Climate change: the problem with peat

November 25, 2021

Collage with photograph by Dziana Hasanbekava at Pexels

Toni Rowe delves deep into compost to find greener alternatives

Attention houseplant lovers and gardeners of all kinds! What is the content of your grow bags? It’s not common practice to read the ingredient labels on soil bags, but we should.

While things are slowly changing, peat is usually the main ingredient in bags of soil. It has been the first choice for houseplants and seeds for decades because it can hold a lot of water, meaning that your plants do not dry out as quickly.

Peat is also low on nutrients, which means you can control how much you feed your plants, and it can run slightly acidic, which can be helpful depending on what plants you’re growing.

For these reasons, plus how easy it is to come by, the horticulture industry has been digging up peat for years. But it has come with a considerable cost to the environment.

Peat comes from peat bogs which have unique ecosystems that have taken thousands of years to develop. Peat production begins with sphagnum moss. It absorbs CO2 as it grows, and when it dies, the waterlogged conditions of the bog prevents CO2 from releasing back into the atmosphere. The moss degrades into peat, storing the carbon underground.

Extracting peat for use in gardening has caused peatlands to emit roughly 16 million tons of carbon every year

Then the moss degrades into peat, storing the carbon underground. That is why peat bogs contain about 25% of global soil, carbon despite only covering 5% of the Earth.

Unfortunately, as moss is dug up, to be used as a resource for your cheese plants, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere as CO2 and contributes to climate change. Drained peatlands worldwide emit at least 2 billion tons of CO2 annually.

The Conversation estimates that in the UK, extracting peat for use in gardening has caused peatlands to emit roughly 16 million tons of carbon every year – about the same as greenhouse gas emissions from over 12 million cars.

Moreover, peat bogs are home to birds, plants and insects that don’t exist anywhere else. Also, most carnivorous plants grow in these nutrient-poor environments alongside many species of dragonflies, butterflies, snipes, skylarks, frogs and toads.

As gardeners, we need to take some accountability for this; the wild plant conservation charity, Plantlife reports that amateur gardening accounts for 69% of peat compost used in the UK. If we can reduce that number, we can have a hand in affecting climate change.

[wooslider slide_page=”peat” slider_type=”slides” limit=”4″]

How can you make a difference?
For starters, buy peat-free compost! B&Q aim to be completely peat-free by 2023. They stopped selling 100% peat compost in 2008 and they’re encouraging their suppliers to do the same. You can read more about this here. Boosting the sale of peat-free compost will create an incentive for their suppliers to move in that direction.

Leading by example, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) which organises events like the Chelsea Garden Show and Hampton Court Flower Show, claim that they are currently 98% peat-free across their gardens. They stopped selling peat-based compost in 2019 and aim to be 100% peat-free by 2025.

If a monumental institution like RHS can do it and keep its gardens at a show standard, we should have no problem implementing it at home.

If you can’t find peat-free compost easily, try searching for coir. Coir is a shredded coconut husk, often already available as waste produced by the coconut industry. It has the same benefits as peat; it’s able to absorb large amounts of water but doesn’t compact when it dries out in the way peat does.

Coir is equally low in nutrients, so you can control how much fertiliser your plant gets. It has a neutral pH, which many plants prefer over peat’s acidity. When ordered online it is often sold in compressed blocks or discs that you pour warm water over to expand. The blocks are easier to transport and take up less storage space than a bag of compost. If you don’t want to order online, check your local pet shop – coir makes good reptile bedding, so you might be able to find it there.

If you usually use peat to improve the quality of your soil outdoors, consider making your own compost

If you have a garden, consider getting houseplant soil for free from outdoors. Baking your soil at 200⁰C for 10 minutes or microwaving it on high for 3 minutes will kill any insects or microbes in it, making it suitable for use on your windowsill.

If you usually use peat to improve the quality of your soil outdoors, consider making your compost. Outdoor compost bins can provide great water-retaining (peat-like) material and have the benefit of reducing the amount of waste your household creates.

Vermiculture bins (worm bins) can do the same but also provide an organic source of fertiliser. For those who don’t have an outdoor space, indoor compost and worm bins are also easy to set up, with high-tech or homemade options for every budget. For indoor composting tips, read more here.

Why we must consider peat bog mosses?
Moss harvesting from our peatlands is just as damaging to our environment as peat removal.

It is the main ingredient in peat, so its removal harms both the current surface of the bog and prevents future peat from forming. Its exploitation for garden use releases harmful greenhouse gases, accelerating climate change.

In the horticulture industry and as amateur gardeners, we most commonly use moss to grow plants in, and in moss poles. Orchids and carnivorous plants love the high-water content and low nutrient content of moss around their roots, and plants with aerial roots (think cheese plants and philodendrons) like moss poles to climb up.

If you absolutely cannot replace your moss for your specialised plants, make sure the moss you use is sustainably sourced. You should never be afraid to ask a seller where their supplies come from.

You can grow plants in bark chips as a low nutrient replacement. They aren’t as good at retaining water but are very good at helping maintain humidity around roots. You may find that you prefer this because the increased amount of air around the roots reduces the likelihood that your plants will rot. Bark chips are usually sold as Orchid bark in gardening shops, but you may also find them in pet shops sold as reptile bedding.

Plant with hessian pole, photograph from Pexels

Instead of using moss poles other textured surfaces can help plants grow strong aerial roots

Moss used on moss poles is believed to provide extra water for aerial roots. This isn’t necessarily true – aerial roots get moisture from the air, and while they might like extra water from the moss pole, it isn’t necessary for their survival. Any climbing structure will help your plants produce larger leaves and thicker stems.

If you want the roots of your plants to dig into a textured surface, consider poles wrapped in coarse cloth (hessian) or create your own pole by wrapping rope around a thick stick or pipe. You may find that these alternatives suit your house décor a lot better than drying moss.

All in all, gardening is an act of celebrating nature. Whether it’s encouraging leaves to unfurl inside or outdoors, we appreciate the beauty of plants and the environment that produced them. But it’s all a bit in vain if we don’t celebrate where they truly belong, and if we can help by simply choosing one product over another, then let’s do it.

As the RHS says – keep peat in bogs, not bags.

Toni is an aspiring horticulturalist who enjoys reading, drinking tea and dabbling in the occult. He is primarily focussed on issues of identity and culture, and the interplay between these issues and modern life.

Other work

Donate via PayPal

Exposure is an award-winning youth communications charity giving young people in north London a voice.

Please support us to continue our work. Thank you.