Peat Policy at Glendoick Gardens

11th June 2014

In line with UK government advice, Glendoick Gardens Ltd runs a reduced peat-use policy for its nursery stock production. Unlike almost all other UK rhododendron and azalea growers, most of Glendoick's stock is grown in the open ground, requiring almost no peat to be used. Following extensive trials, in Glendoick's open ground production, less than 10% peat is used as a planting medium. The remaining 90% consists of top soil,  loam, composted bark and composted conifer needles and chipped trimmings. We estimate that our open-ground rhododendron production is the most peat-friendly in the U.K. At Glendoick Gardens, peat is used mainly in propagation and container production. Most peat used is from renewable sources in Scandinavia and the Baltic states. (see below).

Glendoick still uses peat in propagation and in its container mixes (50% peat) as we believe that Ericaceous plants (which grow naturally on peat) require at least some of it for best results.

Peat: what is so good about it?

  • It has a low pH ideal for Ericaceous plants. Indeed most of the world's Ericaceous plants have evolved to grow on and in peat.

  • Peat's high water and air holding capacities which mean that it can retain and subsequently provide moisture and air to the roots of plants.

  • It holds added nutrients available for plant growth as required.

  • It is an easy material to handle.

  • It is normally free of pathogens.
  • It is the best component available for commercial container production and propagation.
  • it is freely available with vast reserves all over Scotland, Ireland and Northern Europe.


The Peat Debate: how on earth did we get there?

Glendoick Gardens believes that the environmental pressure on reduction of peat use by the horticultural industry is valid in protecting lowland UK peat bogs as few such habitats still exist. The campaign, began in the 1980s by David Bellamy, was successful in protecting many remaining lowland peat habitats. I recently spoke to David Bellamy about the way the peat debate has evolved. He is frankly appalled at the current attempts to ban peat use and completely opposes this. See David's website for more details.

Somehow, the worthwhile protection of these lowland peat bogs has lead, almost completely without justification, to a national compaign casting peat use as 'sinful' or morally wrong. There are several arguments put forward to justify the enforced reduction in use of peat but most of these are dubious at best and often factually inaccurate. 

Claims made to justify banning peat. Do they stand up?

1. The main claim leveled is that peat is a 'non-renewable' like oil. This is simply not true. If carefully harvested from live peat bogs, peat is a renewable resource and can be classified as a 'slowly renewable biofuel'. This can be clearly demonstrated in countries such as Sweden where peat is grown and harvested rather like tree plantations. Scientists have estimated that the annual growth in peat far exceeds the amount that is extracted each year, so it is in essence a renewable resource if well managed.

In November 2000 the European Parliament amended Article 21 of the Council Directive on the promotion of electricity from renewable energy sources in the international electricity market, adding peat to the list of renewable energy sources. 

2. It is claimed is that the world is somehow running short of peat. The area from Norway to Siberia is, rather simply put, the world's largest peat bog. Canada's is almost as large. A fraction of 1% of the reserves have probably been extracted. On a global scale peatland is not rare nor threatened, the earth is known to generate around 600 million cubic metres per year but only a maximum 200 million cubic metres is extracted each year. So unlike coal or oil, the amount is increasing year on year. Most of the land where the peat is, has little or no alternative use. Compared to farming, fishing, golf courses, or any other major land-use, peat production which is carefully managed, is a sound, sustainable and 'green' activity.

Looking at Scotland for example, around 50% of the land is peat covered as can be seen on the maps, linked to below.

Map of the deep peat deposits in Scotland

And this of heather moorland

3. The threat to rare ecosystems from peat extraction: UK. lowland peatland habitats are scarce and mostly protected. Most of these were drained long ago for farming and forestry. In the UK upland peatland is not threatened. Peat producers have already agreed not to seek or to extract from areas with a conservation value. Peat Extraction for Horticulture is NOT the main cause of damage to the UK peat lands. In fact, since 1960 only just over 500 hectares have been introduced for peat production whereas 95,000 hectares have been lost to forestry. The peatlands of Great Britain cover an area of some 17 500 km2, most in north and west. Scotland has c. 68%, England 23% and Wales 9%. There are about 1 700 km2 of peatland in Northern Ireland, mostly located in the western half of the province.

