UNLESS you've been living in a hole in the ground for the last few years, you'll know that using peat-based products in your garden is decimating peatlands throughout the UK and beyond.

Peatlands provide vital habitats for wildlife, store greenhouse gases and release thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. However, peat is used in compost and soil improvers because it’s light, retains moisture and stores nutrients. It’s also very cheap.

In an effort to raise awareness and encourage gardeners to choose peat-free alternatives, leading organic growing charity Garden Organic has launched its I Don't Dig Peat campaign, to put an end the 24 million wheelbarrows of peat which its experts estimate is being used unnecessarily by British gardeners each year.

Gardeners’ World presenter Alys Fowler, who is fronting the campaign, says: “Whether people think peat is the best option depends on if they've experimented with going peat-free.

“Increasingly, those who go peat-free and get hold of good quality compost find there's no argument. I don't use any peat-based compost and I see no difference. I grow fantastic vegetables.

“If you were trying to grow peat bog plants, there’s an argument that growing them in peat is sensible, but the amount of people growing peat bog plants is tiny. What’s happening is that a lot of people are using peat – up to 70% peat in some multi-purpose composts – for growing, say, tomatoes. But tomatoes don’t need peat to grow.”

Fowler uses her council’s green waste compost, called Care compost, sold at her local garden centre, along with peat-free multi-purposes from Carbon Gold, New Horizon and Vital Earth.

“If your council is making green waste, phone their refuse department which should be able to tell you where to buy it. It’s incredibly cheap,” she suggests.

Historically, peat-free composts have been criticised for being inferior for seed-sowing. A Which? Gardening report from the Consumers’ Association magazine noted earlier this year: “Our trial results show that peat-free composts still have a way to go to match the performance of peat for sowing seeds and growing on young plants – although the picture is rosier for container composts.”

However, some peat-based composts are just as inferior as their peat-free counterparts, says Ceri Thomas, editor of Which? Gardening.

“Gardeners shouldn’t assume that all compost is the same. Whether peat-free or peat-based, the quality of compost varies massively.

“Our trials found that it is possible to buy a good quality peat-free compost that performs as well as the best peat-based compost. But there are also a number of peat-based and peat-free composts that simply don't match these high standards.”

In its latest trial, Which? Gardening recommends New Horizon Organic & Peat Free Growbag for sowing seeds. Germination rates for basil were on a par with its Best Buy peat-based compost and the quality of the resulting seedlings was good.

New Horizon Organic & Peat Free multi-purpose compost (£5.99 for 60 litres) was a Best Buy container compost for the second consecutive year, outperforming seven peat-based composts, including three specific container ones, to come joint top.

Fowler says: “This campaign is saying, think about it. There's no need to dig up one part of the world to grow something in your back garden.

“Many people are coming into gardening through the ‘grow your own’ trend, because of health and environmental reasons. It would be sad to take a step backwards by using composting material which is not sustainable, when actually peat-free is getting better and better.”

If you want to go peat-free, avoid buying and using soil improvers as most of these contain peat, Garden Organic advises. Use products such as manure and leafmould to improve your soil instead.

Start making home compost and buy fewer bedding plants, switching to perennials which grow year after year, meaning you reduce the peat-grown plants you bring into the garden and the need to replant each year.

Search online for nurseries or mail order stores selling peat-free plants and support their peat-free initiatives.

Sometimes the good peat-free composts will be slightly pricier, Fowler concedes, but it’s a small price to pay for saving the earth.

“It’s worth paying a couple of pennies more to ensure a much more secure future for our wider environment, biodiversity and habitat,” she says.

For more information on the campaign and to pledge not to use peat, go to www.idontdigpeat.org.uk