The Problem with Peat Moss

By Vincent Lui on
bog.jpgMany people are growing their own vegetables and flowers, contributing to the environment by cutting down their carbon footprint and improving oxygen quality. However, some of these gardens are grown using peat moss, which may actually have adverse affects on the environment in the long run. There is a big debate among horticulturists over the use of this pseudo-renewable resource and much of the evidence suggests that we should avoid using peat to help preserve our shrinking wetlands.

If you do home gardening, you are probably familiar with peat moss but may not actually know where it comes from. Peat moss, sometimes just referred to as peat, is the decaying plant matter that forms under sphagnum moss. As sphagnum moss grows, it layers upon itself, collecting and compacting dead plant matter underneath the live moss. This continues to build as more moss grows overtop, creating a rich, earthy, substance that is harvested for many uses, including gardening. The reason being is that this decaying moss has water absorbency properties that creates a good moisture balance for plants, making it a widely used soil conditioner.

Since it is organic matter, a lot of people assume that it is a renewable resource. Technically, this is true, as the moss is a life form that continues to grow.  The problem lies in that it grows at a very slow rate - only 1 to 2 millimeters a year. This has lead to many debates about the renewable aspects of peat harvesting as a thousand years of growth is easily harvested in a week. Adding to the problem is the location of this moss.

Sphagnum moss only grows in bogs/wetlands and is a staple to the bog eco-system. Peat sustains the wetlands due to its water absorbency (the same reason why gardeners use it in their soil) and when mass harvested, the surrounding ecosystem disappears. In many parts of Europe where peat has been harvested extensively for other purposes, many bogs are in danger of disappearing to the point where the British government is attempting to phase out peat use. In North America, there are arguments on both sides.

peatmine.jpgAbout 90% of the peat that is used in North America comes from Canada. The Canadian peat exporters claim that the peat moss is accumulating at more than 60 times the rate it is being harvested and that they are currently using less than 1% of the overall peatlands for peat mining. Furthermore, they state that the ecosystem is restored within twenty years of the peat being harvested. Critics, however, are wary of this as they argue that the artificial methods of blocking drainage ditches and seeding sphagnum moss many recreate the water retention properties of the wetland but can never restore the fragile balance of the original environment, leading to monoculture systems. Even though the supply of peat in Canada is currently abundant, over harvesting in many parts of the world, including the United States, threaten to wipe out many wetlands.

Instead of using peat moss for your garden, try one of these readily available sustainable replacements:

Coir dust: Made from coconut husk fibers, coir dust is sustainable and has similar water retaining properties. In addition, coir provides nutrients to the plants whereas peat is mineral neutral. It is also free of bacteria and fungal spores, which has been a concern with peat moss in the past. Soil mixes that use coir instead of peat are available at nurseries or even online.

Compost: Home composting is free and provides rich nutrients to plants that peat can't match. In small home gardens, the compost from meal preparations, lawn clippings, and raked leaves should be enough to fertilize the plants.

LignaPeat: Manufactured in California, LignaPeat is made from redwoods and the company states that it offers the same benefits as peat moss for a lower cost. In addition to sustainability, it also has less of a carbon footprint than peat that is flown in from other countries.

Newspaper and paper pulp: Instead of using peat pots, make your own out of newspapers. Easy to create and very biodegradable, paper pulp can be found anywhere and just like peat pots, they can be planted right into the ground.

CowPots: Pots that are created out of cow manure. They can also be planted straight into the ground and provides more nutritional benefits to the plant than peat pots. They look like processed paper pots and are odor free, even when wet.

The extent of the environmental impact of peat harvesting may not be fully realized for many years but we can all do our part to help preserve the wetlands with so many readily available peat substitutes.

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