Mr Harold Featherstone

Supervised by

Research interests

Improvement of Peat-Free alternative substrates

Peat is organic plant material derived from peat bogs. Typically used as a growth substrate for ornamental and edible crops, it’s an excellent resource and is very effective in producing uniform, healthy and reliable crops. However, peat bogs are fragile ecosystems with unique biodiversity and socially important heritage. Most significantly, peat bogs are very efficient at sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere; being one of the most effective carbon sinks on earth and representing a significant tool in mitigating the damaging effects of human induced climate change.

British Horticulture is reliant on peat for the production for a range of crops. The reliance is an Achilles heel as the government propose phasing out peat use for the commercial sector by 2030. This poses an looming issue regarding the continuation of quality crop production. The issue therefore is to create a sustainable, effective and reliable alternative to peat.

The current alternatives to peat are broadly similar: Materials such as coir, wood chippings, green compost, bark, loam and green compost are often seen as components for creating peat-free substrates. However, peat formation takes thousands of years, the difficulty in replicating is profound, resulting often in poorer quality substrates and a consequential reduction in crop quality when compared to peat produced crops.

An improvement in these peat-free substrates is needed in order to support commercial horticulture as peat use is phased out. This may be achieved with the introduction of microbial amendments such as Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR's) and Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF). These microbial components have previously demonstrated abilities to produce abiotic and biotic stress responses, such as the solubilisation of plant inaccessible nutrients, thereby improving plant health. Using these biological treatments in peat-free substrates may increase their efficacy, thereby becoming a genuine and attractive peat replacement.

The horticultural sector is a driver of innovation and an important revenue stream for the British economy. This innovation must be pushed further in order to make the sector more resilient to change. This is more pertinent than ever as the sector is faced by the challenges and opportunities afforded by the U. K’s departure from the European Union (such as a loss of skilled labour). The challenge of leaving the European Union and the potential stresses this puts on the sector may be compounded by the loss of peat as a growth substrate. It is therefore imperative an alternative to peat must be found, tested and demonstrated as a reliable entity in order for the sector to remain competitive and strong.

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