Is peat moss organic?

Contents

Peat Moss And Gardening – Information About Sphagnum Peat Moss

Peat moss first became available to gardeners in the mid-1900s, and since then it has revolutionized the way we grow plants. It has a remarkable ability to manage water efficiently and hold on to nutrients that would otherwise leach out of the soil. While performing these amazing tasks, it also improves the texture and consistency of the soil. Keep reading to learn more about peat moss uses.

What is Peat Moss?

Peat moss is dead fibrous material that forms when mosses and other living material decompose in peat bogs. The difference between peat moss and the compost gardeners make in their backyard is that peat moss is composed mostly of moss, and the decomposition happens without the presence of air, slowing the rate of decomposition. It takes several millennia for peat moss to form, and peat bogs gain less than a millimeter in depth every year. Since the process is so slow, peat moss isn’t considered a renewable resource.

Most of the peat moss used in the United States comes from remote bogs in Canada. There is considerable controversy surrounding the mining of peat moss. Even though the mining is regulated, and only 0.02 percent of the reserves are available for harvest, groups such as the International Peat Society point out that the mining process releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and the bogs continue to exhale carbon long after the mining concludes.

Peat Moss Uses

Gardeners use peat moss mainly as a soil amendment or ingredient in potting soil. It has an acid pH, so it’s ideal for acid loving plants, such as blueberries and camellias. For plants that like a more alkaline soil, compost may be a better choice. Since it doesn’t compact or break down readily, one application of peat moss lasts for several years. Peat moss doesn’t contain harmful microorganisms or weed seeds that you may find in poorly processed compost.

Peat moss is an important component of most potting soils and seed starting mediums. It holds several times its weight in moisture, and releases the moisture to the plants roots as needed. It also holds onto nutrients so that they aren’t rinsed out of the soil when you water the plant. Peat moss alone does not make a good potting medium. It must be mixed with other ingredients to make up between one-third to two-thirds of the total volume of the mix.

Peat moss is sometimes called sphagnum peat moss because much of the dead material in a peat bog comes from sphagnum moss that grew on top of the bog. Don’t confuse sphagnum peat moss with sphagnum moss, which is made up of long, fibrous strands of plant material. Florists use sphagnum moss to line wire baskets or add a decorative touch to potted plants.

Peat Moss and Gardening

Many people feel a twinge of guilt when they use peat moss in their gardening projects because of environmental concerns. Proponents on both sides of the issue make a strong case about the ethics of using peat moss in the garden, but only you can decide whether the concerns outweigh the benefits in your garden.

As a compromise, consider using peat moss sparingly for projects like starting seeds and making potting mix. For large projects, such as amending garden soil, use compost instead.

What is peat moss and where does it come from?

Peat moss is a fibrous material which develops over decades, when living material and vegetation decompose in boggy areas. Widely used by gardeners as a growing medium, it remains a popular horticultural product today.

Peat moss is not just used to enhance potting soil consistency – it is often mixed with soil in order to improve water control and retain nutrients for plant growth.

Whilst plants can certainly flourish with peat moss, it’s not the most environmentally friendly growing medium on the market – particularly compared to alternatives such as coco peat.

The reasons why it is no longer a sustainable option lie in its production processes.

Harvesting peat moss

Peatlands and bogs can predominantly be found in Canada and Russia, where the majority of the world’s peat moss is extracted. Some countries in Europe – including Finland, Ireland and the UK – are contenders, but don’t operate commercial peat extraction on quite the same scale.

The extraction process involves drainage, the removal of surface vegetation and transportation across the globe. Such processes have raised deep ecological concerns, especially with conservationists. The harvesting of peat moss is detrimental to the fragile wetland ecosystems. Whilst habitats are destroyed and threatened, critics point out that peat moss is slow to decay once harvested. It is argued that bogs shouldn’t be destroyed as they play a vital role in our planet’s ecology.

How unsustainable is peat moss?

The extraction of peat moss takes place at a significantly low rater of 1mm per year, whilst regrowth is estimated to only occur on up to 40% of peatlands.

This gives you some idea of how long it takes to recover once it has been harvested. Extraction far outstrips growth, which means that its horticultural uses won’t be sustainable in the longer term. Eventually it will simply run out.

Switching to coco peat

Nobody is suggesting that peat moss is an ineffective medium to aid plant growth – it is favoured by gardeners for a reason.

However, coco peat is an excellent substitute for peat moss. Greener, organic and renewable, coco peat is being widely recognised as a first-rate growing medium. Not only is it sustainably produced from the bi-product of coconut husks, but it can also be recycled.

Anyone with a desire to protect the planet has to consider moving away from peat moss, for the reasons mentioned above. Of course, whichever you choose is your prerogative, but we’d encourage you to consider coco peat, as it offers largely the same benefits, without an impact on nature.

Should I Use Sphagnum or Peat Moss?

Have you ever been confused about what is in a garden product? Here’s a prime example!

For many years, peat moss and sphagnum moss have been staple components of potting mixes and a useful addition to garden beds. More recently, however, a number of concerns have been raised about their use – harm to irreplaceable environments, increased carbon emissions and more. But working out what you are actually getting when you buy a product with ‘peat’ or ‘sphagnum’ in the name can be tricky. Let’s try to unravel the story.

Both sphagnum moss and peat moss are used in gardens as soil amendments for a number of reasons:

  • their low pH means that they are useful for camellias, azaleas and other acid loving plants,
  • they can hold water up to 20 x their weight,
  • they generally lack weed seeds and pathogens,
  • their ability to easily absorb and release some mineral ions,
  • their high porosity allows penetration of fine roots.

They are especially valued for growing mushrooms and for the air layering method of plant propagation.

What are They?

Peat is formed from decomposition of sphagnum moss and other organisms over many thousand years. There are more than 370 species of sphagnum which may form peat which accumulates in cool, moist climates in wetlands or lakes which turn into bogs. It is mainly found in the northern hemisphere – Canada, northern Russia, Scandinavia and Scotland – and, in the southern hemisphere, in New Zealand, Tasmania, Argentina and Chile. Small areas occur in south-Eastern Australia between 300 and 1500 metres altitude.

