Peat Free Compost Complaints. Dry, Low Nutrition, Inconsistent, Mouldy, Full Of Rubbish? Here’s How To Easily Improve Peat Free Compost.

Peat Free Compost gets a lot of complaints. And I have to say a lot of it isn’t good quality. Some of it is simply appalling quality, full of plastic, lumps of wood and even stones. So how can we improve it?

Not everyone is against peat free. Consumer champions, “Which,” say their trials show that many peat-free composts are now as good, or better, than peat-based products.  But still people complain about it. So where does the problem lie and can it be overcome? That’s the focus of this article.

And please note, I’m not condoning the rubbish that is sometimes sold as compost. There should be a standard that means it’s not full of rubbish. But I hope that, if what you buy is poor quality, this article will help.

Who Makes Peat Free Compost?

The peat free compost on sale in garden centres and other retailers comes form a range of sources. But most of it contains food or green waste that has been composted in council and other facilities before being sold in bulk for bagging by commercial companies who sell it on to retailers.

A smaller proportion is manufactured by the companies that used to sell us peat. In some of these cases it doesn’t contain green or food waste but is made from other organic materials. For example, composted forestry waste such as bark. Another ingredient is coir (coprah) which will have been processed on the other side of the world: soaked in buffering chemicals, dried and then shipped to Europe, for adding to peat free compost. Though its a recycled natural product and often sold as being natural and from sustainable sources, it’s hardly “green”. It’s carbon footprint can be very high.

In the main this article deals with composts that dont contain coir or bark

Overcoming Peat Free Compost Problems

Dry Composts

One of the biggest complaints about peat free compost is that it dries out very fast compared with peat. There’s a reason for this.  Peat is a natural product, but prior to bagging was always processed.  First it was screened to take out any lumps and woody remains, large bog oaks are often found in peat deposits. Then wetting agents and a small amount of fertiliser was often added. The fertiliser level depended on the purpose of the peat and the wetting agent was to ensure the peat didn’t dry out easily, or at least would accept any water given to it should it get dry. Other ingredients such as sand, coir or bark were sometimes added. So peat based composts were far from natural and could contain “chemicals” in many cases. They were rarely pure peat.

Todays peat free composts are rarely processed as thoroughly. They are not always screened, so can contain wood and plastics. And it is rare for wetting agents to be added. So is it no wonder that people complain about the rubbish in them or their inability to retain water?

My solution is to add a wetting agent to each mix. Just a few drops of washing up liquid watered into each bag is enough. Give it a good mix to ensure even distribution. How much to add depends on the washing up liquid you favour and the compost you are using. I can’t be more precise and you need to experiment.

Low Nutrition Peat Free Composts

As explained above peat free composts rarely have fertilisers added. So the nutrition levels are low. In time, they release nutrients, but it can be very slow and often this isn’t good for young plants.
My solution is to add a small amount of organic fertiliser to each bag, and mix it throughly.  This can make a huge difference to young plants. It’s stil slow release, but much better.

 Inconsistent Peat Free Compost

Most peat free compost is made from composted kitchen and garden waste that comes from council collections. It can be very variable depending on the time of year. In autumn it contains a lot of dead leaves. At other times it can contain shrub prunings and be quite woody. Sometimes it can contain a lot of grass mowings. And in winter it’s largely food waste with less garden waste. Is it no wonder it is variable and inconsistent in quality? And bear in mind that some people though plastics and other republish in their green waste bins. I’ve even seen reports of old paint tins. The product is never going to be consistent unless we’ll processed.

My recommendation is to screen peat free compost before using it. A piece of weld mesh over a barrow or barrel can take out a lot of the bigger rubbish ans give a more consistent product.

Mouldy Peat Free Compost

If compost is left very wet in a sealed bag for too long it will go mouldy. It’s inevitable as we are dealing with an organic material that will continue to decompose if the conditions dictate it.
My solution is simple. Tip the compost out of the bag, onto a large plastic sheet and let it dry out a bit. The mould is unlikely to hurt most plants once it’s dried out a bit. It’s only mouldy because it is too wet and virtually anaerobic in a sealed bag,

Peat Free Compost Thoughts

Though frequently maligned by some gardeners others are more than happy with using peat free. Growers such as Beth Chatto grow and sell plants grown in peat free compost and Which magazine have written some excellent articles on peat alternatives and they advocate it’s use. The National Trust and several other major gardening organisations are now peat free. So why cant we all learn to go peat free?

