Peat Moss: An Environmentally Poor Choice for Gardeners

Reader Contribution by Celeste Longacre
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Photo bybernswaelz

For many years, gardeners have been incorporating peat moss into their beds. It fluffs up the soil, helps to retain moisture and adds organic matter. So what is the problem with it? The environmental impact — the peat that we use has been decimating the beds that it comes from.

Environmental Impact of Peat Mining

Peat moss is mostly the decomposed remains of sphagnum moss. Peat bogs, where this moss is located, are part of Nature’s water purifiers. They filter approximately 10% of our planetary drinking water. Potable water is quickly becoming a vanishing resource and we need to protect any and all of it that we can. Wetlands like these bogs are also currently the most highly threatened ecosystems on Earth. To rebuild them, some estimate that it would take at least 10,000 years.

Peat bogs are also considered “Earth coolers.” This is because they actually absorb carbon dioxide. When they are mined, this carbon goes back into the atmosphere. Certainly, our planet is now at a point where it can use all of the cooling that it can get. Record temperatures continue upward at a pace thought impossible a few short decades ago. Some believe that the peat bogs store 10% of all of the fixed carbon on the Earth.

The slow natural pace of decay in these bogs makes them a valuable resource for historical activity. Wooden artifacts used by our ancient ancestors have been retrieved from them, as well as some of their bones. They also provide a great deal of flora and fauna specific to their ecosystems. Nesting spots and migratory resting places for birds are an additional benefit.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program, in 2013, the U.S. used (in thousand metric tons): 1,420 horticulturally, 18,300 as fuel, and 4,290 unspecified. That’s an awful lot of peat.

Alternatives to Peat Moss in the Garden

Yet, there are alternatives. Compost, dried alfalfa and cocoa-shell can all help to build garden soil. But perhaps the closest to peat is coconut coir. This is the extracted outer shell of the coconut. It’s a 100% natural byproduct of harvesting coconut, is completely renewable, and was formerly considered waste.

Coir can hold moisture in dry soils, help to expel moisture in wet ones, and it has a completely neutral pH. Over time, it adds organic matter to the soil. It looks very similar to peat.

In the photo, the coir on the left was a little damper than the peat moss on the right.

Celeste Longacre and her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more information, visit Celeste’s website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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