In Great Britain, commercialised peat extraction takes place on only some 5 400 ha (equivalent to about 0.3% of total peatland). Almost all peat industry output is for the horticultural market; there is however still quite extensive (but unquantified) use of peat as a domestic fuel in the rural parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

4. Carbon Sink. Peat bogs soak up carbon dioxide. So does farmland. It is claimed that is we harvest peat this CO2 will be lost. But in fact this is not the case. Peat lands used for extracting peat can be quite easily restored. Draining the peat bogs can be reversed. The Department of the Environment, Peat Producers Association and many other conservation bodies are all working together to restore the peatlands back to their natural state. The carbon sink impact of peat extraction is negligible if the land is correctly managed. This is simply a matter of legislation. 'Temporal studies of peatlands reveal that they may act as CO2 sinks in some years and sources in others, depending on climate. Emissions of CH4 and N2O are similarly variable in space and time.' 

From 'Peatlands and Climate change' Available as a pdf from this link.

Every time a farmer ploughs a field CO2 is lost into the atmosphere. This is a consequence of turning soil. 

The release of carbon dioxide is mostly released when peat is drained and not when it is extracted, so this is the key: it has little to do with peat use in horticuture:'

 'When peatlands are drained, the peat is no longer conserved. It decomposes, which leads to vigorous releases of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that the total carbon emissions from degraded peatlands currently amount to almost half of the worldwide emissions from land use changes and Forestry (lUlUcF) and to 5% of the total global anthropogenic carbon emissions' 

Factbook for UNFCCC policies on peat carbon emissions    authors:  Alex Kaat, Wetlands International, Hans Joosten, Greifswald University

Why does the Environmental Lobby Pedal deliberate or ignorant missinformation?

The anti peat use loby seems happy to publish information which is simply not accurate which is then copied, or misscopied by garden writers perpetuating the false information. For example Joe Hashman's otherwise useful book Pocket Guide to the Edible Garden states:

'During the latter part of the 20th century 94% of British peat lands were destroyed by the horticulture industry.' His source for this is a Friends of the Earth claim that ‘less than six per cent of Britain's original lowland raised peat bog habitat remains in a near natural condition’. 

The Friends of the Earth statistics refer to lowland peat bogs only. Most peat in the UK is in highland peat bogs. And most of the lowland peat bogs were destroyed by draining them for farmland and forrestry and not for horticulture. Joe Hashman has apologised to me for this error. But it wont stop this sort of information being spread around.

Horticulture seems to be unfairly blamed by the anti-peat lobby: The reality is that horticulture accounts for only about 2% of peat use. Most peat is burned for fuel. World-wide it may be that as little as 0.1% of the world's peat is being used in horticulture. For some reason, UK environmentalists are unfairly pinning everything onto horticulture.

Banning Peat, England's Unilateral Approach. Is it sensible or desirable?


No other European Country has taken the steps that the UK Government are advocating. There is clearly no perceived problem in the rest of Europe using peat for horticulture. I have contacted nursery assocications in Holland, France, Germany, Scandinavia and Italy and all are perfectly free to use peat in horticulture. This means that UK producers are going to be unfairly penalised if Dutch and German growers are allowed to carry on using peat in their container production. U.K. Governments dont appear to be proposing the banning of importation of plants grown in peat, which is the only fair way to proceed if they wont allow UK producers to grow in peat.

So why is that the UK alone has a fully fledged anti-peat lobby which has chosen to use all sorts of rather underhand propaganda to further its aims. As has been explained, few of its arguments stand up to scrutiny. 

Is the Proposed Peat ban legal Under EC law?