Peat bogs and wetlands are fragile ecosystems occurring only where moisture conditions are right and, therefore, host a unique variety of fauna and flora.

Peat and sphagnum moss are harvested by mining either by machinery or, traditionally, by hand. Networks of ditches are dug so that water drains out. The bog then dries out and the moss dies. Surface vegetation is removed and the upper layers allowed to dry in the sun before being vacuum harvested or removed by other methods. Peat/moss is put into large bales and removed from the site either by vehicles or by being dragged.

Peat has also been harvested for use as fuel, particularly in the northern hemisphere, contributing to peat bog destruction. In Finland, for example, only 40% of peat lands remain.

What are the Environmental Consequences of Peat and Sphagnum Moss Harvesting?

Change and Loss of Fragile Habitats

Moss may start regenerating, but very slowly, if at all, since the ditches and vehicular movement have changed the pattern of water flows so that conditions are no longer suitable for moss growth. This allows other vegetation, such as sedges, to invade the site displacing the indigenous species.

Methane and Carbon Dioxide Release

Changes in water flows which direct water away from the bogs are perhaps the most dangerous result of peat harvest since they also cause extensive drying of the peat with accompanying release of methane. Lightening strikes can ignite it and sometimes auto-ignition occurs when other flammable gases are present. The results are huge underground fires which may burn for many weeks, as occurred Indonesia and Spain, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide1– something our planet does NOT need to happen. Currently a peat bog in south western Victoria is burning. The resultant ash cloud and other gases released are endangering the health of nearby residents.

“Resource” Depletion

Continued formation of peat is threatened by global warming, as well as extensive mining, since drying out of the top layer kills the sphagnum moss layer above the decomposing material. Because it takes such a long time for peat to form, mining it means depleting an almost non-renewable resource.

Conservation Measures

In Australia, peat lands are given varying degrees of protection, ranging from threatened in Tasmania to endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 for the whole of the country, Victoria and relevant parts of NSW.

Sustainable Harvesting?

Listing of sphagnum moss as endangered in Tasmania means that controlled harvesting is permitted. A Code of Practice sets out clear conditions which exclude a number of sites and include maintaining at least 30% cover. 2

Garden Products for Sale

This is where much confusion lies. In North America, sphagnum is called ‘sphagnum peat moss’ while in Britain it is more often ‘sphagnum peat’.

In Australia, a number of products containing different versions of these mosses are available and the names are confusing!! While their garden properties are fairly similar, their environmental impacts are rather different, and if you want to tread lightly on the planet you need to read the labels carefully.

Peat Moss

This term seems to be used interchangeably with ‘Sphagnum Peat’. We could only find one source where harvest is “sustainable”. Otherwise it is probably obtained from deep in peat bogs.

Sphagnum Moss

Some suppliers use material from Canada or New Zealand where moss growing on top of the bog is picked by hand and then loaded into helicopters in an attempt to avoid damage to the bog. In some cases it is claimed that the moss is “farmed”. There are also products from New Zealand where harvesting is claimed to be sustainable. However, watch out for other products where there is NO information about the source material.

Blonde peat moss

There are at least 2 suppliers of blonde peat moss. It is a lighter colour than peat moss because it is sourced from the top 2 metres of the peat bog. There is no information about methods of harvesting, but material from this depth almost certainly required heavy machinery use with accompanying environmental damage.

Coir Peat – a Sustainable Alternative

This is not peat derived from sphagnum moss. Sometimes called ‘Coco Peat’ or ‘Coconut Coir’, it is fibre from between the outer shell of coconuts and the inner material used for food. It has similar properties to sphagnum peat with respect water holding capacity, but may have higher levels of salts if they have not been previously extracted. Its pH is closer to neutral so does not acidify soil as does sphagnum moss.

So, since coir is a renewable resource, does not endanger fragile environments or contribute to global warming, it is a much better alternative as a soil amendment than even ‘sustainably harvested’ sphagnum moss.

Homemade Potting Mix

Commercial pre-packaged potting soils are widely available at nursery and garden supply stores, but you can also make your own potting mix at home. Making your own mix allows you to control the types and proportions of ingredients to customize your potting mix to meet your needs.

Gardeners use various potting mixtures for seedlings, transplants, and container plants. These mixtures combine a variety of ingredients to provide a good growing environment for plant roots.

INGREDIENTS

A good potting mix should:

  • Be dense enough to support the plant.
  • Hold nutrients well.
  • Allow for air exchange and water flow while retaining moisture.
  • Be free of pathogens and weed seed.

Potting mediums must meet plant root requirements for air, water, nutrients, and support, which vary for different plants and growth stages. Different potting mixes are defined by the amount and ingredients they are composed of. Many mix types contain similar ingredients with varying amounts.

Soil

Soilless mixtures are common due to density and disease concerns. Some organic blends still use soil. Clean topsoil or garden soil can be used and should be sterilized to kill disease organisms and weeds. Spread soil in a tray and bake at 200º F for twenty minutes, stirring every five minutes.

Sand

Sand adds air space to a potting mix. Builder’s sand, or coarse sand, is best. Avoid plaster and fine sands; they create a dense mix. Because it is heavier than other ingredients, sand is a good choice for top-heavy plants that might tip over.

Compost

Compost is cheaper than traditional ingredients, holds water well, provides nutrients, and can be produced at home. The nutrient quality of compost will depend on the quality of the materials that were composted.

Pine Bark

Pine bark creates a light potting mix with air space but low water holding capability. It degrades slowly and is a good component for mixes for potted ornamentals. If the pine bark is ground fine enough, it may be partially substituted for peat moss. Make sure that it has gone through the aging process before use.

Sphagnum Moss & Peat

Peat moss is the most common ingredient for soilless mixes because it is widely available and inexpensive. Peat moss decomposes slowly and holds large amounts of water; however, it has a high acidity. Lime is usually added to mixes to balance the pH.

Coir

Coir, a by-product of the coconut industry, looks like sphagnum moss, but is a tubular fiber, doesn’t contain twigs or sticks, and is more expensive. Coir typically is packaged as a compressed brick that will expand when wetted. It is important to note that coir may require less potassium and increased nitrogen supplementation. There is also the chance of salt damage since salt water is used in its processing but can be washed prior to use to minimize problems.

