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Alternatives to peat compost

In this article, we highlight the problems with peat, look at whether coir is a sustainable or ethical alternative to peat for gardening use, and assess other peat-free compost options. 
 

What are the problems with peat compost?

Peat compost has significant climate impacts 

Peat is formed from plant matter, which has partially broken down in watery bogs and other water-logged conditions. Peat compost is made by ‘mining’ these bogs and other peatlands.

Peatlands are incredible carbon sinks – containing twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. They have the potential to capture more carbon than all vegetation in the world and store it for thousands of years.

Usually, when plants break down they release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. But with peat, the watery ecosystem of the bog prevents the plants from fully breaking down, thereby trapping the carbon. This means it is stored in an underwater layer, rather than being released as emissions into the atmosphere.

Over decades, peat bogs have been dug up to provide a fuel for burning and for gardeners to add to their compost. When the peat is removed, it releases carbon dioxide. Lots of peatlands have also been burned or converted for agriculture.

Each year, emissions from drained peatlands across the world come to 1.9 gigatonnes of CO2e – or 5% of all human-made emissions globally.

Biodiversity impacts of peat compost

Peatlands are also vital homes to unique plants and animals, like mosses, insects and peatland birds. When peatland is destroyed, these ecosystems break down and we lose species leading to a loss of biodiversity.

Our peat landscapes are irreplaceable, forming over thousands of years. In the UK, peat has been accumulating since the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.

The UK is one of the world’s major peatland countries, but around 80% of peatland area is damaged across the country. 

Is peat compost banned in the UK?

In the UK, all peat products will be banned from 2030.

The English government has also said it will ban bags of peat compost for use in gardens and allotments from the end of 2024. But no legislation has yet been introduced to enforce this, according to the Wildlife Trust, and the ban does not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Bagged peat compost accounts for around 70% of all peat sold in the UK, according to the government department Defra.

Are there alternatives to peat compost?

Peat was previously used for many different gardening purposes: to enhance garden soil, as part of a direct growing medium (for example in a potting mix), or as a mulch (placed around the top of plants to decompose into soil over time).

Lots of gardeners are now looking for alternatives to peat compost – and luckily recent trials have shown that some options can be just as effective as peat, such as composted wood chips.

Below, we list some alternative ingredients for your garden or indoor plants and explain how they can be used. This handy table will help you find the best option, depending on how you would have used peat.

There is more information on material below the table.

Summary of different types of composts to buy or make, and what they can be used for
  Buy or make at home? Soil improver? For adding to home compost? For pots? Mulch?
Bagged compost Buy Yes Yes Yes  
Bokashi compost Make Yes Yes Yes  
Coir pith Buy Yes - for aeration and water retention, not for adding nutrients   Yes - mixed with garden soil Yes

Compost (home/ community)

Make (or buy local) Yes   Yes - mixed with garden soil  
Compost tea Make  Yes      
Green manures e.g. alfalfa Buy OR Make Yes Yes   Yes
Leafmould Make Yes Yes Yes - mixed with garden soil and compost Yes
Manure (animal) Buy OR Make Yes - but best after composting or by digging through soil between growing seasons Yes   In some circumstances
Wood fibres and wood bark Buy OR Make Yes - but best after composting or by digging through soil between growing seasons Yes   Yes
Wormaries Buy OR Make Yes   Yes  

Consider experimenting with different combinations to see what works best for your plants. The results will be different with different plants. 

But what is alfalfa, or bokashi, or compost tea? Expand each of the sections below to read more about the alternatives to peat. 

All about the alternatives to peat

Bags of compost sold in garden centres usually contain a mix of various materials in the table above.

You can find bagged compost for every type of use: potting mixes, soil enhancers, seed composts and even Gro Bags that you can plant straight into.

Each compost really does what it says on the tin: if you’re repotting house plants, choose a potting mix, but if you’re sowing new seeds, go for a seed compost. It does make a difference, as each one will have been tweaked to suit a plant's requirements at that stage.

Some plants will also have their own requirements, for example, they may be acidity loving meaning that you might want to choose an acidic soil mix.

You may want to look for a compost mix that is marked as ‘organic’. Unless it says 'peat free' it may contain peat. 

Compost mixes that are not marked as ‘organic’ are likely to contain chemical fertilisers. Almost all chemical fertilisers are made from fossil fuels. Natural gas is transformed under high pressure and heat to form and combine with other compounds. All fertilisers have high emissions when used in excess. But emissions from nitrogen fertiliser, the most common chemical option, exceed those of commercial aviation – contributing around 2% of total global emissions each year.

Can be used for: improving garden soil, potting mix, seed compost. 

Available: from garden centres. 

