Thursday, May 26

A growing concern: peat is bad for the planet and for plants | Gardening tips

TThe world of gardening can take time to change, and as much as that can frustrate me, even enrage me at times, I love the comforting familiarity and nostalgia. In an unpredictable and ever-changing world, it is an anchor for traditions and our sense of identity. However, sometimes this resistance to change can lead to curious results, which I would say not only get in the way of us becoming better gardeners, but ironically even hinder our connection to our gardening heritage.

I never would have imagined when, as a teenager, I first read about the mob debate that I would still see it raging decades later. As much as I think about gardening, as in all creative activities, diversity of points of view is essential, it is an objective reality that the continued use of peat as a growing medium cannot be defended from an environmental point of view.

I first came across peat after moving to the UK in 1999, because in Singapore, following the Victorian British tradition, our horticultural growing medium was a mixture of garden soil, sand and charcoal in roughly equal amounts. It wasn’t really until the mid-20th century that the horticultural industry in Britain switched from peat-like formulas, largely because its lower weight made it cheaper to transport and therefore more profitable. Red flags were raised about its environmental impact as early as the 1980s, just a couple of decades after its adoption into widespread use, but resistance to giving it up persists today, 40 years later.

But here’s something even weirder: Peat isn’t just not a traditional growing medium, it’s not even necessarily a very good one. It contains little or no nutrients and growing in peat-based mixes forces the grower to constantly apply fertilizers to keep plants healthy. In addition to being expensive and additional work, most of these fertilizers will not contain the same wide range of minerals and biologically active compounds found in soil, which means that plant health can often be at a disadvantage.

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When growing in peat, you are essentially growing hydroponically in an inert substrate, with all the drawbacks and none of the benefits. That is before we move on to the fact that peat can become hydrophobic (water repellent) quite quickly when it dries. If you’ve ever watered a parched plant and seen moisture literally run down the top and down the sides of the pot, that’s what is happening. This forces manufacturers to add “wetting agents” (basically detergents) that break the surface tension of the water, to allow the peat to do its job.

If you want to be more environmentally friendly and for better gardening results, remove peat moss for a soil-based growing medium. By simply mixing a peatless all-purpose compost with regular garden soil in roughly equal parts, you can create a version that is much cheaper and involves carrying far fewer bags. And if it helps convince you, remember that this is actually much more “traditional” than using peat.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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