DICKLEBURGH, England — For Britain’s gardeners, peat has long been as essential to gardening as beer is to the corner pub. So trowels flew after the British government — heeding environmental concerns — announced plans to gradually eliminate peat from all gardening products, setting off an intense battle over how to prioritize two of this country’s defining passions: indulging the yard and protecting the planet.
While many gardeners regard the partially decomposed plant matter known as peat as an almost magical elixir, environmentalists say using it is problematic because it is scraped off the tops of centuries-old bogs, which are vital ecosystems that also serve as natural stores of carbon, just like rain forests.
Celebrity gardener Bob Flowerdew was shocked by the violent reaction when he said he would defy the government and continue to use peat to nurture finicky plants like azaleas.
“The hate mail was quite frightening — in some circles I’ve become an outcast,’’ said Flowerdew, a longtime panelist on the BBC’s ‘‘Gardeners’ Question Time’’ radio program.
The debate between the gardening industry and environmentalists grew so acerbic that the government appointed an emergency peat task force after the phaseout plan was announced last year. It delivered its first report this summer.
Alan Knight, the task force chairman and a sustainability expert, said, ‘‘We needed a road map of how to get to zero peat.’’
But some gardeners and gardening companies say they cannot do without peat for nurturing certain seeds and plants.
“If you love your garden, you really can’t just abstain,’’ said Flowerdew, surrounded in his greenhouse by bags of peat-free alternatives he has tried.
Behind this uniquely British drama is a serious global environmental issue, one largely ignored in the United States and most of Europe, where bagged soils with a high percentage of peat are widely used.
Peat use is beginning to decrease in Britain. But greater awareness is needed, some say.
‘‘People walk over peat lands, but they’re not aware of how important they are from a climate-change point of view,’’ said Ian Crosher, a scientist with Natural England, which advises the government on the environment. ‘‘Peat bogs have far greater capacity to store CO2 than rain forests. Peat bogs are England’s rain forests.’’
Disrupting a peat bog releases some of the emissions it holds.
Many British bogs are seriously degraded because they have been drained to take out gardening material or to make way for development. And because even a healthy bog adds less than half an inch in a century, they are not renewable from a practical standpoint. While gardening companies refer to ‘‘harvesting’’ peat, with the implication that it will return next year, opponents refer to the process as ‘‘mining.’’
“It’s a bit like coal,’’ Crosher said.
At current rates of removal, Knight said, Britain could run out of peat in a few decades.
The government timetable calls for an end to peat use in British public parks and gardens by 2015 and in backyard gardening by 2020.