More Peat Free Thoughts 

I’m against the use of peat but acknowledge that peat free composts can be problematic.  I’m usually able to understand how to deal with them because I’ve had many years of commercial experience. But I know it’s not as easy for amateurs.

So here is my best advice. I like to mix peat free compost, or preferably manure with screened sterilised top soil. I usually use a 50:50 mix. The soil makes for a more open mix and encourages air spaces in the mix.
Soil can be sterilised in a microwave. Put moist soil in the microwave and take it to 70-80C throughout.
I add organic fertiliser, the quantity depending on the final use of the compost. I add more for tomatoes or cucumbers and less for seedlings.

The image below shows various seedlings growing in my home made compost mix of soil and well rotted manure. The sizes vary because they are different species but all are thriving in peat free compost.

Seedlings growing in homemade peat free compost
Seedlings growing in homemade peat free compost

Reasons to Be Peat Free

  • Peat-free composts are readily available and offer enhanced environmental sustainability.
  • Choosing peat-free options contributes to the protection of peat bog habitats and the mitigation of climate change.
  • It’s important to be aware that composts labeled as “environmentally friendly” or “organic” may still contain peat. Unless they specifically say peat free, assume they aren’t.
  • In 2020 the lockdown gardening boom saw 2.3 million cubic metres (81 million cubic feet) of peat being sold.
  • In the UK peat accounts for 30% of all growing media sold. And most of it is imported from Ireland and Eastern Europe as most of our peat resources have now been used up.

Theres more on composts via this link.

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Tag: How To Improve Peat Free Compost

17 thoughts on “How To Improve Peat Free Compost

  1. June Bennett’s says:

    Recently purchased a well known brand of peat free , to repot pelargoiums and begonias , mixed with some JI no 2 and grit , all have died rotting from the base with no root growth , as others would not expect to have to add anything to bought compost at this time ; do manufactures use additives to help rot down quicker , which if not fully processed could effect plants ?

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      I’m not aware of any additives, they should be unnecessary as organic matter rots very easily.

      A lot will depend on what sort of peat free product you bought. Not all are composts suitable for growing specific plants.

  2. Stephen Moore says:

    Recipe given to me by a retired professional organic gardener for ‘general purpose potting compost). I have offered alternative ingredients (performance unproven)
    – Two parts topsoil (unsterilised for most purposes). I would think sterilisation is needed if weed seedlings are going to be a problem or soil known to be diseased.
    – Two parts garden compost (or mix of garden and municipal compost/soil improver). I think you could use bought peat free if needed.
    – One part well rotted cow manure. I think you could probably use worm bin compost.
    – A sprinkle of bone meal. I think this is to ensure good root growth and steady top growth.
    – A sprinkle of lime for brassicas.
    – Sprinkle of crushed volcanic grit if using poor soil. Probably not necessary for heavier soils
    – Mycorrhizal fungi in contact with transplant roots.
    – Mix by pouring repeatedly between buckets

    It seemed work well from what I could see. After a while you may need to liquid feed, but veg plants are likely to get to planted out without this necessity. Buy a sieve and a couple of buckets, and give it a try…

  3. Adam says:

    Curious if you’ve experimented with adding clay? I’m sure you are well aware clay soil is notorious for being hard to improve because the small particles pack between everything else in the mix and dominate the character of the soil even if present in only small proportions, but here could that mean better moisture and nutrient retention for a comparatively small volume needing to go in the microwave? Clay additives such as bentonite could even be bought and mixed straight into the compost, eliminating the need for DIY sterilisation..? I’m now wondering if my habit of adding turves from edging etc to the compost heap in an area with quite clay soil might be the reason my homemade compost always turns out better than the bagged stuff…. I’m also wondering how to get away with microwaving soil in the kitchen I share with my germophobe girlfriend!

