Peat-free Soil For Your Plants: Good And Bad Points

what is peat?


Peat is found in most of the soils that you can buy in the common trade. Up to 90% peat is in there. But what you should know: With peat you hold a valuable piece of moor in your hands. Yes, peat is nothing more than drained bog soil.

A short biological and geographical digression for those interested: Peatlands are constantly wet landscapes. They are always slightly submerged in water. Therefore, hardly any oxygen reaches the soil. Dead plant parts are not completely decomposed, and instead of humus, peat is formed.

This takes an incredibly long time. In a year, such a peat layer grows about 1 to a maximum of 10 millimeters. The Devil’s Moor near Worpswede in Europe, for example, grew for 8,000 years before it looked like it does today. Huge peatlands still exist today, especially in Russia, Alaska and Canada.

You may already have guessed that peat cutting removes much more than just 1 millimeter per year.

Blaugrüne Schaufel voll Erde neben einem Erdhaufen auf Steinoberfläche

why peat does not belong in the soil of houseplants, but in our bogs.


When peat is extracted, peatlands that are thousands of years old are drained with drainage canals. In most cases, they do not recover from this.

This means that countless animals and plants lose their habitat. These include the sundew, the moor frog, the moor lizard and many butterflies, dragonflies and other insects that specialize in moors. In Europe, 95 percent (!) of their habitat has already been completely destroyed.

Humans also need moors. Peatlands can absorb massive amounts of water (constantly wet, you read it). If they dry out, the danger of flooding increases. Normal soil simply cannot hold these masses of water.

Don’t be blinded when it is said that the moors will be renaturalized. This is what the authorities of some countries demand. But the fact is that it takes 1,000 years to rebuild just one meter of peat. How long will it take for the animals and plants to reestablish themselves? Who knows.

it is also bad for the climate to cut peat

Last but not least, our troublesome old friend, climate change, is calling. Peat soils act like a sponge for harmful climate gases. They store twice as much CO2 as all the world’s forests.

If oxygen gets to the peat when it is drained, a whole lot of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is also released – which is even 300 times more harmful to the climate than CO2.

You don’t think the effects are that serious? Then listen to this: In Europe, destroyed peat soils release about 40 million tons of greenhouse gases each year. That’s the same amount as the entire European aviation industry.

where does the peat that you can buy in our country come from?


In Switzerland, peatlands have been protected since the 1980s. However, the import of peat is permitted, and this is actively used. More than 500,000 cubic meters are imported every year.

In Central Europe, almost all peatlands have already been destroyed. That is why Switzerland imports mainly from the Baltic States (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania).

In the meantime, even the politicians don’t find this so funny anymore and are giving it some thought. They say, however, that a peat ban would not come about until 2030 at the earliest. That’s 10 years in which the federal government is putting all its hopes in voluntary measures.

At the end of 2019, horticulture, the garden trade and soil manufacturers declared that they wanted to reduce peat content to a maximum of 5 percent. Step by step, they want to reduce peat in soils and no longer buy plants grown with peat. In Europe, Switzerland is thus taking the lead when it comes to peat reduction.

What does peat do in the soil anyway? The advantages and disadvantages of peat for our plants


Peat definitely has its function in common potting and plant soil. ☝️ Peat does this well:

Stores water – much, much more water than it weighs itself
Loosens the soil
Makes the soil more permeable – water and nutrients reach the root tips of your plant.

But peat also lowers the pH in the soil, and that can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the plant. Peat is far too acidic for many plants – except for bog plants (ha! Who knew!). Rhododendrons and hydrangeas also find acid soil good.

Houseplants, which often come from tropical areas, are less likely to enjoy it.

Peat is low in nutrients. Many gardeners find this not so bad, because they can adjust the nutrient content of their soil themselves and adapt it to the plant. And peat mixes well with clay, sand, lime and fertilizer.

But peat also has clear disadvantages for plant care:


Yes, peat stores water very well. But once the soil dries out, peat absorbs moisture very poorly. This is called poor “rewettability”.
Peat, as we have seen, allows very little oxygen. This increases the risk of waterlogging in the plant pot over time.
Black peat has poor structural stability. This means it collapses over time and loses volume.
Bottom line: no one needs peat. The benefits to our houseplants are minimal. And certainly not outweighed by the destruction of thousands of square miles of rare peatlands.

Without peat, you’re not only doing something good for the earth, the peatlands, and your conscience, but you can care for your little plants just as well.

Peat-free soil: These alternatives to peat are available, and they’re that good.


The Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) has kindly shown the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) which peat alternatives are good and how good they are. Can they store water? How airy are they? And above all: What does the life cycle assessment say?

Let’s open the door: All, ALL alternatives have a better life cycle assessment than peat. Depending on the combination, greenhouse gases can drop by 62 to 97 percent.

Of course, it would be best to use indigenous, renewable raw materials or waste products that are produced anyway. This is still a problem in Switzerland – the quantities are simply not sufficient. In Europe, however, enough of these raw materials should be available in the medium term.

None of these alternatives can replace peat 100 percent. Mixing wisely is the motto. We give our tips on how to do this below.

Here are our favorites for now.

These are the best peat alternatives:

COCONUT FIBERS OR COCONUT SOIL.


from the dried bark of coconut palms,
from pieces of coconut shells, which are soaked in water for several weeks and then shredded
as waste from the production of mats, ropes and carpets, or even coconut oil.
The pressed blocks, tablets or bricks can be soaked in water at home and you have wonderful houseplant soil. The long-lasting, super-light fibers swell to just about eight times their volume. How much water you need is written on the package.