Bokashi is a very clever Japanese form of composting that essentially pickles your waste food. It allows you to compost all kitchen leftovers – including smelly bits like meat, sour milk or even fish skin and bones that would attract rats in a normal compost set up.

Bokashi composting doesn’t require much space: you can actually do it inside (although there may be a bit of a pickling smell) if you only have a small garden. It is also much faster than traditional composting.

You will need to buy a couple things to start, likely to cost around £50 in total: a bokashi bin and a special kind of bran that is inoculated with helpful bacteria. Consider buying two bokashi bins if you can afford it: this way you can rotate them, as a replacement for your usual kitchen caddy, with one filling up while the other is busy fermenting.

To start the process pack the bin with kitchen waste, sprinkle over the bran, and once it is full, set it aside to ferment for two to three weeks. The mixture will produce liquid that you can pour off every couple of days with a handy faucet on the bin. The liquid is perfect for fertilising houseplants, as it’s full of nutrients.

After a couple of weeks, open the bin: the waste will look similar but has now been pickled. At this point, you can either add it to a traditional compost heap, or just bury it in your garden. Wait another few weeks while it fully breaks down until you plant into it (it’s very acidic after the first fermentation).

Planet Natural has a good guide to bokashi composting.

If you don’t have a garden at all, or it doesn’t have soil in it, you can actually use bokashi composting alongside a wormery to produce your own soil. There is a nice description of the process in the Guardian.

Can be used for: improving garden soil, or a potting mix when combined with garden soil, add during home composting.  

Available: to make at home (bokashi bran available online).

Coir pith is made from the fibrous material in between the inner nut and outer green shell of a coconut. It refers to the short fibres and dust-like material that is left once longer fibres have been used for things like mats and brushes.

Coir can come in many forms, as a loose medium, compressed into blocks that need rehydrating and breaking apart before use, or as mats or linings for pots, for example.

The benefits of using coir include good aeration and water retention. It has a near-neutral pH, so is well-suited to plants that need this. However, it is low in nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, so may need to be mixed with other materials for the ideal peat replacement.

As we explore futher on in this article though, there are also ethical issues with the use of coir, which you may want to consider before buying.

Can be used for: improving garden soil, mulching, mixing with garden soil as a potting mix. 

Available: from garden centres.  

Home composting

Making your own compost from food and garden waste can be a great way to improve your soils. Home and community composting also helps you tackle food waste. Most food items in your kitchen can be home composted.

If you have space in your own garden or allotment, you just need a compost bin or some pallets to build your own. Fill the bins with things like hedge trimmings, leaves, vegetable peel and coffee grounds, and turn the contents periodically.

You’ll want to use around 3 parts brown waste (generally dry material like bark, wood cutting, plain cardboard etc.) to one part green waste (wetter materials like food cuttings, grass trimming etc). Add these in alternating layers, ending with a brown waste layer to trap bad smells.

Within six weeks to four months (depending on how big the cuttings you put in are and the ambient temperature), you’ll have brown crumbly compost to use for your plants.

For even quicker composting, or to make sure that your compost does not include many weeds, consider ‘hot composting’. The method is largely the same, you just need to have a different makeup of brown to green materials. The Spruce has a beginners guide to hot composting.

Make sure to proof your compost bins against rats. You can do this by ensuring that your bins have solid sides (i.e. if you’re composting kitchen waste, which is more appealing to pests, don’t use wood with slats). Make sure the bin is squared properly, so the lid fits well, and don’t compost cooked food, dairy or meat. Grow Veg has a handy guide on keeping rats out.

Garden Organic runs a ‘Master Composter’ scheme – a network of trained volunteers who provide advice on composting in the community and help set up community compost schemes. The Garden Organic website has advice and more information on how to become a Master Composter. 

Can be used for: improving garden soil, or as a potting mix when combined with garden soil at a 30% to 70% ratio (according to RHS guide). 

Available: to make at home.

RHS has a detailed guide to home composting. 

Carry On Composting is also a great online resource and forum for all sorts of compost related questions.

Community composting

Community composting is a great option if you have less space, want to learn how to compost, or just want to connect with others gardening locally. Community compost projects are shared compost bins in places like parks and community gardens that are run by local groups.

Social Farms & Gardens runs a network and Facebook page for those looking to share composting.

Some civil society groups are facilitating community composting locally too, such as Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, which supports dozens of community compost bins, used by over 1000 households. 

Both groups run training for those looking to set up a scheme.

Can be used for: improving garden soil, or as a potting mix when combined with garden soil at a 30% to 70% ratio (according to RHS guide).

Available: to get involved in, in your community.  

Compost teas offer a homemade option for fertilising your plants. They are essentially liquid additives for your soil, made by fermenting ingredients in water, which provide nutrients and microorganisms that support growth.

