In my last post, I mentioned that I am trying to cut down on my use of commercially produced compost. I’d like not to have to use any at all, but that is currently not practical. As a child, I can remember my father buying big bales of peat to use in the garden. These days we know how much damage peat extraction is doing to the environment – not only does it led to the destruction of rare habitats, it also causes erosion and leads to the release of enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Most of the peat we use in the UK comes from Ireland, the Baltic states and Finland; so, whilst we are protecting habitats here at home, gardeners are contributing to the destruction of peat bogs across other parts of the world (amateur gardeners are responsible for 60% of the peat used in the UK) . My dad also used John Innes compost, which is soil based. However, beware of reckless purchase of such composts – I bought a couple of bags a few years ago and got them home to discover that they also contained peat – I was mortified.

There was a bit of a media hew-ha last year when Alan Titchmarsh (well known TV gardener in the UK) said that he would not give up using peat because there was no alternative when growing some plants. I, and many other gardeners (both celebrity and amateur) beg to differ – I have not used peat products for many years and this has not stopped me growing whatever I fancied… although, I have to admit to never having tried to cultivate a bog garden of my own!

I have used a variety of commercially produced composts over the years – some I liked better than others, but none have been a failure in all respects. I’ve used one based on the waste produced from brewing Guinness (can’t remember what that was called – it was a long time ago), one from cow muck (a bit sticky), some from peat particles collected from water treatment plants (Moorland Gold) plus a variety of coir-based composts. I like coir in many ways (my favourite is Fertile Fibre) but my issue with it is ‘compost miles’; I really don’t like the idea of my compost (despite originating from a waste product) having had to be shipped so far round the world (from Sri Lanka in the case of Fertile Fibre). I do occasionally buy coir still, but in order to minimise emissions and transport I buy the compressed bales… that way all that is being moved around is the coir itself – the air, moisture and nutrients I add when it arrives in my garden, the latter in the form of ‘worm wee’ from my wormery and the water from my water-butts.

But I am lazy, and I do like to have a bag of ready-to-use potting compost; I want something that isn’t peat based, is made in the UK and is produced from waste or renewable resources. And so, these days, I buy wool compost, which seems to have a good texture and an excellent capacity to retain water. It’s made – as the name says – from wool, but also contains bracken (plenty of that here in the UK) It seems to be the best option for me, but I encourage you to research what is available in your area and make the most of local products that avoid the use of peat.

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  1. Among bloggers we’ve had some discussions and debates over this.

    While I believe very much in permaculture principles, and in general avoid unnecessary inputs, I do buy modest amounts of peat products most years. It’s a little simplified to say or imply all use of peat causes environmental destruction. While it’s no problem to identify places seriously damaged by peat extraction, it’s also possible to find places extracting peat sustainably and very important to the local economy. The last time I visited Estonia, I saw a facility like that.

    According to some people peat extraction takes hundreds of years to regenerate, but many others claim 10-20 years is more realistic. It all depends on how you define damage and regeneration, and there are many ways of interpreting different situations. The world also has vast peat reserves, about 2% of the earth’s surface is covered with peat. It really all comes down to where and how you extract it.

    There are also countries like Ireland and Finland that generate a substantial percentage of their electricity by burning peat, something that dwarfs by many times the use by gardeners in Europe.

    In fact many alternatives, like coir which is usually imported from Sri Lanka, can be much worse. The reality is there are not many acceptable local alternatives available for most people.

    The discussion is a bit like energy saving light bulbs. Yes, you can accuse people who don’t use low energy bulbs as not caring about the environment, but that argument is wearing thin for a lot of people by now. Many people feel simple, non toxic bulbs made in Europe are a better choice than expensive mercury laden bulbs imported from China. It’s also pretty clear by now the vast majority of marketing claims of quality, long life and low energy use are all grossly exaggerated. Now it’s the law of course, but the real reason we all have to switch to more expensive and inferior light bulbs has little to do with the environment but rather because the manufactures of expensive light bulbs need more profits.

    As long as peat is a cheap readily available naturally produced product, and there are companies that stand to make lots of money selling us expensive alternatives, as gardeners we will always have this debate. The day will also probably come when the sale of peat is illegal, this has already been discussed a number of times.


    • Whatever purchasing choices we make there is always likely to be a ‘cost’ other than the purely financial one… whether we’re buying light bulbs or compost. Permaculture suggests that we are ‘mindful’ of our choices, rather than saying what we should and shouldn’t do. So thinking carefully is the order of the day… I hope that this, and some of my posts, make other people think and, perhaps, consider whether an alternative to ‘business as usual’ might be appropriate.


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