The Peat ‘Debate’ Does Us All Harm

The belief that by using peat compost we can benefit nature keeps us disconnected from the natural world.

By John Walker. Published in Garden News, 14th June 2011.

Of all the harebrained excuses I’ve seen bandied around for the continued use of peat in seed and potting composts, the ‘winner’, for its sheer misguidedness, must be this: we should be glad of landscape-wrecking activities such as peat extraction, because they make the environment ‘better’ by creating nature reserves. A close second is the equally mind-boggling belief that it’s okay to use peat because the plants we grow in it will bring benefits to birds, insects and other garden wildlife, which somehow cancel out the harm done by digging up ‘a little peat’.

Imagine this bizarre thinking in action. We load a trolley with peat compost and, on the way to the checkout, pick up a nest box to give refugee birds, driven from a razed peat bog, a home. Are you wide-eyed yet?

Both of these excuses for using peat, however much they defy reason, logic and science, will be a hard sell to the species whose perfectly liveable ‘nature reserve’ has just been drained and destroyed by peat harvesting machinery. Far away species, whose habitats are being altered forever by changes to our climate, through liberation of even more of the ‘greenhouse gas’ carbon dioxide (which undisturbed peat bogs lock safely away), might also be bemused by our litany of human-centred excuses for clinging to peat use.

Peat extraction on a vast scale at Letham Moss, Falkirk, in Scotland. Some gardeners believe that habitat destruction on this scale is worth its environmental price tag and actually benefits wildlife. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Industrial peat extraction at Letham Moss, Falkirk, in Scotland. Some gardeners believe that habitat destruction on this scale is worth its environmental price tag and actually benefits wildlife. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

There’s a long list of other excuses, used to justify the ecologically indefensible practice of trashing lowland raised peat bogs to keep our gardens looking pretty. But the two I’ve just highlighted are so resilient that they repeatedly survive an avalanche of sound scientific reasons for why garden peat use must end. Even thinking more ethically and selflessly about the environmental consequences of how we garden fails to dent them.

By using such excuses to justify peat use, we harm not just nature itself, but the ‘special relationship’ gardeners supposedly have with it.

Our eyes show us the brutal, physical damage done to peat bogs in gardening’s name. Hopefully, our brains then tell us that this is harmful to the collective health of the natural world and to biodiversity in particular, which includes us. We might even concede that it’s simply wrong to treat nature as if its only purpose is to be relentlessly consumed. But if we choose to ignore the warning signs – habitat loss, eroded biodiversity, a chaotic climate – and carry on using peat, either wilfully, through ignorance, or both, the harm done occurs deep within ourselves.

What increasingly unsettles me is how we can be enthralled by the beauty of a dancing butterfly, or admiring of a busying bee, in the knowledge that the flowers to which they’re drawn have been grown in peat compost. Have we simply fallen for the myths peddled by vested interests that there are no alternatives to using peat – when there clearly are – or is our ‘special relationship’ with nature in dire need of repair, or perhaps even renewal?

With grubby hands on our hearts, do we really believe that by extracting peat to ‘create’ nature reserves, or by growing our plants in peat to boost garden wildlife or feed ourselves, we are actually helping nature?

Of all of the things we do in gardening, continuing to use peat, propped up by hollow excuses, is surely a glaring symptom of how shallow and broken our relationship with nature has actually become. To mend it, we must start gardening much deeper, not just with our hands, but also with our hearts.

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