Compost teas can be made by seeping compost or nutrient rich plants like nettles or comfrey in water for a number of weeks while they ferment, and bubbling air through the liquid. Once matured, the tea can be diluted with water and sprayed around the base of a plant or on its leaves.

While compost teas might be a useful additive for a plant, there is limited evidence that they provide greater benefit than adding compost directly.

Search online to find lots of recipes for compost teas. Carry On Compost has an overview of compost teas, and Gardening Know How has a good guide to nettle tea.

Can be used for: improving garden soil. 

Available: to make at home. 

Green manures are plants that are grown to cover soils and suppress weeds in between the main growing seasons. If dug into soil while still green, they add valuable nutrients and improve the soil structure.

Generally, green manures are sown in late summer or early autumn, and dug into the ground in spring. However, they can also be sown in any bare ground between plants throughout the year.

RHS has a useful list of green manures on its website. Options include alfalfa (see below), buckwheat and mustard.

Alfalfa is one example of a green manure you can grow, or which can be brought from the garden centre to add to your soil.

Alfalfa is a perennial (continuously growing) legume that is often made into silage or hay on farms, and is an excellent source of nutrients for plants. It contains a naturally occurring growth stimulant called triacontanol, which speeds up root growth.

You can grow alfalfa yourself. It is an excellent ‘cover crop’ – a plant sown between growing seasons, in order to prevent weeds, replenish the soil and break up the soil structure.

Alternatively, you could buy it as hay, a meal or in pellet form from a garden centre. Hay makes a great mulch, while meal or pellets can be added to soil directly to stimulate growth, or to a compost heap to speed up the process. Just don’t add too much directly: it heats up the soil, so can overcook your plants.

Epic Gardening has a good guide to alfalfa meal and cover cropping..

Can be used for: improving garden soil, mulching, adding during home composting. 

Available: from garden centres or to grow at home. 

Leafmould is easily made at home from fallen leaves in the autumn. Unfortunately, though it takes some time to mature, it requires planning ahead.

Rake leaves together from your garden or a quiet side street (where they’re less likely to be polluted). You can add these to a bin bag pierced with holes, or alternatively to a container made from chicken wire. Some leaves will need to be shredded before adding.

Over the course of two or more years, the leaves will break down forming a nutritious brown mixture. Once leafmould is fully decomposed, it makes a great compost for sowing new seeds, or mixed with sand, compost and garden soil as a potting mix.

If you want to use it before the two year mark, before it’s completely decomposed, use it as a mulch, dig it in as a soil improver or add it to your compost bin.

Can be used for: improving garden soil, potting mix, mulching, adding during home composting. 

Available: to make at home. 

Animal manure contains all sorts of nutrients. Used well, it can be excellent for improving your soils and can often be bought from local farms and garden centres.

Manure from dog and cats should generally not be added due to the harmful bacteria they contain. Human manure should only be used with care, for example, after fully decomposing in a compost toilet or through hot composting.

Manure from cows, chickens, horses, sheep, pigs and goats can all be used in gardens. If this manure is applied directly to plants, it can burn them and may contain harmful microbes. Some gardeners therefore dig manure into the ground in autumn, if they are not growing over the winter, for use in the spring.

More often, though, gardeners leave manure to rot for around a year before applying. Many people also add it to an existing compost heap, in layers with other materials, and leave it to decompose. Composted manure can have a lower carbon footprint than that added directly to the garden. 

People who are growing to vegan principles will give this one a miss. Find out more from the Vegan Organic Network.

Carry On Composting has a good page on using manure.  

Can be used for: adding during home composting. 

Available: from farms or garden centres.

Wood products like bark and sawdust have long been used in gardening. They are inexpensive, help aeration, and - used correctly - can help suppress weeds and retain moisture. They can also be used to create superb compost as an effective replacement for peat.

You can often buy wood chips or sawdust as a waste product from local tree surgeons or the council. Just make sure they have not been treated with chemicals. If you have fallen wood from your own trees, or similar, you can rent a chipper to make them at home.

If wood chips are dug directly into the soil, they can actually use up nitrogen in the first stages of decomposition. Luckily, there are a few ways to ensure this issue does not harm your plants.

Some gardeners only use wood chips as a mulch on well established plants. Others use wood products as a mulch on top of a decent layer of compost and for seeds that like to be planted far down. The top layer of soil or compost – where it meets the mulch –  may initially be nitrogen deficient, but this will matter less to seeds that are planted below this layer.

Recent trials have also shown that wood chip compost can be a very effective alternative to peat compost if allowed to decompose before use. This article outlines a great method used by Tollhurst Organic to produce woodchip compost for growing on their organic farm.

