Peat has its benefits – it’s absorbent, good for acid-loving plants and resistant to compaction. However, the process of harvesting peat is hugely damaging to the environment.
Peatlands include bogs and fens, and they’re unique habitats for a diverse range of plant and animal species. Peat has a very slow accumulation rate, as little as 1mm per year, so when it’s harvested these habitats are degraded and take a long time to regenerate. Peatlands also trap carbon dioxide. When the layer of CO2 absorbing plants is lost, CO2 produced by the peat itself is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
The good thing is that there are plenty of alternatives to peat, including peat-free compost mixes, homemade compost and leaf mould.
When buying compost and other planting mediums, always check the label for any mention of peat.
Check out our alternatives to peat in the garden, below.
Peat-free potting mixes
Potting seedlings into individual pots
There’s an increasing range of peat-free potting mixes available, including multipurpose compost, compost suitable for seed-sowing, and even ericaceous mixes. Often these are aren’t available in garden centres, but can easily be bought online. Alternatively you can make your own potting mix, using a mix well-rotted leaf mould, garden compost, vermiculite and garden soil. (Monty Don’s formula is 75 per cent leaf mould, 25 per cent garden compost, 15 per cent vermiculite and 10 per cent garden soil.)
Handfuls of leaf mould lifted from a garden leaf mould bin
Leaf mould makes an excellent soil conditioner and can also be used to make potting compost. It’s easy to make your own. If you have lots of leaves, try making it a leaf mould bin to process large amounts, or on a smaller scale you can use plastic sacks.
Spreading bark mulch around a plant with a rake
Bark chippings from a sustainable source make an excellent mulch. They can insulate plants’ roots in cold weather, conserve soil moisture in hot weather, and suppress weeds. They look attractive, too. They’ll rot down over time so you’ll need to top up the mulch every couple of years.
Hands-full of coir compost
Coir is a waste product from coconut plantations in tropical countries like India and Sri Lanka, and you’ll often come across it in compressed blocks that expand when watered. It’s absorbent and is an excellent open growing medium for sowing seeds and growing plants. Incorporate slow-release fertiliser to boost the nutrient content.
A pile of well-rotted manure on a plastic sheet in a garden
Manure is nutrient-rich, so it’s fantastic for mulching around plants and improving soil structure, particularly on very heavy or very light soils. Make sure it’s well rotted before using, and don’t add too much at once – instead get into the habit of mulching each autumn, spreading a 5cm layer around plants. Find out where to mulch in the garden.
Sowing seeds of green manure
Green manure involves sowing fast-growing plants like grazing rye, phacelia and alfalfa in autumn, on patches of bare soil. As they grow, their roots can help to break up heavy soils and they’ll suppress weeds. Come spring, the plants are chopped down and left to wither then dug back into the soil, enriching it. Check out this step-by-step guide to sowing green manure.
Turning homemade garden compost
Garden, or homemade compost is something that nearly every garden should be able to produce. The key is balancing your green, leafy nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich brown material, like woody stems and cardboard. Take a look at our full guide to making great homemade compost.
Stacking turf grass side down
Old sections of turf can be stacked up somewhere, grass side down, and covered with tarpauline. After around a year it will have broken down into good, loamy soil. Find out more about what to do with spare lawn turf.
Turn your compost
If you’re making your own compost, don’t forget to turn the heap to speed up the process. You can even get rotating compost bins that make the process even quicker.