I thought I'd find out. I wrote to my local MEP with responsibilty for EC Trade and he contacted the European Commission. I received a reply via Ian Hudghton MEP from Antoni Tajani, President of the European Commission.

In the letter Mr Tajani states:

‘In general, the Commission supports national measures aiming at environmental protection...

However national measures restricting the use of a given product could constitute an obstacle to intra-EU trade. In order to avoid such obstacles, directive 98/34/EC2 establishes a control mechanism by which member states planning to adopt technical regulations are obliged to notify them at the draft stage to the Commission, which informs other member states and stakeholders. This allows the Commission,the other member states and economic operators to analyse the planned legislation and its compatibility with EC law. So far the Commission has not received formal notification of any such proposal from the UK authorities.’

So for the time being, it seems that the UK Government maybe heading in a direction which is in contravention of EC trade legislation.

The Best way Forward for peat use in horticulture

Despite some rather foolish targets for the reduction of peat use in horticulture, only about 4% of UK retail sales are for peat alternatives. Peat-based multi-purpose compost sales have remained pretty static. 

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has changed the classification of peat from a 'fossil fuel' to a 'renewable biomass resource' in recognition that peat can indeed by harvested and cultivated sustainably. 

At Glendoick, we believe that sustainable peat production for horticulture is fully justifiable and the anti-peat lobby are guilty of exaggeration and misinformation. Particularly in propagation, there is no substitute for peat. And many of the alternatives, such as coir, are have very unsound environmental credentials: this is 3rd world organic matter which should be used by local farmers, not shipped expensively round the world. It really is not sound 'green' sense.

Are peat free composts any good?

The dilemma for the gardener is that peat based composts are significantly better than peat free composts for sowing seeds and potting on young plants. Time after time trials reveal this to be true.

Which reported that composts with at least 50% peat were far better than peat free composts in 2010. Which compost trials

Beechgrove Garden trials in 2010 growing potatoes in containers found poor results with peat free composts compared to composts containing at least 50% peat. (Search the factsheets on their website for the results) Beechgrove Garden

The RHS trials published in January 2011 showed the poor results germinating seedlings and potting on young plants most peat alternatives, including loam, wood fibre and coir particularly for plants with very small seeds.

Peat free composts tend to be inconsistent, unstable and often require the addition of extra food and trace elements and many gardeners have complained to me of the poor results with peat free composts. Coir, often used as a replacement for peat is shipped from Sri Lanka which cannot be good for the environment.

Jumping on the anti-peat bandwagon

The RHS, National Trust and other influential organisations, as well as t.v. presenters such as Monty Don should have a little more courage than simply to jump on this bandwagon. Instead they should appraise themselves of the facts and have the courage to portray both sides of the argument. Rather than condemn peat they should explain the facts and defend the sustainable and sensible of peat. At the moment the only reduction in peat seems to be in sales of bags marked 'peat'. If the bag says 'multipurpose compost' or 'ericaceous compost' it sells as well as ever. Such bags usually contain 40-90% peat.

Many well informed gardeners and writers such as Peter Seabrook and the best selling author Dr Hessayon (author of the 'Expert' series) take a pragmatic view. Dr Hessayon writes: 'dont use peat as for overall soil improvement- it is not efficient and garden compost and manure will do a much better job. However moss peat has a role to play in planting and seed composts where there are no substitutes of equal merit' (The Bedside Book of the Garden

From The Daily Telegraph, April 2011 By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent

In the latest survey of the country’s 27 leading gardeners, more than half admitted they still use peat despite fears that the digging up bogs is destroying important wildlife habitat and driving climate change.

The Chelsea award winners Tom Stuart Smith and Mark Gregory were among the 16 successful gardeners who say they use small amounts of peat to create their glorious gardens.

Only 11 gardeners say they have managed to cut out the controversial compost completely. Mostly more modern gardeners like the bloggers Ryan Lewis and David Hamilton. However more established writers like Stephanie Donaldson, the gardening editor of Country Living magazine and the Daily Telegraph’s own Val Bourne also said they have managed to cut it out.

