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Should I buy peat-free compost?

By Adele Dyer

Peat-free composts have been on sale for many years, but they can still cause headaches for gardeners. We look at the pros and cons of alternatives to peat.

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Peat bogs are an invaluable habitat for flora and fauna, supporting many rare and vulnerable native species not found anywhere else. When peat is harvested, the bog is drained and the peat is stripped off in layers over several years. Peat extraction causes extensive damage to bogs, which means this vital habitat can't naturally regenerate. 

Peat accumulates at a rate of less than 2mm per year, and peat harvested now has taken thousands of years to establish. Harvesting removes around 20cm per year. Although some schemes are in place to restore bogs that have been harvested, their long-term success has yet to be proved. 

In addition, peat stores large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane that are released into the atmosphere when it is harvested. 

As a result, the UK government has agreed with compost manufacturers that peat shouldn't be in composts for home gardeners after 2020 and in composts used by commercial growers after 2030. The pressure is therefore on compost manufacturers to come up with ways of reducing and eliminating peat from composts within a few years. 

We've tested a selection of peat-free composts this year. Find out how they scored in our round-up of the best composts

In this article:

What are the alternatives to peat compost? 

Peat alternatives use materials such as green compost, coir, wood fibre and composted bark. 

A large number of composts also have reduced peat meaning they contain around 50-70% peat, with peat alternatives making up the rest of the compost. 

In our trials in the past few years, we've found some excellent peat-free composts - but we've also come across some shockingly poor ones. 

To find out which these are, look at our full compost test results.

What is in peat-free compost? 

Peat-free compost can include coir, wood fibre, composted bark and green compost, which is largely made up of grass cuttings and woody material depending on the time of year. 

Green compost

Usually made from the green waste collected by local authorities or from municipal waste sites, this material is variable. In summer, green waste is largely made up of grass cuttings, and in winter it's mainly woody material. 

New standards have been introduced to try to ensure a more stable mix of these two extremes and to eliminate contamination with glass, stone and metal. 

Green compost often suffers from high levels of chlorides, which can prevent plants from taking up the nitrogen needed for leafy green growth. It also often contains large amounts of potassium, which can cause calcium and magnesium deficiencies in the plant. As a result, fertilisers need to be carefully balanced to avoid problems. 

Some manufacturers have now decided not to use any composted green waste in their composts, but are using wood fibre instead. Other producers have altered where they source the materials for their green waste compost from to try and ensure a steady flow of less variable ingredients. 

Coir

Coir is now widely used in commercial horticulture as a peat alternative. It's a fibrous material made from coconut husks and is milled to make a peat-like material for horticultural use in areas of India and Sri Lanka.

It's widely described as being environmentally friendly as it's a naturally occurring product that would go to waste if it weren't used in composts. However, there are several issues, including the carbon cost of shipping it around the world and the amount of water needed to rinse salts from the coir, as it's produced in areas where clean water is scarce. There are also concerns over working conditions and pay for workers. 

Wood fibre

Wood fibre is generally made one of two ways. Some companies use a wetting and drying technique to convert wood chips into a light, fluffy material. The result is a little akin to putting a woolly jumper in a tumble dryer: the fibres expand and split apart, making them better at holding air and allowing water to drain freely. Others use the shavings taken from lumber yards as timber is sawn into planks.  

It's often added to composts and typically makes up no more than 20-30% of the total volume, as too much wood fibre can lock up nitrogen, leaving plants starved of this vital nutrient.  

Composted bark

Composted bark is typically made from the bark of conifers felled for timber. It's mostly sourced in the UK and is a by-product that wouldn't be used otherwise. It's milled to small pieces and often mixed with wood fibre and coir to grow plants. 

Not sure what compost is best for your garden? Read our guide on how to choose the right compost

How to care for your plants using peat-free compost 

Green compost 

  • Be careful when feeding - it varies in how nutrient-rich it is - for example, it can release large amounts of nitrogen or very little. 
  • Watch your watering in rainy weather - it can stay quite wet.

Coir 

  • Water little and often. Judging when to water again can be tricky, but it's best to pick up the pot where possible. Pots that need watering will be much lighter than pots that still contain a good amount of water.
  • Don't compress coir when you plant. Instead of firming in, overfill the pot and then tap it a few times on the workbench to settle the material, then water to further settle the contents. You may have to hold cuttings, plug plants and seedlings close to the top of the pot while you do this to prevent them from being planted too deeply.

Wood fibre 

  • Don't let pots become too dry - water little and often. Wood fibre can increase drainage in composts that can become wet, such as composted green waste. However, in hot weather, it's important to make sure that it does not cause your pots to become too dry.

Composted bark 

  • Check plants regularly to make sure they don't dry out. It makes quite an 'open' compost with good air spaces within the compost. However, this does mean that it doesn't hold water well and you need to water generously, especially when potting young plants.

All composts have a small amount of fertiliser in them, but you need to add a controlled-release fertiliser to sustain your plants through a full growing season. 

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