Perlite

Perlite is a sterile and pH-neutral lightweight volcanic rock. It increases air space, improves water drainage, and is a good lightweight replacement for sand.

Vermiculite

Vermiculite is another lightweight addition to potting mixes. Handle it gently; if it’s handled roughly, it compacts and loses its air-holding ability. Medium grade is suitable for seedlings, while coarse grade is better for a soil mix for older plants.

RECIPES

When making your own potting mix, working from a recipe is a good idea to start. Once you begin experimenting with your own blends, try small test batches to evaluate the mix’s quality. See the recipes below to get started making your own potting mixes.

Foliage Plants

  • 2 parts peat; 1 part perlite; 1 part coarse sand

OR

  • 1 part peat; 1 part pine bark; 1 part coarse sand

Succulents

  • 2 parts soil; 1 part peat moss; 1 part perlite; 1 part coarse sand

Bromeliads

  • 1 part peat; 1 part bark; 1 part coarse sand

Seedlings

  • 2 parts compost; 2 parts peat moss; 1 part vermiculite (pre-wet)

Soil-Based Mix

This mix is heavier than peat-based mixes, but it has good drainage. Vermiculite or perlite can be used for sand.

  • 1/3 compost; 1/3 topsoil; 1/3 sand

Blocking Mix

This mixture is for use as soil blocks for seedling/transplant growing. Mix all ingredients together thoroughly. Ingredients can be measured with a standard 10-quart bucket.

  • 30 quarts brown peat
  • 20 quarts sand or perlite
  • 20 quarts compost
  • 10 quarts soil
  • 3 cups base fertilizer (equal parts blood meal, colloidal phosphate, greensand)
  • ½ cup lime

What We Can Help With

Agriculture

Natural Resources

4-H Youth Development

Lawn & Garden

Family Resources

Learning Opportunities

You might have seen that dark brown fibrous material called “Peat Moss” in your father’s garden or any nursery and garden stores.

But did you know that though Peat Moss is very useful as a gardening medium and is used a lot either as potting soil mix or as a hydroponic growing medium, it stirs lots of environmental controversial talk?

Lots of growers, even those who use it much often, don’t know thoroughly what Peat Moss is, how it originates, how to properly use this material in the garden, and understand what this medium means to the earth.

That’s the purpose of the post. I’ll get into all of these.

Peat moss is the dark brown fibrous product of sphagnum moss and other organic materials that decompose in peat bogs over thousands of years.

It doesn’t really decompose because peat moss is so anaerobic and this process takes very slowly.

The decomposition process happens without the presence of air, which slows the development rate. It only gains less than one millimeter in depth each year.

One day, the producers show up. They drain the bog, dig the peat moss layers.

They process it, get it dried, package it in a bag, and sell it to the gardening stores.

Peat Vs. Peat Moss Vs. Sphagnum Moss

People commonly call peat as peat moss even though they are somewhat different.

Peat Moss

Peat is the product created from organic matters that submerged into the bogs.

Peat can be formed from different materials, but a large percentage of the peat harvested is composed of sphagnum moss. And hence the name peat moss.

Sphagnum Moss

Meanwhile, sphagnum moss is a plant grown on the surface layer above of the peatland, soil or a swamp. It thrives in cold and wet weather. As time goes by, the old parts sink into the lower layer. The process of decomposition takes place very slowly in the oxygenless layer. But it is patient, and over a long period of millennials, a thick layer of dead homogeneous material named peat moss is formed.

History of Peat Moss

Peat was dried and was used as a source of fuel in some countries for centuries. Because, like any fossil fuels, it is rich in carbon. It was only till the 1940s that peat has a place in horticulture.

Today, peat moss is fairly popular used as soil amendment, soilless mix, seed starting, mushroom casting, etc.

Availability

Peat mosses are commonly found in bogs and wetlands of the northern hemisphere of the earth.

Almost all of the peat moss sold in the US come from the vast sphagnum moss area in Canada.

But Russia has the largest amounts of peatland around the world.

Canada is the area containing the second-biggest amounts of peat moss in the world with 25% of the world moss. This is followed by lots of countries, including Finland,Sweden, etc.

About 3% of the earth’s surface is contained with peat bogs that have been developed over a period of thousands of years.

Mining

Many countries have strict rules when it comes to mining peat moss. For example, any peat harvested in Canada is carefully analyzed first whether it has any long-term effect on the environment. And it must be mined in sustainable and conservable ways.

The process is as follows. First, dig a network of ditches along the peatland to drain the water. Second, remove the surface vegetation to get the peat exposed. Third, level the harvest field to prevent drainage of the surface runoff. Fourth, harrow the top layer to speed up the drying process of the peats. Fifth, after some days, people suck up the dry peat layer, often with a large vacuum harvester.
And finally, the harvested peats will be transported to a processing firm for cleaning, drying and screening into different labels and packaging.

Benefits of Peat Moss

Cleanliness

You will love this characteristic the most if you know that lots of growing materials, especially organic ones are not really clean. With peat moss, you’ll find it easy to work with. And if you happen to drop some wet mosses, just pick it up, get it dried, or sweep it up.

Sterile

One of the best features of peat moss is its sterility. It doesn’t have any bacteria, fungus, harmful chemicals, and no weed seeds. This makes the material perfect for seedlings, which are quite vulnerable to the surrounding environment.

Moisture retention

Peat moss can absorb and retain water very well. This makes a great place for seed starting and as the mixes with other growing materials.

It is handy to find peat moss in most of the garden stores or nurseries in the US.

Acidic

Most of peat moss low in pH from 3.5 to 6 on average depending on the source of the peat moss is mined. It is very suitable for acid-craving plants such as strawberries, blueberries.

Does not compact

Even though peat moss absorbs water well, it does not compact, unlike soil. The problem with compaction is that it makes it hard to create any space for the water and the air to pass through. By introducing peat moss to any compact material, the compaction problem is solved and makes the growing mix drain better.

Downsides of Peat Moss

Virtually devoid of nutrients.

Unlike other organic materials such as manure compost, peat moss is very poor in nutrients. It also doesn’t contain any helpful microbes. So that means you can use peat moss as an amendment to the soil and other materials, but you cannot use it alone and expect the plants will grow strongly and properly.

