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18 May 2021

Peat compost set to be banned - which peat-free composts are any good?

Garden centres will not sell any peat compost after 2024, but Which? trials show there are some great peat-free composts to buy now

The government has announced it intends to ban the sale of all peat compost in garden centres by 2024 as part of its England Peat Action Plan. This follows increasing pressure from environmental and climate change campaigners, as well as home gardeners.

Which? Gardening magazine has championed the case of peat-free composts for many years. We only use peat-free compost in our own growing trials and we prioritise peat-free composts when choosing which brands to test for our compost trials.

Discover which peat-free composts are Best Buys

Why is peat compost a problem?

Peat has long been recognised as damaging to the environment and the climate. When peat is harvested, bogs are drained and the top surface of the peat gradually stripped away. Not only does this destroy rare and endangered habitats and the flora and fauna that rely on them, but also allows the peat to react with the air, releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

Recent figures from Natural England show that exposed peat soils can release up to 38 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare every year. By contrast, peat bogs in their natural state soak up around a tonne of carbon dioxide per hectare each year.

In addition, they hold huge quantities of water and are a great defense against flooding as well as helping to filter and naturally clean water.

Read more about this in our guide to peat-free compost.

Beat the ban

There are a number of very good peat-free composts already available to buy, whether you are sowing seeds, potting on your plants or filling containers with summer bedding and veg. We have also found a great peat-free grow bag.

Which? has been testing compost for more than 30 years and in that time peat-free composts have changed significantly, but especially in the last few years. Only around five years ago most peat-free composts used composted green waste collected from council tips and the quality varied enormously, but new materials are now available and peat-free compost is now far more reliable.

How to use peat-free compost

Peat has been a popular compost material as it is free draining, yet moist, giving near-perfect conditions for seeds and young plants to develop. In other words, it's undemanding of gardeners. Peat-free on the other hand can require more care and attention to get the best results.

Which? Gardening has been using peat-free compost to grow our trials for a number of years and we have found it to be a great growing medium, but you need to watch out for a few niggles.

  • You need to pay close attention to how much and how often you water. We have found that sometimes the top of the compost can look dry, but under the surface is very wet. Conversely some composts can look wet on the surface, but the water hasn't soaked to the middle of the pot, leaving the roots to dry out. Get used to picking up your pots to discover if they are light, in which case they may need to be watered, or heavy and have enough water. You can also test by pushing your thumb into the top few centimetres of the pot to see how wet or dry it is.
  • Remember to feed your pots regularly. We have found that pots start to run out of feed after three or four week. When growing seedlings, prick them out and pot them on before this time to make sure your plants have all the nutrients they need to keep going. If you're going to have your plants in the same pots for longer, give them a liquid feed, or use a controlled-release fertiliser.
  • Store your compost in a cool, dry place, and try to use it up within a few weeks. Which? Gardening trials have shown that peat-free composts often start to rot down after a few months and the fertiliser in them breaks down, which might harm your plants. Store it in a shed or garage, but if you don't have these, keep it in a shady spot, covered with a tarpaulin.
  • Finally, if you can, buy your compost from a retailer who stores it under cover. This will keep it fresh and help you to grow better plants.

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