Recently I started a square-foot type garden, and many of the books I’ve read recommend using peat moss to improve the soil. I’ve heard that there are issues regarding peat moss being a nonrenewable resource, plus it’s expensive. The less I spend, the more I save by growing my own vegetables. What do you recommend?
Over 10 million cubic yards of peat moss are harvested each year from bogs in Canada, plus another million or so from bogs in the northern United States. Those are big numbers, but because less than 1 percent of North American peat lands are currently being harvested, peat bogs remain more plentiful here than in the British Isles, where harvesting has reduced peat acreage by nearly 80 percent. However, peat comes from such very slow-growing, slow rotting plants that it typically takes 1,000 years for a bog to add 1 yard to its depth. Once harvested, peat bogs are changed forever.
Of equal concern are the environmental costs of the fuels required to dig drainage ditches, harrow and dry the peat, vacuum it up and bale it, and then ship it long distances, which in your case is about 1,500 miles. That’s a lot of greenhouse gas emissions produced to provide organic matter for outdoor beds. Compost would be less expensive and do as well, or you can use shredded leaves or grass clippings for your beds.
Peat moss does have special characteristics that make it a better choice when used in small amounts as part of seed starting mixtures. It absorbs and holds 10 to 20 times its dry weight in water, and it is a very poor medium for various soil-borne fungi, including those that cause seedling damping off. Beneficial bacteria can live in peat moss, so using small amounts of peat moss to start seeds indoors is a sound decision. A half-and-half mixture of peat moss and sand or perlite works well, or you can go with a three-way mixture of peat moss, sand and heat-pasteurized soil. Once seedlings grow big enough to transplant outdoors, compost makes a better soil amendment than peat because it contains a wealth of biological life forms and a huge range of major and minor plant nutrients.
— Barbara Pleasant, contributing editor
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