Dryness issue

Even though peat moss can hold water well up to 10 times of its weight and is a great supplement to the soil. But when it becomes completely dry, it takes a long time to get the moisture.
So when starting seeds with peat moss alone, be sure to get it moisture enough. Or it’s a good idea to mix it with soils and some other soilless media.

Watch the pH of your mixture

Though strictly acid-hungry plants love peat moss with its low pH level, that does not mean others will do. You will need to add some pH-high materials like lime to create a neutral or alkaline environment. And be ready to monitor the pH level of the growing environment to ensure it does not drift too much. Another issue with soil pH is that with too many amendments added to change pH level, the soil can suffer. When it comes to growing, natural soil is ideal.

Non-renewable resource.

As explained, the process of decomposing the peat moss take even thousands of years. So it’s really considered as non-renewable and not eco-friendly. That’s the main reasons that many environmental-aware growers are going away from it, and finding an alternative.

Expensive.

Even though peat moss is not the most expensive growing material, it is also not cheap. Especially if you use peat moss in bulk and price is an issue, a better alternative is compost.

How to use Peat Moss

Now that you have learned about the benefits and downsides of Peat Moss, you may
have had some vague ideas about what peat moss is used for. But I’ll explore into greater details.

Despite coming with lots of nice characteristics for planting plants, peat moss is not commonly used as a standalone product, and in fact, it is not a good growing medium to grow alone. It is often mixed with other ingredients in one-third to two-thirds of the total amounts to improve the mixture quality.

Soil amendment

Peat moss has been used as a soil amendment for so long because it has a lot to offer.

For clay and heavy soils that get compact easily, it softens the soil structure and improves the drainage.
For sandy soil, peat moss helps retain moisture and nutrients for plant roots.
It is often applied with the ratio 2:1. 2 parts of soil per 1 part of peat moss.

If you intend to use peat moss as a soil amendment, you should know that it changes the pH level of the soil. Keep that in mind and, measure and watch out if the pH level drifts too much.

Hydroponic growing

Peat moss is also a good growing medium for the soilless culture. However, people do not use it alone, but often in conjunction with other growing media like perlite, vermiculite.
If you wish to use peat moss for pure hydroponic growing, you should know some facts about why it is not appropriate. Because peat moss is an organic matter, if provided with plenty of oxygen and nitrogen, it will start to decompose. When that happens, the material can compress around plant roots and will choke off your plants.
So better to mix with other materials.

Peat moss is often blended with growing media such as perlite, vermiculite to balance the moisture and aeration.

Seed starting

One of the most useful roles of peat moss is in seed starting because this material is very sterile. Its antiseptic qualities naturally prevent bacteria and fungi from the seeds. It also gives excellent drainage, good aeration, fine texture, and low fertile, making it very ideal for germination.

For this purpose, you can use the peat moss alone or in mixture with some soils. Or remove the hassle by getting the peat pellets sold on the market.

Many people also prefer the soilless mix of peat moss, perlite, coconut coir, vermiculite and others in different amounts. This prevents the diseases, fungus, bacteria, weed seeds, and other bad things commonly found in the soils,

Growing acid-loving plants

Because of its low pH, peat moss is very suitable for vegetables and fruits that require an acidic environment. These include blueberries, pieris, heathers, azaleas, camellias, tomatoes, and so on.

Controversy/ Environmental Concerns

One of the biggest oppositions about peat is that it’s not really renewable. For a material that can not be renewed in several years, but takes millennials to do that, peat moss is not an environmental-aware growing medium to use.

Harvesting peat moss is not considered a sustainable practice and should be done with careful analysis

Another concern is that harvesting peat moss is considered not a sustainable practice and must be regulated and done with careful analysis.

As peatland stores a great percentage of carbon. Many environmental groups are beware of peat moss mining. The International Peat Society indicates that the harvesting process emits a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. And the emission continues even after the mining.

This means ecosystem can be affected. And when global warming topics are getting hotter, people are more beware of the material.
In fact, there are debates between peat manufacturer and conservationist about the long-term effects of peat moss.

Peat Moss Alternatives

People are also looking for a substitute for peat moss, and mostly it boils down to the cost, grower preference, and environmental awareness.
And the alternatives to peat moss mostly share some great qualities with peat moss but is often blended with one another to get its best traits.

Compost

Compost is made from the decayed organic materials like rotted plants, leaves, vegetable scraps and animal manures.

It has a lot of commonalities with peat moss like excellent water holding capacity, and great material for soil amendment.

Compost also consists of decomposed organic material, but it decomposed in the presence of the air. Meanwhile, for peat moss to form the air needs to be absent.

And every gardener can make their own compost or buy it locally.

And of course, there are some differences between these two.

Peat Moss

  • low pH
  • Does not compact
  • Hold better water than compost
  • Have uniform composition
  • Poor in microorganism
  • Environmentally controversial. Mined in a sustainable and controllable manner
  • Contains few nutrients
  • Does not have weed seeds
  • More expensive

Compost

  • pH neutral
  • Often compact
  • Doesn’t hold water as well as peat moss.
  • Doesn’t have a uniform composition, depending on the source.
  • Rich in microorganisms
  • Made from recycled organic matter
  • Hold more nutrients
  • May contain weed seeds if not properly heated and processed.
  • Cheap. Can be free if can create your own.

Coco coir/Coco fiber

Coco coir is the outer husk of the coconut, a by-product of the coconut processing industry. And it is a definitely another excellent alternative for peat moss for over 20 years.

This material is a lot coarser and has larger spaces between their particles, so it is better aerated. Coconut is often manufactured in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam because it is abundant in these places.

Again coco coir shared some great traits with peat moss, including good water retainment, high porosity.

And here are some keys that coco coirwins over peat moss.

  • Easier to find
  • pH neutral
  • More sustainable
  • Better air aeration
  • Often more expensive than peat moss

It can be used to replace peat moss but better to use with other matters than using alone.

Other choices

There are many other options, which can be listed such as pine bark, PittMoss, Rice hulls, and so on.

Peat Moss For Gardening or not?

No doubt, peat moss is a great material for gardening with all of its benefits and good uses as mentioned above.

