Peat-free compost: why use it, and which brands?

Val Bourne / 11 June 2021

Gardening expert Val Bourne on why we're making the switch to peat-free compost, and a look at the best peat-free composts on the market.



The government is finally banning the sale of peat-based composts to home gardeners from 2024 (subject to confirmation) and it’s been a long-time coming, because the original ban was meant to happen in 2020.

Although we’ve known for decades that cutting peat caused irreparable damage to flora and fauna, this hasn’t been the reason for the legislation. The real driving force behind the peat ban is climate change, because our climate has changed enormously within the last twenty years. We’re getting more extreme weather events, across the world, caused by global warming.

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Why use peat-free compost?

It’s vital to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible and peat bogs store more carbon than any other landscape. The hope is that these carbon sinks will slow down global warming, because the RSPB tell us that “the UK’s peatlands store three times as much carbon as its forests.”

The first move to towards banning peat came in 1995 when the government introduced the target of reducing peat use by 40% by 2005, something they only just managed to achieve in 2021. One of the stepping stones occurred in 2012. There was a landmark decision taken by The Rt Hon Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The forward-thinking government minister surprised everyone by upholding Salford City Council’s decision to refuse planning permission for more peat extraction at Chat Moss, near Manchester.

It was the first time the importance of preserving a peat bog as a huge, intact and growing carbon store – seen as a critical tool for tackling climate change – was cited. Eric Pickle’s decision was swayed by the fact that precious peat bogs are critical for water purification, water storage and flood prevention. There’s a certain irony in the fact that wetter winters were making it far harder to extract the peat with heavy machines.

Although there’s been resistance to banning peat, there are plenty of excellent peat-free composts available, consisting of sustainable materials such as wood fibre, coir and bracken, among others. Compost producers, ones that used to rely heavily on peat extraction, have also taken up the peat-free baton – if a little reluctantly. The government’s plan is to stop commercial horticulture using peat by 2030.

Peat-free trailblazers

B&Q were ahead of the game when it came to peat-free composts. They were among the first to promote peat-free products and they now specify the amount of peat contained in brands sold by them. This helps gardeners to choose accordingly. Ingredients are not normally listed in detail on packets of compost, as the recipes change in order to keep the price down. My advice is to opt for quality rather than price, because plants and seeds are expensive and a poor compost makes growing plants an uphill struggle. B&Q’s easyGrow bedding plants are now grown in peat-free and they sell peat-free compost at the same price as other composts. They no longer sell 100% peat compost.

Leading charities have also led the way. The RHS are already 98% peat-free and The National Trust are using coir plant plugs to raise their plants. A lot of famous nurseries are successfully raising plants in peat-free compost. Hardy’s Cottage Plants – www.hardysplants.co.uk, use Melcourt SylvaGrow (see below). It’s worth pointing out that certain countries, such as the USA, have never been able to use peat as their main growing medium. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa raise their plants in compost made from bark and wood fibres.

The government has allocated £50m in May 2021 for the restoration of 35,000 hectares of UK peatland, around 1 per cent of the total. Ten per cent of the UK land area, nearly three million hectares, is peat bog, so there’s a long way to go. The RSPB tell us that “peatlands are our biggest terrestrial carbon store and home to some of our rarest species…. But only 13% of our peatlands are in a near-natural state due to damage and degradation.” Our peatlands are actually emitting 10m tonnes of CO2 per year in England instead, so they’re adding to the problem.

Stopping peat extraction is one of the ways to help our planet and future generations, for it’s the biggest challenge we face across the world.

How to choose a good peat-free compost

Don’t look for bargains – go for quality instead and pay a bit more. The days of three bags for a tenner are over!

Find a supplier who stores their compost under cover, because bags deteriorate when exposed to heavy rain or hot sun.

When taking cuttings or propagating, add some perlite to the compost to improve drainage and aeration. Use gardeners’ mathematics by adding roughly 10-20 per cent to heavier, denser composts and 10 per cent to lighter ones.