Conservationists campaigning to have peat compost banned in Britain say that the results show the continuing confusion in the gardening world and called for more education about alternative composts.

Most of the peat used in the UK comes from centuries-old peat bogs in Ireland and the Baltic states which are important wildlife habitats for rare birds like dunlins, insects like dragonflies and endangered plants like butterworts.  In the 1990s digging up peat bogs was effectively banned in the UK and the Government set a voluntary target for industry to phase out peat in compost by 2010. 

Mr Titchmarsh, who was part of an anti-peat campaign in 2008, has admitted it is impossible to get rid of it completely. He has said he will carry on using peat until a “perfect substitute” is discovered.

The Royal Horticultural Society is also cautious about coming out against any peat in gardening, instead investing in research to find an alternative such as coir or coconut fibre.

Glendoick director Kenneth Cox is happy to debate the use of peat in any relevent forum, and in any medium. Contact details are on our home page.

Are peat reduction targets of 90% achievable or desireable? 

The Government’s Peat Working Group initiated the search for suitable materials and this was recognised by re-naming the group in 2005 as the Horticultural Growing Media Forum (HGMF), whose focus was on delivering the peat reduction targets. Some parts of the industry have made significant progress, with the three large national retailers all achieving 50% peat replacement in their bagged product ranges. Partial dilution is becoming the norm for previously all-peat products and several manufacturers have now invested in wood fibre production plants and/or green composting facilities. Unfortunately in the UK, even with the HGMF in place, conflicts of interests, technical problems, increasing costs, reluctance and apathy have all contributed to slow progress towards achieving the 90% target for 2010. 

Mires and Peat, Volume 3 (2008), Article 08, ISSN 1819-754X


Experts pour scorn on Defra peat research for failing to reach meaningful conclusion

by Matthew Appleby Horticulture Week 30 July 2010 

Growing-media experts have questioned Defra's latest peat research on the carbon footprint of growing media.

The report, from University of Warwick HRI scientist Dr Rob Lillywhite, dismisses greenhouse gas emissions as a reason for reducing peat use, preferring the existing drivers of non-renewability and potential as a carbon sink. It states: "In terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, the life cycle assessment approach supports the use of UK and Irish peat, and coir as growing media material. "However, if the carbon neutrality of short-term materials and potential sequestration is taken into account, then the opposite is true and compost, timber products and coir are the preferred materials. These opposing conclusions suggest that further policy work is required." It concludes: "The major driver for reduced peat use should remain its 'non-renewability' and potential for long-term carbon storage rather than its emissions of greenhouse gases."

The report highlights difficulties in assessing greenhouse gas emissions of organic materials because of a lack of data and confusion over whether to use weight or volume reporting units. It uses weight, which gives peat a poorer rating. The industry uses volume. Growing Media Association (GMA) manager Tim Briercliffe said: "The GMA was included in the steering group for this project but expressed its concerns about the methodology and assumptions made throughout the process. The project was overambitious and set out to collate published information that unfortunately never really existed. "The report acknowledges that frankly the project was unable to reach meaningful conclusions and the GMA would urge readers to approach it with caution. This work set out to understand important questions that the industry had raised. Unfortunately, we do not believe that this report enlightens the debate." Former GMA chair Jamie Robinson added: "Like so much of the CO2 debate, there are a lot of questions on the methodology used and the conclusions are ambiguous - you can basically choose your outcome. I don't think that it takes the peat reduction debate any further forward." But Vital Earth managing director Steve Harper said: "I think you need to take offsetting into consideration. Ultimately, if peat is undisturbed it is a carbon sink. If dug, it creates a footprint. If you can divert green and food waste from landfill, you reduce its impact on the planet (by not creating methane) and reduce waste and create a truly sustainable product."

