On a recent trip to a garden centre to buy ericaceous compost (the more acidic variety, which we have found harder to make ourselves), we were once again reminded of the lack of available peat free options. When asking a member of staff for help, they appeared oblivious as to the reason for the question and we left empty handed on that occasion.

At home, we aim to produce our own compost through two large compost bins and another dedicated solely to leaf mould. But it’s a challenge to make enough so we’ve tracked down and tested a small number of peat free options over time.

Today, there are many alternatives to peat-based compost and the RHS is continuing its research in order to advise on the most effective and sustainable options going forward. These include bought peat-free composts (made from materials such as animal, food or green waste, bark, wood fibre, coir, bracken or sheep’s wool), homemade compost and leaf mould.

Peat free compost brands we have tried, tested and would recommend are Sylva Grow, Durstons, Westland – New Horizon, Richard Jackson – Flower Power and Happy Compost. If, like us, Milk & More deliver your milk, you can even get peat free compost delivered with your order.

What are the problems associated with using peat?

So, what is the problem with using peat, I hear you ask? Earth is home to 10 billion acres of peatlands (including bogs and fens) and they are the world’s largest carbon store on land, drawing down more carbon than all of the planet’s forests combined. Peatlands also provide unique and intensively biodiverse habitats for wildlife, insects and plant life.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), it takes a century for just 10 cm of peat to form, from partially decomposed plants, while up to 22 metres of peat can be extracted for use during that same timeframe. The UK is home to over five million acres of peatlands, placing it among the top ten countries globally by area. These wetlands hold a similar amount of carbon to that collectively found in the forests of the UK, France and Germany.

Our simple view is that the use of peat is wholeheartedly unnecessary and avoidable and that there are suitable alternatives which need to be scaled up to become mainstream as soon as possible.

What does the UK Government say?

In 2010, the Government did introduce a target to end the use of peat in gardens by 2020, and commercially by 2030. The first target will be missed by some distance and new legislation aimed at bringing forward the 2030 date has been widely criticised for not going far enough.

What are retailers and garden centres doing?

We have previously sought to engage with retailers on the subject, with limited success. Recently, we contacted the major UK supermarkets and national DIY stores again, as well as every (chain and independently owned) garden centre in our area (around a dozen), to find out their stance on going peat free.

The responses were largely underwhelming (or in some cases, non-existent) but the award for the vaguest and arguably poorest effort went to Sainsbury’s, which said: “We continue to offer both peat free compost as well as standard compost options to our customers in line with the rest of the industry. We are working really hard with manufacturers to make organic products more of a focus in our range and are aiming to move completely to peat free compost over time.”

Thankfully, some companies out there are taking the issue more seriously, don’t view using peat as “standard” and are even prepared to commit to timescales.

Of the dozen national retailers we spoke to, Dobbies Garden Centres came out on top, telling us: “We have a market leading position in the garden centre sector, as our aim is to be 90% peat-free during 2021 and 100% during 2022. We are introducing a full range of peat-free alternatives this year with details to follow soon.”

Notably, although the peat-free products are more expensive to produce, we are keeping the retail price equivalent to the peat-based ones.”

This chimed with what Dobbie’s CEO, Graeme Jenkins, had told us directly last summer, so it is great to see that the company is on track.

The majority of retailers we spoke to failed to provide a definitive date by which they aim to be peat free, or indeed details of a road map to get them there. Finding a scalable peat free solution was the most commonly cited challenge (or excuse) given. It is therefore interesting to note then that having taken over a large number of Wyevale branches in 2019, Dobbies is the largest garden centre chain in the UK. If it can achieve the excellent progress being made and take the issue seriously, why can’t everyone..?

Of the other companies we spoke to, we will award points for effort to B&Q, Wickes, British Garden Centres and Squires Garden Centres, who are further along the road than many but still have a long way to go. The responses from supermarkets Waitrose & Partners, Aldi and Lidl weren’t anything to write home about, while the likes of Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Homebase obviously felt that the issue wasn’t important enough to engage on.

Campaigning to ban the use of peat

BBC Gardeners’ World host Monty Don has been campaigning hard on the issue. He has openly criticised producers and retailers for “actively choosing to do harm” and urged them to stop “sticking their heads in the sand” and to make climate change and sustainability a priority, over profits and convenience. He has been joined by other well-known individuals and leading nature and wildlife charities, including WWF UK, The Wildlife Trusts, The Woodland Trust, The RSPB and Plantlife, who will all hope that their collective voices can help to bring about change. As do we.

If you would like to join us in writing to national chains or your local retailers, you can find a ready made email template in our blog article, ‘For Peat’s Sake… Help Us to Encourage Garden Centres and Retailers to Go Peat Free.

You can find us on Facebook by searching for Plastic Free Home or at http://www.facebook.com/plasticfreehomeuk.

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