But asking that question, you can base your answer on these points to make the best of the material as well as deciding whether to use it or not.

– You should not use it alone. A better idea to mix with other materials to get the best-mixed traits.
– It is great for seed starting.
– Peat moss is excellent for soil amendment.
– Peat moss is not the cheapest. So if you grow in large quantity, and the price is an issue, you can use compost.
– Peat moss is pH low, so suitable for most acid-loving or acid-tolerable plants.

And finally, peat moss is not renewable. So if you are environmentally aware, you may want to reduce your use of peat moss to just seed starting, pot, container, and soilless mixes instead of soil amendment, and lawn work in large quantities. Or you can completely replace it with other alternatives like compost, coco coir, pine bark, and other organic matters.

Perhaps you’ve seen it at your garden center. Maybe you even know how to use it.

But what is peat moss? And is its use in the garden necessary?

Keep reading for the facts about a common soil additive that many growers swear by.

Why We Like It

When it gets to consumers, this somewhat spongy material is dry and brown, and is sold in bags or bales and marketed as an alternative to compost.

Gardeners adore its dry and airy texture and have been using it in their soil for decades.

It absorbs water like nothing else, which is why it is often used to give seeds a good start in arid climates.

Used as a soil amendment, it can add “fluffiness” to the soil. But what do I mean by that?

Soil that is mixed with peat is much less dense. It doesn’t get compacted, which can suffocate new seedlings or cause root veggies to become stunted because they can’t push through dense clay soil types.

In a word, peat is springy. Just squish it between your fingers. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Gardeners also like that its introduction to the garden causes no disruptions. There are no pathogens, bacteria, bugs, weed seeds, or other nasties to worry about, like you might find in other soil amendments.

In essence, you can add it in with no worries that you will introduce harmful elements to your soil.

This amendment has been revolutionizing gardening for years.

It’s often marketed as a simple, one-step solution to attaining the soil of your dreams. It’s also a $500 million industry in Canada, the leading supplier of horticultural peat products sold in the United States.

Sounds great, right? So why would anyone have an issue with this supplement?

Well, it can cause your soil to become more acidic. Though this can be a problem for some plants, this also means it’s a great solution for growing plants that love more acidic soil, like blueberries.

We’ve also known for some time that adding this product to amend the soil around pink hydrangeas can be the boost they need to turn them blue.

But what if you don’t want a more acidic soil? You will need to balance it out, usually with lime, to keep your pH from going awry.

This product isn’t the most affordable soil additive either, so you’ll want to add that factor into the equation, as well.

And this product has costs beyond what you pay at the garden center, too.

Let’s learn more about this gardening ingredient, and why its production can be controversial.

But What Is It, Really?

As it exists in nature, peat moss is made up of layers upon layers of partially decomposed plant remains — such as sedges, reeds, mosses, and grasses — and is formed over thousands of years when an abundance of water and the absence of oxygen affect the natural processes of decay, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, a British conservation group.

Peat moss is found in bogs — swampy, mucky, waterlogged areas primarily located in the northern hemisphere.

In fact, Canada, Finland, Ireland, and Russia are the primary sources for the commercial product, according to Marianne C. Ophardt at the Washington State University Extension.

Scotland, too, is home to much bog, with 23% of the country being covered with peat. But most of Scotland’s peat is protected, not commercialized.

A plant called sphagnum moss is often found growing on top of the layers of peat moss, but this live plant material should not be confused with peat moss, which refers to the often-ancient layers of decomposed material.

Harvesting History

Harvesting this soil amendment requires a bog to be drained of all near-surface water. Then, layers of native vegetation must be removed.

When the top layer of decomposed material is exposed to the elements, it begins to dry out and becomes suitable for a process known as “scraping.”

Commercial harvesters use large vacuums to harvest up to 100 acres of peat per day during the harvest season.

The commercially more desirable material (which is newer and less decomposed) is found toward the surface and is marketed differently than the lower layers.

So, What’s the Fuss?

The scraping or harvesting process conducted to glean this product is under scrutiny, as the peat bogs provide a habitat for a variety of creatures, including certain species of plants and frogs that are unique to peat bogs and mires.

In order to access peat, there is a considerable disruption to these living things, and the removal of peat acres also decreases overall production of necessary gasses and nutrients.

Manufacturers have found themselves defending the practice of mining and selling these products to consumers. They claim that they are using responsible practices to ensure that what they take is growing back at a healthy rate.

The rate of growth varies widely — including as slowly as 1/16-inch per year — and all countries do not regulate these products the same way. While Canada has done a good job of tracking overall reserves, other nations continue to harvest the material without any standard enforcement of sound ecological practices.

This has caused other regions to respond by issuing bans on certain uses of this soil amendment. Ireland, which has stopped peat mining for good in certain regions, is leading the charge for change.

Scotland is returning acres of peatland to their natural state after misguided timber companies seeded trees on ancient bogs decades ago. Scientists there found that peatlands are an important part of our ecosystem for their ability to absorb and retain carbon dioxide.

Government groups around the world continue to work with ecological experts, colleges, and industry leaders to adjust standards as needed to keep depletion at a minimum.

Do I Need to Use It? Plus a Look at Suitable Alternatives

Many of us consider peat a gardening necessity, even if it has only been popular in the last 20 years.

That means generations before us found other means of amending their soil. It’s worth considering whether these alternatives might be more suitable, given how long it takes peat bogs to replenish.

Let’s take a look at a few of them:

One effective method of amending soil for density and drainage control is by adding a suitable compost.

Admittedly, compost takes time to produce, and we don’t always have the weeks or even months needed to get the right consistency or pH by making it ourselves.

It also compacts quite a bit more than peat, so if you are looking for that airy benefit, you won’t get it here.

But if we do have the time and foresight required, this is an excellent way to avoid the peat conflict altogether.

What kinds of compost work well in place of peat?

You can certainly use what you have on hand, but compost made from crushed eggshells, shredded corn cobs, coffee grounds, and fruit and veggie scraps is the easiest to work with.

For additional tips on making fantastic compost, see our beginners guide here.

A special compost blend made from alternating layers of manure – from herbivores only – and straw is also recommended. As the manure breaks down the fibers in the straw, a lighter and airier compost forms that is comparable to peat moss in its density.

