Going Peat Free

The Natural Environment White Paper was published in 2011 by the coalition Government, following consultation with industry and interested parties. The top line targets were:

  • Phase out peat by 2015 in the Government and the wider public sector, including Local Authorities;
  • Phase out peat by 2020 in the amateur gardener market for bagged growing media (including ‘grow bags’ and multi-purpose compost) that represents the majority (69%) of peat use;
  • Phase out peat by 2030 at the very latest for professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants;

Whilst the motivation for the white paper is indisputably sensible and has all of our environmental interests at heart, there was, crucially, neither carrot nor stick involved – a voluntary approach was decided on.

Five years on where are we now?  Three indicators paint a worrying picture:

  1. Only one fifth of councils stipulate that bedding plants should be produced peat-free. With peat- free compost costing more than the peat based mixes, and in the face of downward pressure on budgets, for many councils peat-free is a spend too far.
  1. Retailers sold more peat based composts in 2015 than 2014 – up 10% – and the industry generally used 3% more during the same period.
  1. The amount of peat-free copy and debate in Horticultural publications has markedly dropped off and the process seems to have cooled. The promised 2015 review of the White Paper progress is unpublished.

However, the targets set still stand and the move away from using this finite resource is still live.  Peat-free remains difficult but essential – it is about future proofing our environment and ecology, and educating future generations in sustainability. The teeth, however, are missing – there are no penalties looming, there is not much bad press in the Fearnley Whittingstall mode, and consequently there is no public drive to make Peat Free happen

It’s not all doom-and-gloom.  There is a lot of work being done inspired by common sense and backed up by Government proposals on bringing peat-free to the forefront of gardeners’ and horticulturalists’ minds. Commercially, there is an extra edge given to this work by the opportunity to become a recognised market leader in this field.

How has Nicholsons responded to the call to go Peat Free?

With the retail sector responsible for the lion’s share of peat-based sales (over 2 thirds) there is a retail case to answer. There are more and more products on the market that the average gardener would happily and unknowingly use that are peat-free and that would have the desired effect – be it soil conditioning, potted material, seedlings etc. Things are moving on and moving quickly. New products are being used and trialed; green waste companies work to ISO14001Managment Systems and the quality of the material they produce is unrecognisable from 10 years ago. Indeed, a sense of the speed of change can be gained from Which? magazine, who run yearly trials on all types of compost.  In 2013 they reported:

‘Peat-free composts have never done brilliantly in our trials….none was good enough from 2013 trials to recommend.’

But by 2015 the view was much more positive:

‘We were very pleased that among the Best Buys were two peat-free composts.’

One of the positively reviewed products is produced by Melcourt, a company that Nicholsons has been dealing with for well over 10 years. We source all our bagged material from them and as a business, we have no peat based bagged products available to the public.

On the production side, we are reducing our peat dependency year on year. Several tree nurseries are already wholly peat free but getting to this point this is a slow process there are huge risks attached – nursery crops are uninsured and any compromised quality will result in losses straight off the bottom line. Year on year we trial new crops, using Melcourt’s peat free compost and consequently have moved several significant stock lines over to peat-free in the last 5 years. Every year we are also reducing the proportion of peat in the mix that we have for the remaining crops, down from 80% to 50% over a 5-6 year period.

This year we trialed biodegradable pots and peat-free compost on one of our Taxus crops – we grow 4000 7.5lt Taxus year on year which equates to 16-20m3 of compost. The jury is out on the pots and we will continue these trials but the Nursery Manager was very happy with the growth and root development.  We will roll out peat-free to half our Taxus crop next year – and so we continue to reduce our peat dependency.

Going Peat Free

7.5 litre Taxus Trials: Peat-based compost (far left) against peat-free compost specimens, including the bio-degradable pots (second from left)

Going Peat Free