comment. You can use peat free ericaceous compost but you will have to add it every year to help keep the soil acidic. We do not have any information just yet on our website about this, however, if you look at https://www.rhs.org.uk/soil-composts-mulches/acidifying-soil this should help.

      Thanks
      Frankie

      Reply
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