A special kind of composting called the Johnson-Su bioreactor can also turn wood chips into a brilliant additive for your soil, teeming with microorganisms that improve plant growth. Instructions on how to use this method are available on the Regeneration International website.

Can be used for: mulching, home composting. 

Available: from garden centres or to make at home.

As the name suggests, worm composting – also known as vermiculture – involves using worms to create a nutrient-dense feed for your soil.

Red worms (sometimes called brandling, manure, or tiger worms) eat kitchen waste or other organic matter and excrete what are known as ‘worm castings’. These castings can be added to your garden soil, used as part of a potting mix, or scattered around the top of garden plants to fertilise them.

Gardens centres now often sell castings. But you may want to consider having a wormery at home, which you can buy or make with some clever use of buckets. All you need to do once your wormery is set up, is feed it regularly with things like kitchen scraps. This RHS guide is excellent, and explains what kinds of food the worms like best.

Another benefit of having a wormery at home is that it’ll produce ‘worm tea’ – a by-product of the process, which is an excellent liquid fertiliser.

Can be used for: improving garden soil, adding to a potting mix. 

Available: to make at home, or buy from a garden centre. 

Person's hands holding soil compost with worms

How do I know what kind of compost to use for my plants?

The first step to choosing the right compost is thinking about the kind of gardening you plan to do: are you planting in a garden, repotting houseplants or wanting to fertilise existing plants, for example?

Lots of the above materials can be used for any of these purposes, but will need to be tweaked depending on your aim. For example, homemade compost will need to be mixed with garden soil for a potting mix, rather than used directly. Once you’ve worked out what type of compost you need, search online to find a recipe: there are lots of websites that will tell you the correct ratios to use.

All plants will have slightly different preferences when it comes to compost, so if you want the best results, it’s worth reading up on what they like and adjusting accordingly. This might mean changing your soil mix, choosing your spot in the garden carefully or changing the way you pot your plants.

For example, some veg like squash and cabbages are ‘heavy feeders’, meaning they like lots of nutrients in their soil – so make sure to add a decent amount of compost before growing. If you’re potting a plant that likes dry conditions, you might want to add more stones, pebbles or broken pot at the bottom of your container to improve drainage.

If this feels overwhelming, go for plants that are fairly hardy and thrive in lots of conditions. For outdoor plants, good examples include ornamental grasses, juniper, lavender and herbs like sage, thyme and rosemary. For indoor plants, spider plants, devil’s ivy and rubber plants all work well.

Getting the right compost is often a process of trial and error. Many gardeners keep a ‘diary’ to record what kinds of compost they have used in different areas of the garden or pots, and with different plants. Over time, this can help you build up a picture of how different plants are reacting to your mix.

How can you tell if bagged compost is peat-free?

If you’re buying bagged compost, make sure it actually says ‘peat-free’. 

'Organic’ or ‘sustainable’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t contain peat.

If you’re looking for the most ethical peat-free alternative, your best bet is to create your own solutions at home. For example, making your own compost reduces food waste, while compost teas can be made from foraged plants like nettles. 

Is coir sustainable?

Questions have long been raised about the sustainability of coir pith. Little information exists on its environmental and social impacts, but some studies have indicated significant risks in producing countries.

Coir pith is largely produced in India and Sri Lanka, through a mixture of formal and informal processing sites.

Compared to peat, coir pith has a low carbon footprint. It is a waste product from coconut and coir fibre processing. Although it is shipped long distances, it can be compacted into space efficient blocks and taken by slow haulage vessels that generally have lower emissions.

However, processing of coir pith requires significant amounts of water, which is used to wash off salts. In India, much coir is processed in water stressed states like Tamil Nadu. Wastewater from this process – containing high levels of salts, chemicals, and other contaminants – can runoff into surface water, groundwater and soils.

In 2019, villagers in Tamil Nadu alleged that water had become so polluted, they could not even use it for farming or cattle. They also linked lung infections and allergies to pollution from the industry. Since then, the local authorities have taken some steps to tackle pollution.

Coir processing also has major risks for workers. Studies have found that coir workers are considerably more likely to develop respiratory conditions including asthma and lung disease.

Peat-free campaigning

With the government poised to ban peat in the UK, it’s a great time to join a campaign and apply pressure for change.

Wildlife Trust is running a Peat Free campaign, with social media graphics to share online. 

You can also support the wider transition away from peat by joining a community composting initiative. As we mention above, Social Farms & Gardens runs a network and Facebook page for those looking to share composting.

If you want to teach those in your community how to compost, consider becoming a Master Composter. Garden Organic runs a scheme of trained volunteers who provide advice on composting in the community and help set up community compost schemes. The Garden Organic website includes information on how to become a Master Composter.