With plastic the latest target for those of us who want to preserve our environment, are we gardeners in fact missing a trick? Why aren’t we talking more about peat? Over the last few years, we have seen a massive upsurge in interest from the general public about how our actions are affecting the environment.
From carbon footprints to plastic waste filling up our oceans, there seems to be no shortage of our negative impact on our planet – nor has the public ever seemed so animated to do something about it, which is an immense cause for optimism. Nonetheless, as a landscape gardener, I do wonder what impact my actions and the actions of my business have on the environment in as many different ways as I can. Hard landscaping is where my attention focuses the most, as this is where we, frankly, do the most damage in trying to rearrange nature.Because of this, I have decided to write a new blog series about the environmental impacts of hard landscaping as we have experienced it in Worcestershire.
Key to my blog posts over the years has been my intent to educate those outside my industry who do not delve so deeply into matters of horticulture and environment. Therefore, rather than start with a post about the use of concrete or plastic pollution, I have decided to aim my opening salvo at something which is less well known by the public at large.Peat. Or the problem with using it in our gardens. Inhabitants in our islands have been using peat for thousands of years. It’s a homegrown resource, from the Somerset Levels (where it has been extracted since Roman times), and, more famously, Scotland (where the composition of the peat has given rise to many flavours of whisky). Dried peat can be used as an energy source via burning, though this is not without its hazards as it can smoulder, undetected, for a long period. Furthermore, the high carbon content of peat means that if it is burned, then that carbon will be released into the atmosphere: an example of this, and one that is not man made, is the Indonesian wildfires of 1997, when peat fires released an estimated 13-40% of all CO2 emissions that year.
But in our gardens, we don’t tend to burn peat. In the UK and in my landscaping of various Worcester gardens, peat is used to augment soils and to act as a soil substitute in some cases, and has been done so since the 1950s, when peat use took off. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily contribute to CO2 emissions, barring extraction and transport costs, (in fact it could be argued to reduce them as the plants that grow from this addition will lock in carbon from the atmosphere, whereas in its natural environment there is not much tree growth), the problem is that it is still environmentally damaging as it comes from a very finite resource.
Peat environments in the UK represent an important carbon sink store, as well as unique habitats. And they are also very hard to replace as they are so slow to grow, taking thousands of years to form deposits of 1 to 2 metres. Extracting the upper peat layer, which is living, exposes the peat below, and can cause carbon release as well as alter the water composition in the surrounding peat as the table is changed by the extraction.
Peat use in the UK is approximately two-thirds domestic gardeners, and the remaining third by industry (which includes golf courses). And this means that action by individual gardeners can have an effect. But what, realistically, can we do?Research now is gearing up to identify alternatives to peat, but the present situation is sightly more complex. There are alternatives to peat, such as bark, bracken, green compost and wood fibre, but whereas peat is suitable for many uses and situations in gardens, the alternatives are more focused on specific requirements – so some would fine for acidic soil species, but not so good for alkaline. This means there is a learning curve we will have to go through if we, as gardeners, are going to adopt them in our daily planting lives.