Use specific composts for specific purposes. When sowing seeds, for example, always use a seed compost rather than a multipurpose.

How is peat-free compost different?

Watering peat-free compost is harder to gauge, because peat changes colour and the pot gets noticeably lighter. Dipping your finger into the compost will tell you if you need to water or not.

Wood-based composts (such as Melcourt Sylva Grow) can be difficult to rehydrate if they really dry out, so water little and often.

Wool and bracken composts (such as Dalefoot) hold water and nutrients very efficiently. This compost stays dark, whether dry or not, and it’s easy to saturate these composts, so go easy on water and food. Plants develop better roots when they have to search for water.

Feed your plants because most composts only contain enough food for four weeks at most, so it’s important to use a plant food such as Miracle Grow Slow release.

Be aware that compost containing green waste may contain chemical residues. It also varies far more and many makers have stopped adding it to compost.

The best peat-free compost options

Dalefoot

Dalefoot compost is soil-association approved, because the main ingredients are made from natural ingredients, principally potash-rich bracken and wool. There’s a 30L wool compost for potting, a green one for seed sowing, one for tomatoes, a double strength one with added comfrey. These composts hold water and nutrients, so do the finger test before watering.

Dalefoot Composts are also restoring Lakeland peat bogs. So far in 2021 they’ve restored 3,208 hectares of peat bog, using innovative restoration techniques that turn these bogs back into carbon sinks, making a total of 29,509 hectares over the last twenty years. They aim to prevent the predicted 3 degree temperature increase by the turn of the century, and 1 million tonnes of carbon have already been saved.

Prices range from £7.99 - £11.99 per bag, but prices get lower as more bags are bought in quantity via the internet. www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk lists stockists by region. You might want to group together and get a load.

Melcourt (SylvaGrow)

This RHS endorsed compost is made from wood fibre, a blend of fine bark, a by-product of sustainably managed British forests, carefully-sourced green compost and coir. Many top-rate nurseries use Melcourt composts and it’s highly popular with gardeners as well. It comes in various forms, including Multipurpose, Tub and Basket, Added John Innes and one for Organic growing.

This Soil Association approved Sylvagrow Organic growbag contain balanced organic fertilizers and seaweed meal for excellent vigour and disease resistance. It performs best when plants are routinely liquid fed every 3 -4 weeks. If you want to avoid green waste, opt for SylvaGrow Sustainable instead.

Melcourt also supply bark chippings and mulches. They are part of the Responsible Sourcing of Growing Media Scheme, a widespread initiative that includes charities such as the RSPB, Defra, The Horticultural Trades Association, the RHS. B & Q and Homebase. https://www.melcourt.co.uk/responsible-sourcing-of-growing-media-scheme/ 50L bags cost £6.50 and this is stocked widely because it’s easy to work with. www.melcourt.co.uk

Westland’s Organic and Peat-Free New Horizon

The largest compost supplier in this country, Westland are producing a peat-free New Horizon range that includes All Plant Compost, All Vegetable Compost and Tomato Planter. All the products in the New Horizon range contain Westland’s patented BIO3 technology, a natural peat replacement material, which provides the perfect structure for root establishment, nutrient availability for plant health and water availability for growth. Prices are typically £6.99 for 60L.

Incredipeatfree T&M

This premium peat-free compost blends highest quality wood fibre with a wetting agent. They've also added just enough fertiliser to get your seedlings off to a great start. For larger plants, you will need to mix in extra plant feed from the separate sachet included. This compost offers excellent drainage and aeration to encourage strong root establishment and healthy plant growth. More expensive that others. £14.99 for 70L

Making your own peat-free compost

Make a 50:50 mix of finely sieved garden compost and two-to-three-year-old leafmould.

This recipe works and has a zero footprint.

If seed sowing, fill the pot/tray with the mix, then cover seeds as appropriate with one of the composts listed above, This prevents any weed seedlings from germinating (there is no such thing as weed-seed-free garden compost or leafmould).

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.