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Why is there such a big swing away from using peat-based composts

01:00 Fri 18th Jan 2002 |

A.� The exploitation of Britain's peat bogs has become a hot environmental issue.

Campaigners such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Friends of the Earth estimate that we have lost 94 per cent of our native lowland raised peat bogs in the last 100 years to the commercial peat industry making compost for gardeners. The use of peat-based composts has rocketed by around 50 per cent in the last decade with the growing popularity of container and basket growing.

The bogs are important wildlife habitats for birds and insects as well as native flora such as the sphagnum moss, still used to line hanging baskets, and one of our few native carnivorous plants the Giant Sundew.

Q.� Where are these bogs and don't they just rejuvenate in time

A.� They are all over Britain, but the biggest one in terms of commercial exploitation are the Thorne and Hatfield Moors of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Other important peat bog areas are found in Wales, Cumbria and Scotland.

These�bogs take thousands of years to form, so once they are lost there is little likelihood of them reforming.

Q. But are gardeners ready to try alternatives

A.� In a recent survey for the BBC Gardeners World Magazine 74 per cent of readers said they wanted an outright ban on peat-based compost.

Q.� But what are the alternatives

A.� The joy of peat is its versatility. It can be added in greater or lesser amounts to other composted material to provide a medium for virtually any plant, and is particularly suited to acid-loving plants like Rhododendrons and Azaleas. Peat-based composts are also good at retaining moisture.

The compost industry has been producing peat-free composts for years now but until recently most gardeners, both amateur and commercial, have not found them to be as good as their peat-based rivals.

Without peat, different mixtures of various materials are needed to produce a medium for each garden task, e.g seed sowing, rooting cuttings, potting on etc. The principal ingredients used in these mixes include coir, a coconut by-product, composted green waste, forestry by-products like chipboard waste and bark, composted bracken, loam and leaf mould.

Q.� So are these alternatives now up to scratch

A.� It depends who you listen to. Some gardening experts and commercial growers are still not convinced that they are as good as peat-based composts, especially over the longer term.

Most will accept that they can produce good immediate results but doubt that the plants grown in alternative mixes will be as good as those grown with peat in three to four years time.

There is also a cost issue. Although many non-peat composts use waste and recycled materials they are often just as, if not more, expensive than the peat-based ones.

However, the National Trust, charged with the maintenance of many of Britain's premier gardens, have struck a big blow for the environmental lobby recently by announcing they are to go entirely peat free by next year at all their properties. They have spent the last two years developing an environmentally-friendly compost made up of wood fibre, bark, loam and added nutrients, which they claim is every bit as good as those containing peat. Although it is a bit more expensive they claim it goes further.

Q.� So how can we make sure what we are buying is peat free

A.� The National Trust is marketing their peat-free compost at their gardens and some garden centres.

�Otherwise the emphasis is on you. There is no current obligation on the producer to announce if their product contains peat so look for bags that are specifically labelled peat-free. To avoid disappointment check that the mixture you chose is recommended for the job you want it for.

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By Tom Gard

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