A Defra representative said: "The research indicates that alternatives to peat are likely to have similar or lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with their production compared to peat - although the report does not consider specific products on the market, which are usually a blend of different materials. "We are considering the development of a future policy to further reduce the horticultural use of peat. All evidence, including this newly published research, will feed into the development of the policy." - The final report is available from 

DEFRA PUBLICATION Consultation findings June 2011

This includes the following milestones:

  • a progressive phase-out target of 2015 for government and the public sector on direct procurement of peat in new contracts for plants;
  • a voluntary phase-out target of 2020 for amateur gardeners; and
  • a final voluntary phase-out target of 2030 for professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants;
  • we will establish a Task Force bringing together representatives from across the supply chain with a clear remit to advise on how best to overcome the barriers to reducing peat use, exploring all the available measures to achieve this goal;
  • building on the advice of the Task Force, we will review progress towards these targets before the end of this spending period and consider the potential for alternative policy measures if necessary.

The taskforce will be chaired by Dr. Alan Knight OBE and include representatives from retailers, growing media manufacturers, growers and environmental organisations. It will have a clear remit to foster a partnership approach focussing on identifying and addressing supply chain issues, exploring all available measures to deliver our ambition and determining the criteria against which the policy will be reviewed. Peat is cheap, readily available and of consistent quality, and any alternative has to compete with these factors. The taskforce will produce a comprehensive and detailed roadmap to address barriers in relation to both the supply and demand of peat alternatives, with the aim of reforming once and for all a supply chain focussed around peat.

Also published today was the summary of responses to Defra’s recent consultation on this issue, along with two research reports which provide part of the evidence base for today’s announcement:

Summary of consultation responses

Peat and the Environment in Scandinavia 

Swedish peatlands and Swedish peat constitute a natural resource that renews itself through steady and relentless plant growth. The peat industry's extraction of peat, 4-5 million cubic meters per year, is barely a quarter of a year's growth. Between one and two thousandth of the peat-covered ground is made use of for the present. Additionally, thanks to the fact that new drainage has practically stopped in agriculture and forestry operations, it is now highly likely that the total area of peat grounds is also increasing in size. 

Scandinavian Peat Extraction Supervision 
Before a peat extraction operation can be approved in Sweden, the county administration or alternatively the environmental protection agency, perform a careful examination of the site. This is done to evaluate the proposed operation's impact on the area with regards to public benefit as well as the environmental effects. The operations that are finally approved will have been judged suitable and not in conflict with legitimate preservation interests. In addition, extensive rules apply to the activities. 

The Peat Debate

Many Journalists and interested parties have contacted me to say that this is the only balanced account of the peat debate that is available. All the literature and papers have an agenda: envirnmental (anti) or peat producing (pro) and both sides tend to ignore the counter arguments. As usual the truth seems to be more nuanced and complex than either side are willing to conceed. Feel free to quote and link to these pages.


Peat: what is so good about it?

The Peat Debate: how on earth did we get there?

Claims made to justify banning peat. Do they stand up?

Why does the Environmental Lobby Pedal deliberate or ignorant missinformation?

Banning Peat, England's Unilateral Approach. Is it sensible or desirable?

Is the Proposed Peat ban legal Under EC law?

The Best way Forward for peat use in horticulture

Are peat reduction targets of 90% achievable or desireable? 

Experts pour scorn on Defra peat research for failing to reach meaningful conclusion

DEFRA PUBLICATION Consultation findings June 2011

Peat and the Environment in Scandinavia 

Comparing C02 emissions for peat to other growing media per metric tonne

UK peat greenhouse gas emissions (CO2)
Extraction & harvest 36kg
Processing 24kg
Transport 42-123kg
End of life 543kg
Carbon storage -136kg
Total 509-590kg

Total CO2 emissions from other growing media per metric tonne

Green compost 12-93kg
Coir 113-350kg
Bark 82-5kg
Wood fibre 56-145kg
Perlite 736-817kg
Vermiculite 772-853kg       REPORT IN FULL HERE


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