Written by Anila Nair, Fulton County Master Gardener
No, not you Pete. You’re fine. I’m talking about the humongous, plastic- clad bundles available for purchase at the big box stores, touted as the next best thing since sliced bread, or whatever it’s equivalent is in the gardening world.
Peat moss is considered to be the magic ingredient needed to achieve ‘friable’ soil- (soil that has the crumbly texture ideal for most plants), especially when you have hard clay like in most parts of Georgia. This is because peat is capable of holding the right amount of water so that it forms a clump when you squeeze a handful of the soil mix containing it and yet unlike pure clay soil, will break apart easily. A soil mix containing peat moss is light in weight, retains the right amount of water and provides good drainage which in turn helps promote optimal root growth resulting in a healthier plant.
So if peat moss is such a wonderful ingredient, why the beef? For this we need to go back to where it all began, aka the origin story, for any superhero worth their salt has one. It would require us to go back as far back as the end of the last ice age. Peat grows at a rate of 1mm (1/32 of an inch) each year and some of the peat bogs can be as deep as 40 feet, which means that it has been growing continuously since the end of the last ice age approximately 12,000 years ago.
Peatlands form a unique ecosystem. Sphagnum moss, the main peat forming species, can hold up to 20 times its own weight in water and it keeps the surface of the bog wet. Apart from sphagnum moss, there are many diverse species like reeds, sedges, heather, cranberries and even carnivorous plants like pitcher plant and sundew, that call peat bogs home. Peat bogs are very essential in helping with flood prevention by absorbing large amounts of precipitation and slowing the water flow into the rivers thus preventing flooding further downstream. By milling for peat, we are destroying this ecosystem. Even if we’re able to regenerate peat lands as they’re trying to do in Canada which could take decades, we’re losing these valuable habitats not to mention the enormous amounts of CO2 that is being released into the atmosphere.
Speaking of CO2, peatlands are also an amazing carbon sink. Carbon, stored in plant tissues as a result of photosynthesis, is locked away in peatlands as the various dead plant materials slowly decompose and accumulate over the years. Although peatlands cover less than 3% of the world’s surface, estimates are that they contain 30% of the carbon in all of our soil worldwide. In Canada, which is where the vast majority of the Peat moss used for horticultural consumption in the US is extracted, the recommendations for peatland harvest are between 10 and 20 feet deep which is approximately 6000 years worth of peat growth. Canada is the second-largest country on Earth and has 25 percent of the globe’s peatlands. According to reports, the industry has harvested approximately 73,000 acres out of 280 million acres of the country’s peatlands. So when mining for peat, the industry is essentially releasing tons of stored CO2 which is a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. CO2 emissions from drained peatlands worldwide are estimated at 1.3 gigatons of CO2 annually. Fires in Indonesian peat swamp forests in 2015, for example, emitted nearly 16 million tons of CO2 a day. This is more than the daily emissions from the entire US economy.
So what can we do to limit or perhaps even stop the use of peat? In the UK for example, The government’s environmental agency has said that it wanted to phase out peat moss for home gardeners by 2020 and commercially by 2030. The Royal Horticultural Society in London, the largest gardening organization of its kind in the world, has reduced peat use by 97 percent at its four major gardens and urges its members to follow its lead. However, in the US, currently we don’t have any such major initiatives in progress. But small changes that we make as responsible citizens of this world can make a difference. Finding an alternative to peat is a good place to start.
Compost: Compost which is an excellent nutrient rich growing medium is obtained as a result of the decomposition of plant materials (green – grass clippings, kitchen scraps, green plant materials and brown- dried grass, fall leaves, shredded paper, shredded cardboard etc). With the right carbon to nitrogen ratio (30:1) and the right amount of moisture, the compost pile will heat up, speeding up the decomposition of the materials and killing off any pathogens or weed seeds. The end result is a sweet smelling, nutrient rich compost ready for use in the garden as a planting medium or as a mulch. When done on a large scale, this will also help reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.
Coco peat or coir: The fiber from the husk of the coconut is a renewable alternative to peat moss. Unlike peat moss which becomes water repellent when dry, coconut fiber easily absorbs water even when extremely dry. And unlike peat based potting mix, coir based potting mix doesn’t tend to detach from the container, like a perfectly baked cake, allowing water to run through the sides leaving the soil mix dry as a bone. However, one downside to coco peat is not the material itself, but the carbon footprint of its shipment to the US as they are usually shipped from Asian countries like India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Leaf mold: An often overlooked and underappreciated alternative to peat is available right here in our own backyards. Fall gold! Yes, those annoying dead leaves that we can’t wait to rake and bag up and dispose off in the fall can actually be an amazing resource. And all we have to do is pile them in one corner or in a mesh enclosure and forget about them for a year or so- nature will do the rest. By the time they are done decomposing, what we’re left with is a crumbly, brown-black, carbon rich material which can be used as a peat replacement in potting mixes or garden beds or even used as a mulch.
The fact is that there is no reason why we should follow the pied piper that is peat moss when we have perfectly good alternatives right here in our backyard. Whether it is to protect a fragile habitat or to reduce carbon emissions or to simply save money, there is no reason why we cannot say no to peat. There was a time not so long ago when peat was unheard of in the horticulture world and if the plants grew just fine then, they will do so now- with or without peat. And while it’s commendable on our part as gardeners to provide the best possible conditions for our plants, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the health of our planet. We’re all doing our best for the environment. Eliminating the use of peat can be another feather in our cap. We can be the generation that made the difference and it can start right in our garden. My fellow gardeners, I rest my case.