Let’s talk about peat

Some growers may feel like hiding away in the caves of Fraggle Rock thanks to the impending peat ban. However, this won’t be necessary because organisations such as the Growing Media Taskforce are supporting them through the change. Rachel Anderson reports.

June 20, 2023
4 mins
Rachel Anderson

As the saying goes “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” This is certainly the case when it comes to the trash heap Marjory, who will always be a treasured character of my childhood.

Most of us who grew up in the 1980s will fondly remember sitting down to watch the all-singing, all-dancing television show, Fraggle Rock. It was created by puppeteer Jim Henson of Kermit the Frog fame and centred around several interlinked societies of Muppet creatures, including the fraggles. These were small, human-like, fun-loving creatures who lived in a network of caves in Fraggle Rock. Occasionally, they would venture out of the caves to seek advice from Marjory.

Visibly compiled of apples, orange peels, old leaves and the like, Marjory always imparted good advice to the fraggles, such as: “Always wear a hat.”

Now, whenever I think of growing media, I’m reminded of Marjory in all of her rotting-banana-peel glory. But perhaps this isn’t as mad as it sounds. After all, she was, in fact, a compost pile not a trash pile. And, if we were to transmogrify peat, might it too be captivatingly wise – holding within it some thousands of years of the earth’s history and wisdom?

Unsurprisingly, our plants love growing in wise old peat but, as you know, change is in the air as the government has this spring announced that December 2026 will mark the end of the use of peat in the professional horticulture sector in England (with exemptions for plug plants and mushrooms until 2030).

Fortunately, many growers are prepared for this changed as they have already successfully made the transition to peat-free – or at least reduced their use of it.

Statistics released this spring by the UK’s Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) and members of its specialist group, the Growing Media Association (GMA), revealed that the volume of peat used in horticulture almost halved in one year (2021 to 2022) – with the total volume dropping below one million cubic metres and, for the first time, below 50% of the total growing media used by the professional sector. Most definitely, a Muppet Show round of applause is required for this achievement. However, (for those of us who remember the theme tune to Fraggle Rock*) it’s not yet time for the horticulture sector to start dancing its cares away just yet.

This December 2026 deadline came as a bit of a surprise for some growers who hoped they would have a bit more time to prepare for the change. (In 2018, Defra stated its intention to end peat use in horticultural products by 2030).

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) has understandably voiced some concerns on behalf of the industry. These include the cost and availability of alternatives to peat – and the fact that the 2026 deadline leaves growers with little time to fine-tune their growing regimes using alternatives to peat. This is because each crop may require a different peat-free mix, irrigation regime, and nutrients.

In fact, when I asked the HTA if any particular crops have yet to thrive in peat-free, the HTA responded: “For many species and plant types, we are still learning the answer to this question, which is why UK professional growers need more time to test and refine peat-free mixes and find the right blend for the right plant in the right conditions. What works in one nursery might not work in another, with different conditions, practices, water inputs, and skill levels. We do know ericaceous plants are more difficult to grow in peat-free mixes – and propagating in small cells without using peat as a structural element also has its difficulties.”

While growers may not have Marjory to turn to for advice, they can of course consult with their ICL representative. Moreover, ICL is a member of the Growing Media Association, which – along with the HTA, the NFU [National Farmers’ Union], the RHS [Royal Horticultural Society], and the Garden Centre Association, is part of the Growing Media Taskforce that is making sure the full extent of horticulture is represented to government.

Helpfully, the RHS is also leading a £1million, co-funded, five-year project that is seeing government, growing media manufacturers through the Growing Media Association, and horticultural product supplier Fargro, research sustainable alternatives to peat. Together they will be working with the growers Allensmore, Hills Plants, Johnsons of Whixley, The Farplants Group, and Vitacress.

The findings from this research are going to be shared with the sector – and one of the project’s areas of focus includes developing peat-free solutions for challenging plant groups such as carnivorous and ericaceous species.

Meanwhile, the HTA also emphasises that it has a number of resources available to its members, including:

  • e-learning covering the importance of peatlands
  • the Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media (RSS)
  • various materials guides looking at growing media in more detail
  • the latest statistics in the Growing Media Monitor report.

The trade association also notes that, as well as sharing knowledge between its members, it also listens to their key concerns to ensure that it can feed this back to policy makers as well as facilitating site visits so they can meet with growers and retailers and see the issues first-hand.

It said: “With the HTA coordinating a joined-up approach to interacting with government, aligning policy inputs to policymakers, we are committed to setting the stage for the whole supply chain to play its part in supporting real change, but it needs to be done in a sustainable and realistic way in order to secure a long-term peat-free future without compromising the very industry that underpins half of the government’s Environmental Plan.”

Clearly, the industry is reassuringly working as hard as Fraggle Rock’s conscientious Doozers** to support growers through the transition to peat free. And on that note, I’m off to add some banana peels and coffee grounds to my compost pile. And, not forgetting to take on board Marjory’s advice, I’ll be wearing a hat.