Leaves, Mulch, and Sand

In addition to fully decomposed compost, you might have success aerating the soil directly with other natural materials.

I’ve found that dried fall leaves can be broken up to make a fine soil amendment. Wood from a chipper may be produced finely enough to have a similar benefit.

Dried lawn clippings may work well too, as long as they have not been chemically treated in any way.

If better drainage is all you are after, a fine layer of sand could do the trick. This can be especially effective when growing certain vine fruits and veggies.

For example, watermelons love an extra inch or two of sand worked into the topsoil, and it’s far more affordable than peat for amending the soil in large areas of the garden.

Perlite

Perlite is another little-known tool that has made gardening a dream for me, and has rescued me from many tricky situations.

This product is a puffed-up volcanic rock material that resembles tiny foam balls, and it is available by the bag online and from garden supply stores.

Small cavities on the surface of each particle of perlite help to retain water, and keep nutrients near root systems. It also promotes drainage by keeping the soil airy, as each particle is comprised of tiny air passages.

Perlite is currently sold by many major gardening supply manufacturers.

Hoffman Horticultural Perlite

For example, you can find an 18-quart supply of perlite from Hoffman, via Amazon.

Espoma Organic Perlite

If you need a smaller quantity, try this 8-quart bag from Espoma, available from Amazon.

We use perlite for seed starting, improving raised beds, and lightening the bottoms of large planters that need good drainage. And it really works miracles in my garden without affecting the pH of the soil.

While it’s a non-renewable resource, it’s currently very cheap to procure, is very efficient by volume, and stands to hold up well to worldwide demand.

Vermiculite

One final option is vermiculite, which is often used interchangeably with perlite in conversation – but they are not in fact the same.

Perlite, as described above, is made from super-heated volcanic glass, and it resembles foam or popcorn. Vermiculite, which is soft and spongy, is made from super-heated aluminum iron magnesium silicates that resemble mica in appearance.

Because it expands so much during its heating process, it has the ability to absorb 3-4 times its volume in water. It also does an excellent job of retaining minerals needed for plants to grow, making it one of the better soil additives for root growth and health.

Vermiculite is produced by several companies, and is usually offered in four particulate sizes. The tiniest is most commonly used for starting seeds. It is very close to neutral in pH, but can be slightly alkaline, depending on where and under what conditions it was mined.

Espoma Organic Vermiculite

Espoma offers an 8-quart bag of organic vermiculite via Amazon.

There is currently very little information on whether this substance is at risk of being depleted in the near future, but there is no way to replace the materials that make it.

There has also been some concern regarding the safety of vermiculite, mostly likely due to an asbestos contamination event at a Libby, Montana, mine, which closed in 1990.

The Libby mine harvested both asbestos and the material needed to make vermiculite. The vermiculite became contaminated with asbestos, causing products to be contaminated.

Vermiculite sold today would not come from this now-shuttered mine, nor would it be in the supply channel after all this time.

Regarding perlite and vermiculite, your best bet is to experiment with these materials to see what you like best. I know many gardeners who choose one option for seeds, another for potting mix, and something else for raised beds.

Your mileage may vary, but either option is suitable for most purposes.

Coconut Coir

Another option for supplementing the soil is coconut coir. The outside fibers of coconut shells are used to make this material.

You can actually find coconut coir as a stand-alone option or in many garden soil mixes, combined with the other solutions we mentioned, such as peat, perlite, or vermiculite.

Since it is a byproduct of existing coconut harvesting, and was originally considered waste, it is a very eco-friendly alternative to peat. It absorbs water and can also help lighten the density of the soil, promoting drainage.

It has become a favorite among hydroponic growers and worm farmers in the past few years, and is sold to gardeners everywhere on sites like Amazon.com.

Coco Coir

You can find coconut coir from FibreDust through Amazon.

Should You Ever Use Peat?

Very few of the resources that we use in gardening are truly renewable. Mulching and compost, via wasted plant materials and our garbage, are probably among the most sustainable options out there.

That doesn’t mean that peat doesn’t have a place, however.

If you find yourself using more materials and resources than necessary to avoid using this soil amendment, you might be doing more harm than good. A small amount of peat has the possibility of saving water, fuel for your tiller, or a drive to the recycling plant for DIY mulch ingredients.

If you are a good steward of the small amount of this product you purchase, it may be a worthwhile investment for your garden.

Only you can determine the total cost of using this dearly loved gardening tool. I know that many gardeners have weighed the impact of using just a small amount of this soil amendment wisely and have found it to be appropriate.

Do you use this product in your garden? We won’t judge! We’d love to hear how you are getting the most out of your peat purchases, as well as other ideas for amending the soil in a similar fashion!

135shares

  • Twitter
  • Pinterest135

With writing and editing by Gretchen Heber. Product photos via Hoffman, Espoma and FibreDust. Uncredited photos: .

About Linsey Knerl

Born and raised in a small Nebraska town, Linsey Knerl is a homeschooling mother of six who enjoys blogging and working hard on her 3 1/2-acre Nebraska homestead. When she’s not working on her next fantasy novel, you will find her in her kitchen, perfecting the Danish recipes of her grandmother with those special ingredients you can only find in a backyard garden.

Benefits of Peat Moss as Part of a Soil Mix

When most people think of peat moss they recall sphagnum peat moss and its use as a soil amendment. Open a bag, and the first thing you’ll notice is the extreme dryness of the moss, so much so that a puff of the brown particulates may even fly into the air. However, you’d be limiting yourself as a gardener if you limited peat moss to this single job since it’s much more than just one of the options for amending your soil. Read on to learn more about where peat moss got its start and why it is such a useful part of your soil mix.

Peat moss became available in the 20th century but the dry, brown substance often purchased in the form of bags of sphagnum peat moss, but the end product is very different from the original plant. In bogs, sphagnum moss grows wet and green, and brighter dried versions are often used to create a base inside hanging baskets. The peat itself, however, is a mixture made up of mostly moss and some other plants that have been slowly decomposing in the bog wetlands for a very long time. While this time intensive process makes peat a fantastic soil amendment that can endure longer than comparable options, it takes so long to re-form the peat that it isn’t actually considered a renewable resource.

