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Incredible peat-free compost

By Sara Venn

We believe in the power of small actions to create a better future, which is why protecting peat through our compost purchasing power is important to Incredible Edible groups.

For many years across the world of horticulture, there has been an ongoing debate around peat based v peat free composts, with passionate discussion happening on either side. Many people in the industry believe it to be nigh on impossible to grow high standard plants in peat free growing media whereas many believe the use of peat to be environmentally disastrous, so we thought it might be useful to look at the issue, in the knowledge that many Incredible Edible groups, like Incredible Education and Incredible Edible Bristol, have made a pledge to be peat free in their growing.

Peat is partly decomposed plant matter that slowly builds up to form peat bogs, moors and fens in areas waterlogged by rain, in natural processes that take thousands of years. These bogs form many different types of lands from bogs to fens and flushes, and which are all very different landscapes but all require wet conditions. So whilst we wonder at the rainforests we see on nature programmes in wet but tropical areas, in a climate such as the UK, peatlands are our rainforests. They are the natural habitats of many of our rare flora and fauna, such as carnivorous sundew plants and large heath butterflies, but they are far, far more than just precious habitats for rare wildlife.

Peatlands act as carbon sinks, effectively breathing in the carbon build up in the atmosphere and holding that carbon within it. Whilst peatlands total just 10% of the UK they store more carbon than all our forests and any other soil type. Peatlands also hold water in the landscape, stopping potentially dangerous flooding, whilst purifying that water as peat acts as a natural filter in the landscape.

However, in the UK the horticulture industry is responsible for 70% of the loss of these precious habitats each year, and unfortunately, although there was a request from government in the early 00’s about cutting the use by 80% by 2020 voluntarily, this idea was stopped and there is now no requirement to cut peat use.

As consumers and growers it’s important that we look at our environmental impact and how we look after the land which we are stewards of. What direct affects might we, as growers, be able to have to stop the flooding we see each year and which often affects Incredible Edible Todmorden in the Calder Valley. The lands above Todmorden where some peatland sits, struggle not just from cutting but from grouse shooting which sees these moorlands burnt annually, drying out the peatlands and rendering them not just useless, but releasing huge stores of carbon into the atmosphere.

We know that by looking after and improving the soils we use, we are supporting more carbon sequestration wherever we are growing, and giving up peat and supporting the people who are making peat free composts seems really vital if we are to grow food in a way that is good for both planet and people.

Ian Bocock, of Incredible Education says, of the compost they have begun to use, “So far it’s proved to be a good resource. However it has to be said it’s not as cheap as some composts, but you have to weigh up the environmental cost.”

This compost is made by a business called Dalefoot Composts, who take what would otherwise be waste products, sheeps wool and dried bracken, from their nearby moorlands in the Lake District, and compost it into fabulous, rich growing media. Their range is varied and there is a product for most growers. Of course, as with anything else, a new product takes some time to adjust to and is the beginning of another Incredible learning curve, but it’s worthwhile taking that time because the results are extraordinary, as the folks at Incredible Edible Bristol have found, when using it to raise seedlings, as well as at Incredible Education.

It’s also worth mentioning that most local authorities compost green waste and that it’s possible to access the product they create if you talk to their Environmental or their Parks/Allotments/Waste departments. Again in Bristol, the group have discovered they can recycle Bristol’s green waste into the city centre gardens, and that the product that is made is far superior to any soil conditioner they have previously used, and a lot cheaper, which counters the cost of the peat free compost they use for container growing.

You can read more about Incredible Education’s compost choices here.  Do you have any top tips for avoiding peat based composts while growing your Incredible crops?  If you do, contact us and we’ll share across the network.