Peat Moss: Good or Bad for the Environment?

Every spring, big bales of peat moss go on sale outside of garden centres and hardware stores. Are they, as the industry claims, an effective, organic and safe soil amendment? Or is it, as critics claim, simply a luxury item that cannot be produced without harming wetlands and the environment?

Sphagnum moss grows in large bogs, where it accumulates extremely slowly. Sphagnum moss is the living moss, and as it grows, layers of dead and decaying moss accumulate underneath. These decaying layers are called peat moss, the horticulturally valuable material. The usual method of harvesting involves ripping out large chunks of peat, which may have taken centuries to grow. Because of its slow rate of regrowth, many people feel that peat should not be considered a renewable resource.

Sphagnum peat of a high quality is produced in Canada. The industry in this country claims that "peat is accumulating nearly 60 times faster than the amount harvested" and that less than 0.02% of the peat bogs in Canada are used for harvesting. New Zealand also claims to practice sustainable peat production through harvesting methods that encourage fast regrowth. American peat is sometimes considered inferior and the bogs may not be as well managed, so consumers who are concerned about the environment, but still wish to purchase quality peat, are sometimes advised to use only Canadian products.

The decision about whether or not to use peat products is obviously a personal one. For further reading, see a critic's view here (scroll down to the first article under 2006) and the industry's defence here. If you decide not to use peat, coir dust, made from coconut fibres, is generally considered to be a high-quality replacement as a soil amendment, and it is becoming more easily available. If you are looking for something to replace those little peat pots, you can use coir pots, CowPots, a similar product made from manure, or make your own pots from newspaper, either by folding or using a potmaker.

3 comments:

  1. I do use peat mixes for seed starting in the spring, but tend to avoid it as a major amendment. I don't use it in my garden beds. I'm growing some tomatoes in pots this year and am contemplating avoiding peat and only using compost for organic matter. If you can make it compost is a much more environmentally friendly amendment on so many levels.

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  2. I would also add that compost has nutrients in it, whereas peat moss has virtually none. If you can make enough compost, it's probably a better idea.

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  3. Interesting pair of links. I can't decide if I am more annoyed by a peat industry site that claims peat moss is sold at the perfect moisture content for use and I won't have any trouble wetting it or an academic industry expert that earns their living as an urban horticulturist but considers urban gardens a luxury. What would that make her?

    Quite large millimeters they have in Washington State too:

    "This is a natural resource that accumulates at
    the glacially slow rate of 0.5 – 1.0 mm per year, or about ¼ of an inch."

    So, since the glaciers melted here in Alberta, we've had time to accumulate a layer of up to 10 m thick of peat to mine. Seems like a reasonable use of dead moss, especially considering that a peat bog will eventually destroy itself anyway, as it fills in and becomes dry land (assuming it doesn't catch fire and burn).

    However, I'd be perfectly happy to use an alternative if it were as cheap as peat moss and easier to wet. Although I would feel a bit guilty about losing local jobs and, no doubt, contributing to the degradation of some tropical paradise covered with the coconut palms needed to export coir to the luxury gardens of Alberta.

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