In fact, industrial scale production of the thick brown layer under the moss, presents a threat of over-harvesting peat since it doesn’t replenish quickly. Peat moss is not just something you can grow, harvest, and grow again so simply.

While it has been used in communities all over the world for centuries for things like creating insulated homes and even for burning as fuel, peat moss became a major soil amendment later on when people began to see just how many useful qualities it possesses.

Compared to compost, peat moss has a few easy benefits: for instance, it doesn’t break down as quickly, so you don’t have to apply it every single year, and it doesn’t contain the seeds of other plants, which could potentially survive the composting process and sprout in your soil. Here are a few other ways that peat moss brings life to your garden.

Acid-Loving Plants

If your soil isn’t naturally acidic and you want to grow blueberries, tomatoes, or other acid-loving plants, your best bet is to amend your soil with some peat moss. A little bit of peat moss is alright for alkaline loving plants, but you are better off with an alkaline compost amendment, since this will also provide some of the mulching benefits but won’t give them the incorrect pH. Acid-loving plants, like camellias, however, will thrive in the environment created by a soil generously amended with peat moss.

Nutrient Retention

A major problem with soil that lets water move through it freely is that nutrients often move through as well, leaving plants’ roots with less to draw upon. The nutrients generated through worms and other insects, run-off from other soil, and fertilizer will stay longer among your plants if you have peat moss, since it doesn’t allow those nutrients to simply wash away with each watering. Many people note that this results in healthier plants with better fruits.

Water Management

Peat moss can hold a lot of water and while this alone doesn’t make it unique among gardening materials. However, using water-retaining peat doesn’t result in a soil that’s waterlogged and prone to rot that can damage delicate plant roots. Instead, it releases water slowly, allowing a natural flow of water into the aquifer without immediately drying out for your garden. This ability to retain and disperse water makes it a great amendment for sandy soil, which tends to pass water straight through and down into the deeper soil.

Better Aeration

Aerated soil avoids compacting and restricting root growth, as well as allowing access to oxygen and other needed air particles. When you are creating a potting mix, peat moss can be a great option for part (not all!) of the potting medium. An excellent sample of a garden mix that will combine aeration, nutrients, and a good texture is 1/3 sphagnum peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost. This ratio creates a balanced pH that combines all of the positive qualities listed above with some material that will keep water moving through the potting mix while retaining nutrients and enough water to not dry out entirely.

It is true that peat moss is a non-renewable resource, so it makes sense to avoid amending all the soil in all of your beds with this substance. A good rule of thumb is that, if a bed can thrive with compost as an amendment, a more renewable and nutrient-rich option. However, for acid-loving plants or starting seeds in a new bed, amending with peat moss will give you some excellent benefits. While most peat moss is not accessible for harvest, it is regenerated, albeit slowly, so sustainable use of peat moss could be possible. No matter why you use peat moss in your mixes, be grateful that this useful decomposed moss matter is available for our gardening use. It can certainly keep a garden bed appropriately aerated, nutrient-rich, and hydrated, even when mixed in only a small proportion with other substances.

If you love gardening, chances are you come across references to peat moss on a fairly regular basis. Peat moss has several practical uses in the garden, from starting seeds to improving your soil, and is a useful amendment for both flower and vegetable gardeners.

If you’re anything like me, you are willing to put in the time and effort to make your gardens as productive and healthy as possible.

Part of that process is understanding the various soil amendments and planting mediums available, which means that you need to be aware of the benefits, downsides, and practical uses of sphagnum peat moss.

Top Peat Moss Brands

  • Hoffman Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss – 10qt.
  • Espoma Organic Peat Moss – 8qt.
  • Premier Pro Moss Horticultural Peat Moss – 2.5 cu. ft.

Listen to this post on the Epic Gardening Podcast

Subscribe to the Epic Gardening Podcast on iTunes

What Is Peat Moss?

So what is peat moss, anyway? The dark brown, compact matter that we recognize as peat moss is a far cry from the organic material’s origins. Peat moss is the decomposed remains of sphagnum moss and other living things that forms a dead, fibrous material over the course millennia in peat bogs around the world.

Unlike compost, peat moss forms in the absence of air. This slows the decomposition process and creates a homogeneous material that is highly absorbent, which makes it very useful in the garden as a soil builder and a seed starter.

Peat moss is a unique organic material that provides gardeners with several benefits, including absorbency, compaction prevention, a sterile planting medium, and its acidic ph.

The most important benefit of peat moss is the material’s absorbency. Peat moss retains water much better than average soils, which increases the absorbency of any potting mixes and garden soils that use peat moss.

Not only is peat moss absorbent, it also does not compact, unlike other organic materials. Soil compaction is damaging to gardens and reduces water absorption and plant growth. Peat moss remains springy when it is wet and rehydrates easily, plus one application of peat moss can last for years.

Peat moss is also a sterile planting medium, which means that it does not contain harmful pathogens or weed seeds. This, combined with its absorbency, makes it ideal for starting seedlings and is why peat moss is an essential component in most seed starting mixes.

The pH of peat moss is slightly acidic. Acid loving plants like blueberries and camellias benefit greatly from peat moss applications, although plants that require neutral or basic pHs may not benefit from too much peat moss in the soil without additional, more alkaline amendments.

Downsides Of Peat Moss

As with most products, there are downsides associated with peat moss. The biggest is expense. While prices vary, peat moss is relatively expensive, especially if you plan on using large amounts. On the other hand, mixing your own potting soil can be cheaper than buying pre-mixed potting soil in the long run.

Another downside is fertility. Peat moss has a relatively low nutrient content profile. It does contain some beneficial microorganisms naturally, and more can be introduced. As far as nutrient value, peat moss isn’t high, but it isn’t absolutely zero like many people believe. There is good evidence that there are both microorganisms in peat moss, as well as some level of nutrition, depending on the geographical origin and depth the peat moss was harvested from. For more info, .

The acidic pH of peat moss is beneficial to some plants but not beneficial to plants that prefer alkaline soils. For these plants, compost is a better peat moss alternative, as it has a more neutral or even alkaline pH, depending on the compost composition.