Coconut fibers have a whole lot of important benefits. They…

  • loosen the soil
  • decompose slowly and provide a stable structure
  • allow enough air to the roots (meaning: less risk of waterlogging and root rot)
  • are permeable – if you water too much, the remaining water simply runs off
  • have a less acidic pH value than peat
  • retain moisture (and nutrients) well and release it evenly to the plantlet
  • can be easily rewetted
  • are sterile – pests, fungi and mold spores do not stand a chance
  • Plants generally like coco very much.

Coconut fibers are rather low in nutrients, so they need to be fertilized more than peat soil. This can be done with pellets or liquid fertilizer. Because coconut fiber is sterile and low in nutrients, it makes a great growing medium for your cuttings (baby plants).

Coconut fibers dry out faster on top than further down. Therefore, be careful not to water too much, but first reach deep into the pot with your finger test.

The coconut palm is grown sustainably in many places, and coco soil is made from the waste products that are produced anyway. Still, keep a close eye when buying. There are labels and certifications that attest to fair and sustainable cultivation.

WOOD FIBERS


Waste wood is defibered under high heat, killing pests. The result is wood fibers: As a peat substitute, they ensure a fine-crumbled and loose structure of the planting soil and good aeration. And when it comes to environmental impact, they come out on top. No other peat substitute can keep up – and peat anyway.

But: wood fibers have hardly any nutrients, so they need to be fertilized more often (especially with nitrogen), and they store water very poorly. So you have to water more often.

If you are a generous waterer anyway (otherwise: this way), wood fibers might not be so bad for your plants. They can be rewetted well and excess water can drain away – waterlogging doesn’t stand a chance.

Wood fibers collapse a bit over time, so you may want to top them up a bit.

COMPOST


You better take your compost outside – thanks, says the nose. But there are composts that don’t smell funny and have many advantages.

Compost has a lot of all the important nutrients, especially phosphate and potassium. The nutrient density in compost even wards off pathogens and pests, they say. Its structure is good, but because compost continues to decompose over time, it will collapse a bit. Then you may have to add some soil and repot again.

Compost also has a good rewettability, so it can dry out completely and then soak up water again well and evenly without waterlogging.

However, compost has a bad reputation: depending on its production and composition, it is said to be contaminated with heavy metals or other undesirable substances. Be sure to buy certified quality compost. In professional composting plants, it is tested for pollutants and the experts also check whether it contains all the important nutrients for your plants.

“Without peat, you’re not only doing something good for the earth, the bogs and your conscience, but also for your plants.”

Janko Jakelj, plant expert

BARK HUMUS (BARK COMPOST).


Humus is made from small pieces of coniferous bark (usually from spruce trees) composted at high temperatures. This is how microorganisms and pests die. We have enough forests and especially conifers in Central Europe. The bark that is used is produced as a by-product in sawmills. This raw material is therefore sustainable.

Bark compost absorbs water and nutrients well and releases them slowly to the plant – and evenly, even if you water and fertilize irregularly. Humus has a good structure and a stable pH value. However, it also dries out faster at the surface than at the roots.

Basically, though, bark humus is one of the best peat alternatives out there. Many peat-free soils therefore consist of about half humus.

LAND SOIL


Landing soil is created in sugar production. The name is not very fanciful: it is really just soil from the land. Earth residues arrive at the sugar factory with the sugar beets and are then washed. Under high temperatures, the soil is dried.

Landerde cannot compete with the properties of peat, but it is suitable as an additive for peat-free soils. Thus, Landerde “enlivens” the substrate with beneficial microorganisms and, thanks to the clay it contains, provides stability and good rewettability.

PEAT MOSS


Peat moss is a super alternative because it has almost the same properties as peat.

Peat moss is grown on high moorland areas that have already fallen victim to peat cutting. You re-wet these areas and plant peat moss, which grows rapidly.

So (almost) all is well: it is a relatively fast-growing raw material, the peatlands are preserved and less CO2 is released. In the first trials of 2016, plants thrive quite wonderfully in soils that contain about 80% peat moss – a one-to-one substitute for peat, in other words!

The big disadvantage: peat moss is still far too expensive, because it would have to be cultivated in huge quantities. And unfortunately, there is no sign that this will be economically viable in the foreseeable future.

We would not really recommend these peat alternatives:

XYLIT


Let’s keep it short – xylitol and peat share many advantages, but also the disadvantages. Xylitol is a precursor to lignite and is a byproduct of coal mining.

It is loose, acidic and structurally stable, and like peat, it mixes well with lime and fertilizer to generate the perfect mix for each plant.

However, xylitol stores very little water. Like peat, xylitol is a fossil organic substance and harmful to the climate.

CAN ORGANIC SOIL DO WITHOUT PEAT?


Unfortunately, you can’t bet on it. Sometimes even organic soil contains up to 90 percent (!) peat.

Attention marketing fraud: “Peat-reduced” or “peat-farm” may call itself anything, by the way, that contains up to 80% peat. (Of course, 80% is less than 90%…).

Only “peat-free” is peat-free.

peat-free soil: how we replace peat.


Soil without peat is just as good as soil with peat. You can’t find it everywhere yet, but you can’t fault it in terms of quality.

It’s the combination that counts.


Perlite


Perlite is inflated volcanic rock that improves the water and oxygen balance in the soil. You recognize it as white, about 3mm large balls that can be easily crushed. Perlite is optimal for healthy root growth.


Crushed Leca


Leca is low-calcium, ground clay (expanded clay) heated to over 1000 degrees. By crushing it, you increase the pore volume and thus its ability to absorb water. Leca also ensures that the soil does not collapse, so its structure remains stable.
Depending on the mixing ratio