Casual Gardener: Peat set to spark a horticulture war

There's a growing appetite among gardeners for peat-free products

IS IT possible that 2021 is the year when the use of peat in gardening and the horticultural industry becomes a mainstream issue

The portents of this horticulture war can already be seen in the Republic and in Britain. Couple this with the growth of interest in all things green-fingered and we can reasonably expect the exploitation of our peat bogs to become the next cause célèbre.

In November, Monty Don attracted the ire of gardening traditionalists and representatives of the horticulture industry when he used Gardeners' World magazine to urge garden centres not to stock peat or plants grown in peat, arguing that its extraction is not especially good for the environment.

There were reports of a boycott of the magazine by garden centres, while James Alcaraz, chairman of the British Protected Ornamentals Association, was quoted as saying: "I'm very saddened that Monty Don has felt the need to yet again attack the industry that employs him."

Meanwhile, south of the border, a Co Kildare nursery owner recently warned that jobs are at risk in the Irish horticulture industry due to shortage of peat production. Larry Doran of Doran Nurseries said he and fellow growers had been "thrown into sudden crisis" because there had been a "complete cessation of peat harvesting since June 2020". Rather than find locally sourced, sustainable alternatives, he said nurseries would be "forced" to import what was termed poor-quality growing material from the Balkans or Malaysia.

Peat is an emotive issue for gardeners because they often appreciate how environmentally precious it is but also how indispensable it can be as a growing medium. Finding a good substitute is difficult but there are alternatives out there and the more we gardeners make a noise the more the industry will respond.

Peat is a relatively cheap growing medium and here in Ireland there's an abundance of the stuff. However, its use comes with high environmental costs.

Recent analysis by the RSBP showed that peatland covers approximately 12 per cent of the land area in the north, yet 86 per cent of our peatlands have been damaged by pressures including drainage, overgrazing, afforestation, burning and extraction in lowland areas. As a result, many peatlands are net emitters of greenhouse gases. Despite the urgent need to restore this habitat, only as little as 1 per cent has been restored in the past 30 years.

As well as being crucial in mitigating climate change, peatlands also play a vital role in supporting unique plants and rare wildlife, improve our water quality, and upland peatlands also help prevent flooding.

Jonathan Bell of RSPB NI noted how Scotland has committed £250 million over the next decade towards peatland restoration, while the Republic and Wales have recently committed to increase funding.

"When peat is restored, water tables rise, bog plants colonise, and in due course, bog wildlife arrives. In good condition, the peat returns to its role as a massive carbon store; sequestering carbon and improving water quality," he said.

"The poor condition of many of our peatlands in Northern Ireland means that they are emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, undermining our climate ambitions and doing little for people or nature."

Environmental groups will continue to campaign against peat extraction but we gardeners also need to up our game, both by demanding our garden centres stock viable alternatives and by making or own compost and leafmould so we're not reliant on commercial products.

Fail to prepare and you may find yourself "thrown into sudden crisis", like Larry Doran.

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