If you want to pick a fight with a gardener, either tell them you follow a No Dig regime, or that you don't think they should be using peat. One or the other is almost guaranteed to get them revved up for a fight.
I don't dig and I don't use peat, so I often find myself on one side of a debate, but the question of whether we should be using peat has been on more people's minds in the last couple of weeks. Alan Titchmarsh has gone on record saying he still uses some, and will continue to do so until there is a 'perfect substitute' available. He's not alone – there are other well-known gardeners and garden writers who say the same thing, and the problem is that they're sharing their habits with the population at large.
Why is it a problem? Because peat belongs in the ground. Essentially it is a special form of partially rotted organic matter, which has formed over long periods of time in the sterile, acidic and waterlogged conditions of peat bogs and fens. Left alone, about 1 mm of depth is added to a peat bog every year - so if you're digging down 10 metres you're going back 10,000 years or so into history. Peat is being extracted far faster than it's being replaced - it's not a renewable resource in our lifetime. And the wildlife that depends upon it suffers.
So why do gardeners use peat? According to the Wildlife Trusts, the use of peat in horticulture was not widespread before the late 1950s. Gardeners back then favoured soil-based potting mixes, but also used coir (which is a waste product from the coconut trade – renewable, but not local). Only after a concerted marketing effort on the part of the peat producers did peat become such a ubiquitous garden staple that even those of us in the know struggle to avoid it.
An old-school gardener will tell you that peat is stable, sterile and holds water. That's why it's used in compost mixes and seed composts. It has to have 'wetting agents' added. Now I'm fuzzy on what they are, but they're there because once you let peat dry out it becomes pretty much water-repellent and you'd struggle to get it wet again without some help.
I am no doubt fortunate, in some respects, to have started gardening at a point where peat-free composts are readily available. They're not all good, and they're not all suitable for all uses. But I learned to garden and grow with peat-free products and my garden thrives without them. The organic matter peat provides is easily replaced with composted waste products.
The question is, now that we know what problems the destruction of wildlife habitats causes – why are we still doing it? Why are people still putting peat products in their trolley?
Perhaps it's the same 'out of sight' mentality that prompts our ongoing issues with the food chain - where we can happily chow down on a chicken that is only a few weeks old but oddly the size of a turkey. We can buy food from the other side of the world, then chuck it in the bin a week later because we didn't really want to eat it. Until someone points out the glaringly obvious environmental impacts of our actions, we remain oblivious.
Perhaps it's a matter of priorities. We pick up the cheapest option, not really caring that birds, butterflies and dragonflies will be left homeless, just as long as our dahlias are bigger than next door's.
Perhaps it's a generation gap – the gardeners who use peat will continue to do so, because swapping to a new product requires learning something new: how to garden without peat. It's not an instant, easy, transition. It's a re-education – a new skill.
I have also encountered gardeners who justify their peat use by explaining that the amount used in horticulture is minuscule compared to the amount burned in power stations in the countries who still have sizable peat reserves left (we don't). This smacks of a juvenile, playground response – 'he started it!'. As rational adults we should take responsibility for our actions, which includes making informed choices.
Although birds, butterflies and dragonflies won't engender much of an emotional response from many people, we also need to be looking at our peat bogs and fenlands with an eye towards self-preservation. Peat, in its natural environment, is a massive carbon sink. When we dig it up, dry it out and burn it or use it in the garden we're adding a considerable amount to our carbon footprint. Last year a spokesman for the RSPB (quoted in the Independent) suggested that ditching our peat habit would save the same amount of carbon as taking 350,000 cars off the road – and it is far more easily achieved.
Rather than willingly and unnecessarily participating in habitat destruction, and hurtling towards irreversible climate change with our heads in the sand, it's time we all made the choice to garden without peat. Make your own compost – you'll find that most plants prefer it anyway, and it certainly has more 'oomph' for a longer period. Use peat-free mixes where you need stability, fine texture or sterility, and invest in some nice modules so you won't be tempted with those little peat pellet things. Coir has its uses, and you may find it works for you – but it has likely come from many miles away, so bear that in mind as well.
Emma Cooper is a garden writer and the author of the Alternative Kitchen Garden. For a signed copy please visit Green Shopping and place a request with your order. Emma also makes the popular Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast.