It is a winter’s day and sunlight is filtering through an enormous greenhouse off a ring road in Hertfordshire. This is the home of Geb & Green, a new houseplant company, and it smells good in here; earthy and moist, the innately fertile whiff created by scores of growing plants. Until a year ago, this place was filled with ornamental flowers — agapanthus and lilies — but it is now hosts something revolutionary: the first UK houseplant company to grow at scale without relying on peat.
That may sound like a niche specification but houseplants have been enjoying enormous success in recent years — in 2021, 35 per cent of Britons bought them and houseplant sales in garden centres were 50 per cent higher than in 2019. The 2010s saw them proliferate on social media and in new boutique shops in east London. But many who enjoy the plants are unaware of their massive environmental impact.
More than 90 per cent of houseplants sold in the UK have been imported from the continent — 65 per cent from Holland, according to Royal Flora Holland — where many are grown under artificial light, in hot, humid conditions created by gas-powered heaters and mains water fed irrigation systems.
More damaging, however, is what these established plants are grown in: peat. Dredged from peatlands that take thousands of years to form and trap an estimated 3.2bn tonnes of carbon in the UK alone, this growing medium has nevertheless been a stalwart of the horticultural industry for decades. But when peatlands are harvested they release carbon at a colossal rate. Globally, damaged peatlands are responsible for almost five per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Peat became popular in horticulture in the mid-20th century — traditionally plants were grown in a mixture of soil, sand and charcoal — but it has become the default for most growers, since its water-retention qualities make it hard to beat for growing young plants. The Royal Horticultural Society upholds peat-free practices on its website, but will not force shows such as the Chelsea Flower Show to be peat-free until 2025.
Awareness of the need to avoid peat has been increasing among outdoor gardeners — even Tesco offered 95 per cent peat-free bedding compost last spring and a ban on the sale of horticultural peat to amateur gardeners is due next year. But it’s still something of an inconvenient truth among the houseplant community. Geb & Green are determined to change that.
“It’s fantastic that houseplants have had a resurgence in the past few years because getting green into people’s homes is good,” says Will Clayton, one of the company’s co-founders. “But now I think the next stage needs to happen, and people need to think about how green is the green in their house.”
Clayton is a farmer, whose parents set up shop in the horticulture industry 25 years ago. Sustainability, he says, has long been important to the family business: “We really started to take it seriously probably 10, 15 years ago; we’ve got solar farms, most management have electric cars, but Geb & Green is the culmination of that.”
The glasshouses, which cover 1.5 acres, are heated by a wood-pellet- fuelled biomass boiler, and the plants are watered by rain captured on the roof and a spring-fed reservoir on site. Certain plants, such as sansevieria, were abandoned during trials for having more resource-hungry needs than Geb & Green were willing to fulfil.
Instead, they are growing a range of more eco-friendly houseplants, from the ever-popular aloe vera and Monstera deliciosa, to newcomers Pilea mollis “Moon Valley” (with tactile leaves and an easy temperament, they make fantastic kitchen plants, Clayton says) and the calathea musaica, which boasts artfully patterned leaves.
“Houseplants are basically like grumpy old men,” jokes Clayton. “They like to sit in the dark, not be touched, not be moved, left alone and occasionally be given a drink.”
Inside the massive doorway to the glasshouses, the neat rows of hundreds of thousands of leafy houseplants await. Clayton wants to show me something: an unprepossessing steel box, about the size of a small shed, with a chute that intermittently ejects dark brown soil. “This is where we’re unique,” he says. “We grow exclusively in our own recycled, sterilised waste product. So, no peat.”
Coir — potting material made from the fibres found on the outsides of coconuts — is used to grow lilies and agapanthus, and by soft fruit farmers. Geb & Green’s waste coir, rather than being thrown away, is sterilised in steam for 90 minutes and ejected to be used again. Coir can often feel dry and dusty to the touch, but this stuff doesn’t.
“It’s because we’ve reused it many, many times,” Clayton explains. Recently, the Environment Agency granted permission for the company to recycle other growers’ coir, too. “So there’s no excuse for anybody else not to be growing peat-free.”
Geb & Green admit that they still have work to do. Many of the dozens of varieties of houseplants growing here started off as plugs, or tiny starter plants, grown in peat. “We are saying 97 per cent peat-free, and [the peat is] in the smallest pot,” says co-founder Kate Brown. “But we’re striving to be 100 per cent.”
Some of the varieties here — the spider plants and aloe veras among them — have been propagated in-house, and the company is working with local labs to see if they can develop tissue cultivation. “If that’s successful, we would do that on site ourselves and close the sustainability circle,” she says.
Smaller growers have championed raising peat-free houseplants for years, though. When Harriet Thompson set up Harriet’s Plants in Cornwall in 2017, she always intended it to be a peat-free paradise. After becoming a fan of houseplants while living in Australia — “I bought them not realising the damage they were doing to the environment” — Thompson unearthed the glaring lack of peat-free houseplant suppliers while undertaking a foundation degree in plant science at the Eden Project.
“It was impossible to find them, so I just started growing.” She is now based in the Midlands and her stock is grown 50 per cent by propagation, 50 per cent from seed, entirely in a peat-free and chemical-free mixture of her own creation.
“I just don’t think at the moment nurseries are being challenged enough over their peat use,” Thompson says. “If I was opening a nursery business now, I could still grow in peat if I wanted to. I do get that it’s not easy going peat-free overnight, but consumers don’t understand the devastating effects that peat extraction has. The more people demand peat-free, the more people will grow that way.”
Change, Thompson says, is slowly starting to happen. “As the years have gone on there’s definitely more interest in it,” she says, adding that when Harriet’s Plants started she wasn’t aware of any other nurseries that specifically stated a peat-free approach. “It obviously creates more competition for me,” she says, “but the whole reason why I started Harriet’s Plants was to change a system. So if I do get pushed out, I’ll have done my job.”
As with many environmentally friendly fixes, the onus remains on the consumer. “Peat free” has become an easy search term for online plant retailers to add to their sites while offering few plants actually grown in peat-free soil. Unrecyclable black plastic pots and cellophane wrap may be eschewed for more eco-friendly solutions; some providers even offer to plant trees for each plant purchased. But while they are still using peat-based soil, carbon is still being released.
The hope is that what is happening in these growing spaces will ricochet through the industry, and that peat-free houseplants will begin popping up on supermarket shelves in the coming months to join the peatless compost that has started to appear. Perhaps 2023 is the year we start questioning the environmental impact of our houseplants.
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