Updated: May 28, 2021
Beth Otway, a horticulturist and garden writer, shares her thoughts and passion about peatlands and peat-free gardening in this guest blog.
Our beautiful planet is graced with some astounding natural wonders. Coral reefs, mountains, canyons, and rainforests are priceless habitats that are loved and celebrated by us all. However, our natural world hosts other precious environments whose glory isn’t as widely known or recognised.
Peatlands are special wetland habitats; they are the integral foundation for valuable ecosystems whose survival is essential if we’re to preserve our planet’s rich biodiversity. Rare plants, like marsh saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus), with its sunny yellow flowers so delightfully freckled with orange, and tiny bog orchids (Hammarbya paludosa) with their lime-green flowers, can only be found in peatland habitats.
Our garden plants would not survive in the seemingly hostile conditions found in a peatland; here nutrients are in such short supply and conditions are continually wet and boggy. Fascinating carnivorous plants, like sundews (Drosera spp.), Butterworts (Pinguicula vulgaris), and Bladderworts (Utricularia Vulgaris) have evolved in peatlands; these plants developed modified leaves that enable them to trap flies and insects to capture additional nutrients to sustain themselves. These incredible plants thrive in peat bogs and are only able to survive in these environments.
The White-faced Darter is a rare dragonfly which is reliant on an ability to seek out deep pools of water surrounded by sphagnum mosses to breed successfully. Peatlands are a great location to observe wildlife; as well as dragonflies and damselflies, you might be able to spot reptiles like adders and lizards. Peatlands are biodiverse ecosystems that are home to specialised species of flora and fauna that have adapted to living in these waterlogged, nutrient-poor environments. The plants and wildlife that live in peat bogs and peatlands are dependent on these particular habitats for their survival.
The Large Heath Butterfly has become something of a rarity; this small to medium sized butterfly inhabits wet and boggy, open areas. The Large Heath Butterfly depends on the hare’s-tail cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum), which is the foodplant of its caterpillars, while the adult butterflies feast upon the flowers of Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix), a type of heather that produces large, pink coloured, bell-shaped flowers.
Our peatlands are home to the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and the Green Hairstreak Butterfly as well as many species of moths. In these insect rich habitats, birds such as Curlews, Skylarks, and Meadow Pipits flourish, but like many birds they are dependent on the health of peatlands for their survival and accordingly their numbers have declined.
Bog Bush Crickets thrive in lowland peat bogs. Although these crickets once inhabited a wider range, sadly, due to habitat destruction, Bog Bush Crickets are now only found in one site in Scotland. The Bog Bush Cricket’s long-term survival is dependent on peatland habitat restoration and protection.
In a peatlands’ wet and boggy ground, sphagnum mosses thrive. Like plants, mosses photosynthesise; taking energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to form hydrocarbons which are used to make sugar, starch, and cellulose; these complex structures lock the carbon within the moss. Mosses will release their carbon if they decompose in the presence of oxygen, but in a healthy peat bog, mosses grow in peat that’s saturated with water; it is this wet environment that binds the carbon to the peatland. Older mosses die very slowly in these wet conditions and new mosses emerge in amongst the decaying moss where they form the next layer of growth. This perpetual chain of mosses growing and dying together, immersed in water, enables the peatland to live on and continue sequestering carbon.
Peat is formed from layers of decomposed sphagnum mosses. Peatlands are our largest natural terrestrial carbon store. Although they cover just 3% of our planet’s surface, peatlands store more carbon than all the world’s other vegetation combined. Healthy peatlands are topped with a living layer of sphagnum moss, which shields and protects the lower layers of peat and functions as part of a heathy ecosystem, supporting plants and a wide range of wildlife including dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, moths, spiders, lizards, and birds.
Sadly, over 80% of our UK peatlands have been damaged by human activity and many peatlands have been excavated or destroyed. Degraded peatlands are releasing their carbon stores into the atmosphere, and in many cases are emitting carbon rather than absorbing it; consequently, the restoration of peat bogs and peatlands is vital in the fight against climate change.
I’m a peat-free gardener. Every year I run Compost Trials to identify the best quality composts on the market. I share the results of my Compost Trials with my readers on my website (find my Compost Trials here). Through my work, I’ve found top quality peat-free growing mediums that can outperform peat. I believe that there is no reason to use peat in a garden; the only place for peat is in a peat bog!
In my garden, I’ve enjoyed fantastic results using powerful, nutrient-rich concentrated composts that I dilute with old compost or mix with garden soil to make a superb growing medium. Using concentrated composts lessens both transport and environmental costs. There’s no need to throw away last year’s compost, this can be reinvigorated and reused.
I feel that we should all be producing our own composts, using natural, sustainable ingredients. No garden is too small for a compost heap or wormery. There are so many methods of making compost: you could use a traditional compost heap, or a compost tumbler, an Aerobin, a Hotbin, or a wormery. Many composting products have been designed to fit in small spaces, of these products wormeries are the most compact.
Peatlands provide us with priceless benefits; as well as being our largest terrestrial carbon store, peatlands hold vast amounts of carbon and water and slow the movement of rainfall to protect us from flooding. Peatlands need urgent protection, by safeguarding and restoring these precious environments, we can also protect the entire ecosystems that depend on these habitats for their survival.
I am a member of the Peat Free April campaign team. We’ve been working to collect signatures on the petition to drive the government to accelerate the ban on peat in horticulture. So far we’ve collected over ten thousand signatures; we would love you to sign this petition to show the government how important our peatlands are. You’ll find the petition on our Peat Free April website: http://peatfree.org.uk
Many thanks to Beth for her wonderful insight into peatlands and peat-free gardening.