Having a green thumb does not always translate to using environmentally green methods. Peat moss is a nonrenewable resource. Some gardeners have environmental concerns about peat moss that make it a poor choice for their gardens and is certainly an important factor to consider.

How to Use Peat Moss in the Garden

Peat moss in a Square Foot Garden.

So how, exactly, should you use peat moss, now that you know about the benefits and downsides of sphagnum peat moss? How to use peat moss in your garden depends on what you plan to use it for. Peat moss is useful as an additive in potting mixes, as a soil amendment, and in your vegetable garden.

Peat moss is a great seed starting medium. It is sterile, absorbent, and the homogeneous material is easy to work with. This keeps the seed bed uniformly moist, aiding in germination. Most seed starting mixes contain peat moss, and you can make your own seed starting mix by mixing peat moss with other soils or by making a peat moss based potting soil and adding fertilizer and vermiculite.

You can also use peat moss as a soil amendment. Dry, sandy soils benefit from adding peat moss to retain moisture, and peat moss improves drainage and prevents compaction in dry and wet soils alike.

These qualities make peat moss particularly useful in vegetable gardens, where extremes of dry and wet can negatively impact the growth and production of vegetables. Just remember that too much peat moss can change the PH of the soil, so garden accordingly.

Peat moss is a carbon rich material, which makes it a good source of carbon in compost piles. The moisture retaining quality of peat moss also reduces the need for frequent watering, which makes it doubly valuable. The only downsides of using peat moss in compost are the expense and the environmental concerns associated with sphagnum peat moss.

Application

Properly applying peat moss to soil mixes and as an amendment is important for the success of your garden. You will apply it differently depending on how you plan to use it, but for all applications it is important to wet the peat moss before adding it into the soil.

As A Soil Amendment

You can apply peat moss in a 2:1 ratio as a soil amendment, with two parts soil to one part peat moss. Mix the peat moss into the top 12 inches of the soil along with any other amendments until the mixture is evenly distributed and plant into the freshly prepared ground.

As A Seed Starter

There are several ways to prepare a seed starting mix from peat moss. The mix you use will vary, depending on your preferences. Soilless seed mixes use peat moss as the base with equal parts horticultural grade perlite or vermiculite, and add small amounts of lime and fertilizer to lower the PH and give your seeds some plant food.

Potting mixes with soil use equal parts soil, peat moss, and perlite or vermiculite, along with any other fertilizers or amendments the gardener wishes to add. Many gardeners experiment with seed starting mixes to find the one that works best for them, so don’t be afraid to play around with your ratios and amendments to find the perfect mix.

Peat moss is also useful for container gardening, as it preserves moisture and gives your containers a good organic material to grow in. For containers, make sure you mix peat moss with adequate amounts of soil, compost, and fertilizers to keep your container gardens happy.

There are organic peat moss products on the market if you garden organically, so check the label prior to purchasing. Peat moss spreaders are also useful for lawn applications, and can be rented from home and garden centers.

Where To Buy Peat Moss

Luckily for gardeners, peat moss is one of the most widely available garden supplies around. It is sold at most garden stores and home and garden centers like Lowes and Home Depot, and can also be ordered online from a variety of distributors. Look for sphagnum peat moss for sale in your area and compare prices to get the best deal. You can also buy bulk peat moss for large applications, which could give you a discount.

Prices for peat moss vary depending on the manufacturer and the size of the bag. Most peat moss is sold by the cubic foot, which is helpful for determining how much you need to buy for direct application to your garden. Smaller bags are sold by the quart and are perfect for mixing small amounts of potting soil or adding peat moss to containers.

My favorite peat moss brands online:

  • Hoffman Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss – 10qt.
  • Espoma Organic Peat Moss – 8qt.
  • Premier Pro Moss Horticultural Peat Moss – 2.5 cu. ft.

Environmental Concerns Of Peat Moss

Peat moss is a nonrenewable resource. The biological processes that create peat moss takes several millennia, with peat reserves growing less than a millimeter every year. Most of the peat moss available in North America is mined in Canada, where only 0.02 percent of peat bogs are harvested and the industry is strictly regulated.

Still, groups like the International Peatland Society point out that mining peat moss is a carbon intensive process, and removing peat releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and limits the ability of the peatland ecosystems to act as a carbon sink. This has negative implications for climate change.

There are peat moss alternatives if you have concerns about the price of peat moss or its environmental impact. Compost offers similar benefits to peat moss in the garden and is a completely renewable resource. It also has the added benefit of reducing waste around your home and cutting down on the amount of material that goes into our landfills.

There are some important distinctions between peat moss and compost:

Peat Moss

  • Expensive
  • Acidic PH
  • Few nutrients
  • Does not compact
  • Contains few microorganisms
  • Does not contain weed seeds

Compost

  • Usually free
  • Neutral or slightly alkaline PH
  • Rich in nutrients
  • May compact
  • Contains microorganisms
  • May contain weed seeds

Compost is a viable alternative to peat moss for gardeners who want to add organic material to their gardens. Compost improves the soil’s water holding capacity and aeration while adding important nutrients and microorganisms to the soil, and is usually free. As a compromise, some gardeners opt to use small amounts of peat moss in their seed starting soil mixes, as compost can contain weed seeds and pathogens if the pile does not reach the correct temperature.

Is Peat Moss Right For You?

The decision to use peat moss is up to you. While it is important to consider the environmental concerns and price of peat moss before investing, the benefits of peat moss and the value it can add to your soil means that the decision to use peat moss is entirely personal.

To determine if peat moss is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I using peat moss in a seed starting mix or in the soil?
  • Can my budget afford peat moss?
  • Do I have easy access to peat moss alternatives like compost?
  • What PH do my plants require?
  • Does my soil have trouble retaining moisture?

Answering these questions will help you decide if peat moss is right for your gardening needs. Since peat moss is widely available in gardening stores, you won’t have far to go to find it. Just remember to wear a face mask when handling dry peat moss as the fine material is easily inhaled.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask us questions in the comments section below.

The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:
Kevin Espiritu
Founder Did this article help you? × How can we improve it? × Thanks for your feedback!

We’re always looking to improve our articles to help you become an even better gardener.

While you’re here, why not follow us on Facebook and YouTube? Facebook YouTube 205 Shares

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *