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Sunday, October 7, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

British soil is battlefield over peat, for bogs' sake

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
The New York Times

DICKLEBURGH, England — For Britain's legion of gardeners, peat has long been as essential to gardening as beer is to the corner pub. So trowels flew after the British government — heeding environmental concerns — announced plans to gradually eliminate peat from all gardening products, setting off an intense battle over how to prioritize two of the country's defining passions: indulging the yard and protecting the planet.

While many gardeners regard the partially decomposed plant matter known as peat as an almost magical elixir, environmentalists say using it is problematic because it is scraped off the tops of centuries-old bogs, which are vital ecosystems that also serve as natural stores of carbon, like rain forests.

Celebrity gardener Bob Flowerdew was shocked by the violent reaction when he said he would defy the government and continue to use peat to nurture finicky plants like azaleas. "The hate mail was quite frightening; in some circles, I've become an outcast," said Flowerdew, a longtime panelist on the BBC's "Gardeners' Question Time" radio program, and a favorite speaker at women's clubs.

The debate between the gardening industry and environmentalists grew so acerbic that the government appointed an emergency peat task force after the phaseout plan was announced last year. That task force delivered its first report this summer.

"What I've done is to try to unblock an impasse, to find a sensible midpoint where everyone agrees," said Alan Knight, the task-force chairman and an expert in sustainability. "We needed a road map of how to get to zero peat."

But some gardeners and gardening companies say they cannot do without peat, a spongy natural concoction of water, air and acidity, for nurturing certain seeds and plants.

"If you love your garden, you really can't just abstain," said Flowerdew, surrounded by bags of peat-free alternatives he has tried.

Behind this uniquely British drama is a serious global environmental issue, one largely ignored in the United States and most of Europe, where bagged soils with a high percentage of peat are widely used in potting and sprinkled willy-nilly on gardens and parks as compost or to condition soil.

Peat use is beginning to decrease in Britain, where horticulture is a billion-dollar business and companies are creating reduced-peat soils in response to the government's call. But greater awareness is needed, experts say.

"People walk over peat lands, but they're not aware of how important they are from a climate-change point of view," said Ian Crosher, a scientist with Natural England, which advises the government on the environment, and supports a ban. "Peat bogs have far greater capacity to store CO2 than rain forests. Peat bogs are England's rain forests."

Natural habitat

Disrupting a peat bog releases some of the emissions it holds.

Bogs are also a precious natural habitat in Britain, favored by hikers and some threatened birds. Many British bogs are seriously degraded because they have been drained to take out gardening material or to make way for development. And because even a healthy bog adds less than half an inch in a century, bogs are not renewable from a practical standpoint.

While gardening companies refer to "harvesting" peat, with the implication that it will return next year, environmental opponents refer to the process as "mining."

"It's a bit like coal," Crosher said.

At current rates of removal, Knight said, Britain could run out of peat in a few decades. He added that horticultural businesses should adjust to new concerns about global warming, as others have.

"There's not a single sector that isn't facing massive changes. Think of Richard Branson, who has to change the fuel in his planes because of carbon emissions," Knight said, referring to the British airline magnate. "There are a lot of people who have far bigger challenges."

In England, peat is obtained partly from domestic bogs but mainly from Ireland, where it is still burned to heat some rural homes, as it has been for centuries. Canada supplies most of the peat sold in the United States.

Gardening companies contend that peat is so abundant globally that they can harvest it sustainably, although they are working to develop alternatives. It is far easier to take peat from bogs than to manufacture compost from other decaying material like timber industry waste, and peat is much lighter and less expensive to ship.

Timetable for ban

The government timetable calls for an end to peat use in British public parks and gardens by 2015, in backyard gardening by 2020 and in commercial plant growing by 2030. The British National Trust has stopped using peat on its lands, as have many gardening experts who support the ban.

Most gardening companies are producing reduced-peat and peat-free alternative soils, although most customers do not ask for them, said Andy Bailey, the horticulture manager at Blooms of Bressingham, a retail gardening center near Dickleburgh.

Brenda Chase, who was buying two orchids at Blooms recently, said she would continue to use peat as long as it was available.

One of Britain's largest home-improvement and gardening chains, B&Q, drew the ire of environmentalists this year for introducing a topsoil containing 37 percent peat, even though it has supported the planned phaseout. The company declined to comment.

Acknowledging that current peat-free products vary widely in quality, the government is developing new industry standards to encourage more gardeners to switch.

Although Flowerdew acknowledged that most hobbyists would do fine without peat, he maintained that it was irreplaceable for cultivating certain hard-to-grow plants and for getting seeds to sprout. Rather than ban peat, he suggested, its trade should be regulated and taxed to make sure it is used judiciously.

He worried that a ban could cause the British horticulture industry to lose out to growers in the Netherlands or Italy who would continue to use peat because it works so well.

And if peat is no longer legal in Britain, he said, "I'll be buying on the black market, going up to a farmer and saying, 'Psst, can you sell me some?' "

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