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      I’ve never tried adding clay. It’s worth experimenting with. It would obviously need to be weed free.

  4. Chris Findlay says:

    Why is life in general so complicated????
    Why do we have to pay large sums of money for compulsory peat free compost and then have the bother of microwaving it because it is sub standard???
    Its again another example of rip off Britain.
    I’m going back to composting my own at least I’ll know whats in it!

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      No one has to microwave sub standard compost. No one had to buy it or use it. That’s what the post says. I choose to microwave loam to mix with well rotted farm yard manure.

      And I’m all in favour of peat being banned. It’s use release carbon and is part of what is killing the planet.

  5. David Greatbatch says:

    I agree also my local nursery just shrugged their shoulders when I complained about having to discard 1/3 of the stuff they’re selling but the stuff is all from the big boys who in my mind are absolutely stealing from us by producing such rubbish, my father used to get better than this from a council recycling depot 5 tonnes at a time 15 years ago. All I want to do is plant in pots some carrots but it’s nearly impossible without spending a huge amount on different types of products before knowing if they’re going to be any good. Grrrr

  6. Fiona says:

    How can you sterilise a sufficient amount of soil for a 50/50 mix in a microwave? Desperate to know if this is going to be a way forward for me. I have gardened seriously for decades and have always sworn by peat. Also, I would venture that nothing breaks down and conditions a heavy clay soil better than peat….and I have used this method for decades in many different gardens. As for peat free composts …..they are an utter disgrace. They still charge high enough prices for a product that most of the time has not been rotted down enough and should never have been put out for sale. Ok advising to add this to it and that to it to make it fit enough to do the job but they should be already fit for purpose at point of sale. Additionally, they do not hold water well enough to take up liquid feed and I am a phostrogen lover. Yes growing your own compost would ideally be the way forward but how many gardens have space enough for this to be done and in sufficient quantities. The compost industry has had years to sort this out and get it right for the fardening public.

  7. Bernard Griffiths says:

    I have been gardening for 50 years or more but peat free composts’ inconsistent quality is unacceptable. Seedlings germinate reasonably well but then refuse to grow roots out into the compost, so either the pH or nutrients are inadequate.The cost of compost, seeds and heat mounts up. Almost feel like following my neighbours and gravelling the front garden and patio in the back. Something for trade description to consider.

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      Ohh don’t gravel it all. I use a mix of well rotted manure (purchased) and sterilised loam (sterilised in the microwave) and I get no problems at all.

      1. Bernard Griffiths says:

        With respect, if I used our microwave to sterilise the soil , bearing in mind the quantities I use, my wife would seek a divorce.

    2. Dorell Pirie says:

      I’ve spread peat free compost over my veg plots already, and planted into it. I’m not sure how the washing up liquid works to help moisture retention, so wonder if watering it on retrospectively would have the same helpful effect?

      1. Stefan Drew says:

        Compost often used to have a commercial wetter added to bagged compost. I’d suggest adding it to any purchased compost if they are hard to wet. If you have added compost to the garden beds it may not be so important as they are then acting, at least in part, as a mulch and will protect the soil below. However, if you want top wet the compost when it is really dry you could try some wetter in the eater .. though it’s not something I normally suggest.

  8. Alan Jolley says:

    sorry but if I buy compost I should NOT need to add anything, considering peat free is made from rubbish it should be a lot cheaper for a start, I buy 100% peat compost also John Ennis No2 for all my needs, and nothing is added for up to 8 weeks then feeding is started. I buy commercial compost which is not cheap but the cost of plant failure is all so not cheap. It is up to the companies peddling this stuff to pull their finger out and produce good quality compost for the DIY market.

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      I agree. you should not have to improve peat free compost. But the reality is that it is currently mainly of poor quality and we need to ensure any we buy is useable. It’s why I have proposed a quality standard for all peat free compost.

    2. Bernard Griffiths says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Stuff being sold as a horticulture compost when in reality it is no more than a soil improver. Definitely a
      role for trading standards.

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