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Pumpkin Beth talks about What is Peat & Why Does Peat-Free Gardening Matter?

by Beth Otway AKA Pumpkin Beth

Beth Otway is a Horticulturist and Garden Writer and you can follow her at Twitter: @pumpkin_beth Facebook: Instagram: @pumpkinbeth Pinterest: @pumpkinbeth

Peatlands are a rare type of wetland. These open areas of wet and boggy ground form a unique and vital habitat for nature. A large number of the damselflies, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, amphibians, and wildlife that are found in our peatlands are ultimately bound to these environments and are unable to survive away from the peatland. Many of these species are now rarities whose populations are in demise, due to loss of habitat.

Phone (C) Beth Otway

When we talk about peat compost, what are we talking about? Where does peat come from?

Peat is a name for peatland soils. Sphagnum mosses are the key to our UK peatlands – it is the partially decomposed mosses and peatland plants that over time gradually form layers of peat. In the watery and squishy peatland, mosses of different ages live, grow, and die alongside each other; as old mosses fade, new sphagnum mosses develop and gradually cover the partially decomposed mosses around them. As centuries pass, the layers of faded mosses increase; this is an incredibly slow process that gradually forms new layers of peat. A healthy peatland, covered with the ideal range of sphagnum moss species, and blessed with optimum growing conditions can produce up to one millimetre of new peat in a year. However, new layers of peat are not guaranteed – no new peat will form if the correct moss species are absent or if the peatland is too dry and the conditions aren’t right.

How do peatlands collect and store carbon?

Sphagnum mosses absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store the carbon within their cells. In a wet and boggy peatland, the decaying mosses are submerged in water; these anaerobic conditions prevent the dead mosses from fully decomposing. The wet peat traps the carbon the mosses and peatland plants removed from the air during their lifetimes and locks this carbon away within the peatland. Carbon can be stored permanently within a peatland, provided the peatland remains wet and intact. If the peatland is drained or dug up to make compost the carbon this peat bog was previously safeguarding will be released back into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Healthy peatlands store carbon safely which is amazing, but they also continue protecting us by removing carbon dioxide from the air.

80% of our remaining UK peatlands are now in a damaged and degraded condition and urgently need restoration and protection

Once a peatland has been excavated and all the peat has been ripped out from the heart of the bog, the peatland will be lost forever and cannot be recovered. Peatlands are vitally important for us and our planet. In the UK, a huge proportion of our peatlands have grievously been destroyed. Over 80% of the peatlands that remain in the UK are in a degraded condition and need urgent protection and restoration if these peatland ecosystems are to survive.

When a peatland is dug up to make compost, the area is stripped of plants and vegetation. During this process, we lose the peatland, plus the rare plants and fungi that have evolved and adapted over countless generations to grow in perfect unison with this specific area. When the plants are gone, we lose the insects and wildlife that are dependent on peatland plants, along with the wildlife that predated upon them. When the bottom of the food chain is removed, entire ecosystems are rapidly wiped out. Sadly, we’ve already lost much of our prime UK peatlands; areas of once pristine peat bog have been irreparably lost forever. In Surrey, Thursley National Nature Reserve is all that remains of a more extensive peatland.

Over 1000 years, a healthy peatland can produce up to a maximum of 1 metre of peat

When we see bags of peat compost, wrapped in plastic, and stacked up outside a garden centre or supermarket, please remember that over a period of one thousand years, a healthy peatland can produce up to a maximum of one metre of new peat. Peat is not renewable in human lifetimes.

I adore growing plants from seed, as I can sow the seeds in my garden soil or in containers of peat-free compost. When I grow plants from seed, I can be absolutely certain that at every stage of life my plants are grown peat-free.

Photo (C) Beth Otway

The benefits peatlands bestow on us…

Peatlands benefit us by:

· Peatlands filter water to help provide clean drinking water

· Peatlands slow the flow of water to protect us from flooding

· Peatlands are vital habitats for rare plants and wildlife: to protect peatlands is to protect biodiversity

· Peatlands absorb carbon dioxide from the air to protect us from climate change

· Peatlands are our largest terrestrial carbon store and are capable of storing carbon indefinitely within the wet and boggy peatland

· Peatlands are wonderful places to visit to unwind and reconnect with nature

Photo (C) Beth Otway

Sadly, despite the immense range of benefits that peatlands offer us, our peatlands continue to be excavated and destroyed. Peatlands are rare habitats. Much of the peat that’s excavated in the UK comes from lowland raised peat bogs: the rarest type of peatland. A number of the finest remaining lowland peat bogs left on our planet are found in the UK, but these incredibly rare habitats have become fragmented and degraded due to pro-longed and continued excavations, leaving far fewer opportunities for the fascinating plants and wildlife that live in these areas to flourish.

Peatlands cover just 3% of Earth’s land-surface but these extraordinary habitats more carbon than all the plants that grow in our planet’s soils.

Sometimes it feels as any effort we make for the environment isn’t enough, but even small actions can make a huge difference for nature. If you’re a peat-free gardener you are helping nature and wildlife, as well as protecting our largest land-based carbon store – our peatlands.

Photo (C) Beth Otway

The most sustainable compost is homemade.

Do you have a compost heap in your garden? Many of us use compost bins to contain our compost heaps. Compost bins neaten everything up, preventing decomposing compost from encroaching too far across our gardens. However, you don’t need any fancy or expensive equipment to make first class compost – a heap of prunings, kitchen waste, shredded paper, and grass cuttings, in an out of the way area of the garden will work just as well. Alternatively, if you prefer, make use of free wood pallets to make a compost bin. Compost heaps provide compost for us, but they also form an important habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

Over the past two generations, gardeners often used peat to cover their borders and mulch their gardens. Peat doesn’t contain nutrients and cannot be re-wetted when it becomes dry, these qualities make peat a very poor choice of material to use as a mulch. In contrast, Homemade garden compost is an ideal mulch that will improve and enhance all soil types, from sandy and free draining soils to wet and sticky clay soils. Clay soil can also be improved by adding bark as a mulch.

Photo (C) Beth Otway

Choosing plants suited to the conditions we can offer in our gardens

To cultivate gardens with the healthiest plants, we need to select plants that will thrive in the soil, aspect, weather conditions, and the space we can offer. Roses thrive in rich clay soils, as do Hellebores and Astrantia. Lavender and herbs flourish in free-draining sandy soils. Peat is very low in nutrients and highly acidic. None of our garden plants are naturally found growing in peatlands, these plants grow better without peat.

Making the most of our soils

Over time, our gardens have become smaller in size and are often paved over. As gardeners, we use more and more containers to grow the plants we love. However, it is worth remembering that it is far easier to grow plants in our soils – growing plants directly reduces the amount of water we need to use and the amount of compost and fertiliser we need to buy.

In the current climate and nature crises, we must evaluate our way of life and make urgent changes to safeguard biodiversity and protect and restore our peatlands. We should review the materials we buy for our gardens and the methods we use while gardening and ensure that our gardens are both sustainable and beneficial for us and our planet.

For more information about peat-free gardening and gardening advice for the month ahead, visit my website

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