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The Peat Issue

Peat

A decade ago, if you wanted to use peat in the garden, you did so with a clear conscience. Then some of our best-known media gardening pundits suddenly became aware that a lot of the peat being used in this country was being dug from environmentally sensitive moorland sites, destroying habitat and rare plant and animal wildlife which it would be almost impossible to re-establish.

Gardeners and horticulturalists, of course, got the blame, because it was well known that they used peat on the garden and in potting composts. It was not as well publicized that much more peat than they would ever be able to use was, and still is, being burned as fuel.

It was also kept somewhat quieter than it ought to have been that much peat used for horticultural purposes is actually dug from lowland sites of little agricultural value and even less environmental significance, but of great economic importance to the area as many local lives depend on the industry. This kind of fact does not have the same sensational ‘green’ ring about it.

The situation is now that one cannot own up to using peat for any purpose whatsoever without being branded a destroyer of the world. It is useless to suggest that the vociferous anti-peat brigade visit the restored peat workings in parts of Somerset, where what was once low-grade pasture-land has been transformed into wetland habitat supporting many more species of wildlife that it did previously, or to remind them that the Norfolk Broads, so valuable both for habitat, recreation and landscape, were themselves originally created by digging for peat. They will not be satisfied until all gardeners abandon all use of peat for good.

These are fine ideals, and because of the pressure they have brought to bear on compost manufacturers and other interested parties, no doubt there will come a time when this is possible, but for now, it seems they have a long way to go.

There are several alternatives to peat. The first to be introduced was processed bark, followed by treated and composted wood waste and paper waste, then coir, the husk off the coconut, which was until a few years ago used mainly for matting.

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Bark

The problem with composts based on wood waste and byproducts is that, whereas the composition of peat, and therefore compost made from it, tends to be fairly stable and predictable, these are inclined to vary in composition and texture depending on the raw materials used, and situations have occurred when one batch of a proprietary product had been an excellent growing medium, whereas the next one was, frankly, rubbish. This, no doubt, is a problem which should be overcome eventually, given enough research.

Coir-based composts have a problem of a different nature, in that they do not retain plant nutrients and to keep plants growing strongly in coir compost necessitates much more regular feeding than in peat-based ones. This itself raises another environmental issue, in that fertilizers washed out so readily are likely to find their way into watercourses — in recent years a growing worry has arisen about the amount of nitrates found in drinking water and other salts ending up in streams and rivers. A further environmental argument heard against the use of coir is that all the raw material has to be imported into this country, using vital and irreplaceable fuel resources to transport it here. Moreover, many people feel that the Third World countries exporting coir would probably be able to put it to better use in their own agricultural systems.

Non-peat composts are considerably more expensive than peat-based ones, and it is hard to imagine that more than a handful of environmentally concerned individuals will pay twice as much for a product that works only half as well.

The peat issue is really about an environment changing as the balance of nature alters. As an increasing human population develops an increasing interest in gardening, with its sophisticated techniques and the expectation of first-class results, some aspect of the world around us is almost bound to change to accommodate it.

 

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