Chances are that if you’re a gardener, you’ve used peat moss before, maybe without knowing it. I'll be the first to admit, I used peat multiple times before having an inkling of what it was, where it came from, and why it's useful. When I started out as a gardener, I did what the online articles and books said to do.
Over time, I'd pick and choose the things that worked best for my situation and area. When I started with gardening, I read about the ideal soil mix (equal parts peat moss, compost, and vermiculite) and asked few questions about what I was doing. Now, older and (maybe) wiser, I'm more skeptical and careful about what I'm using in and around my garden. I learn from my mistakes and question conventional wisdom when it doesn't work for me.
Peat moss is one of those things that I've learned to be careful with, and I'll lay out all the reasons why I avoid using it in my garden.
Be a Skeptical Consumer
I'll try to cover as much as possible regarding peat moss, but I urge you to have the same skepticism and questioning nature as I do. Peat moss has its advantages, but as you'll soon discover, it has plenty of significant drawbacks.
Gardening is all about making mistakes and embracing trial and error. More than that, it's about experimentation. If by the end of this article you decide to find a substitute for peat, embrace the experiment ahead.
What is Peat Moss?
Peat is a byproduct of the moss decomposition process in peat bogs. The largest and most significant peat bogs are in North America and Russia. Basically, peat moss is the bottom layer of dead stuff under living moss. It takes a long time for this layer to form and decompose.
Wait. Is Peat the same as Spaghnum moss?
They're two different things. But it's so easy to get them confused, especially since a lot of peat products are mislabeled as something else. Garden centers also label some peat moss products as sphagnum peat moss, which adds to the confusion. Spaghnum moss is the actual living plant material, while peat moss is dead, dead, and deader.
Spaghnum moss is neutral in pH and is very fibrous. You can use it as a decorative enhancement or bedding in flower arrangements. Peat moss, on the other hand, consists of the dead and decaying material underneath living sphagnum moss. It has an acidic pH and retains water exceptionally well.
Why use peat in the garden?
Peat moss is a useful amendment for gardeners because it helps the soil to retain moisture. It’s often used in potting mixes for this reason. Because it doesn’t break down quickly, a single application is all that’s required to last for a good chunk of time.
The fact that it doesn't need to be replaced each year is another advantage that gardeners appreciate. A long-lasting medium that you only need to add once every few years? When I first started, that was an attractive proposition, and it still is.
Peat is also a sterile amendment that doesn’t contain diseases or other hitchhikers ready to destroy your garden. If you've ever added a product to your garden only to find a new pest or disease claiming your plants, you know this is a hugely beneficial characteristic.
In addition, peat moss prevents soil compaction by increasing airflow. It has a fluffy texture that doesn't compact, and when you add it to your soil, it keeps it aerated.
It’s a popular growing medium because it retains water and helps get oxygen to the roots of plants.
At least, that’s what conventional wisdom will tell you. I have never had much luck with peat moss, and I’m hesitant to rely on it much because it’s not at all eco-friendly.
Sure, it’s derived from the earth, but the valuable sources of this amendment are limited. I find it doesn’t retain moisture as well as I’d like it to, either. Read on for more information on the drawbacks of peat.
Drawbacks and Negatives of Choosing Peat Moss
Certain companies and interest groups are keen to suggest that peat moss is a renewable and sustainable resource. That's not quite the truth. It's derived from the earth and eventually does get replenished, but it takes an incredibly long time. The decomposition process that results in peat takes millennia.
Another downside of peat moss is that harvesting from peat bogs releases excess carbon into the air. Peat bogs are carbon sinks. That is, instead of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change, they store carbon. In fact, these bogs are more important than heavily forested areas when it comes to storing carbon. Without these natural areas, climate change would occur even more rapidly.
The bogs from which peat is harvested are also critical to surrounding eco-systems and fiddling around in them can damage insect, bird, and other animal habitats. Harvesting peat also affects nearby water quality and has an impact on aquatic life.
Draining bogs for harvest affects water pH, as well. In some areas of the world, farmers drain peat bogs to use the space for farming. This practice contributes to significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Peat bogs represent a not so insignificant part of the earth’s real-estate – they make up 3% of the earth's land surface area. But they are not only threatened by mining for horticultural use. Fires and climate change also pose a real threat to this precious resource.
The gardening and agricultural industries are not the only consumers of peat. In Europe, some countries utilize peat harvests for energy. In fact, fuel peat represents a significant threat to peat bog reserves.
Downsides to Using Peat Moss as Mulch
In my personal experience, while some people hail peat as an excellent mulch, I’d suggest staying away from it. Applied to the surface of the soil, it’s a poor moisture retainer. It does much better as an amendment mixed into the earth.
Note also that peat moss doesn’t provide any nutrients. If that’s your goal, rely on compost or other amendments to do the job.
Gardeners hail peat moss for its water retention capabilities, too. Sure, peat moss is a thirsty medium, but once it’s completely dry, it takes A LOT of water to get it wet and hydrated again. The process of rewetting completely dried-out peat is a colossal pain and wastes a lot of water.
Should You Use Peat Moss for Gardening, Then?
It’s entirely up to you if you want to use peat moss in the garden. But it’s certainly important to consider the environmental impact involved in harvesting peat moss. If you find the medium to be an invaluable tool in your arsenal, it might be worth it to limit your use to specific tasks instead.
Instead of using it each year as a potting mix for seed starts, choose instead to use it once when you add your soil mixture to gardening beds. Or if you find it impossible to go without peat for potting purposes, use it only in that instance.
Then there's the fact that peat is a natural product, and who doesn't love that? As gardeners, it's easy to think that because we are working with Mother Nature and playing in the dirt that we are doing something inherently good. But even as we nurture and nourish the plants we grow, we also have to stay informed and tread carefully as we garden.
The bottom line is this: if you can't live without peat moss, keep using it. Just treat it like the precious resource it is. On the other hand, if you love what peat does for your garden, but you want to limit your environmental impact, there are some alternatives out there for you.
Peat Moss Alternatives
There are a variety of alternatives to peat moss in the garden. If you’re looking for a lightweight medium that retains moisture and nutrients, look no further. We've got a list of recommendations.
Keep in mind, however, that no other medium features all the properties of peat moss (moisture retention, hospitable pH, porous nature, long-lasting, encourages air flow, no potential to spread diseases or pests). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t suitable alternatives for gardeners. The choice you make depends mostly on what you intend to do with it.
Make your own or buy it at your local garden center. Compost is miles more eco-friendly than peat moss and does something peat cannot; deliver nutrients to your plants.
A great alternative to peat moss, I’ve used coco coir as a mulch successfully in my garden. It’s an environmentally-friendly option, and it provides much better airflow than peat moss. It’s also an excellent moisture retainer and makes a good surface mulch, unlike peat. Its pH is neutral, so it’s safe to use on any and all plants in your garden. The downside is that it’s a bit pricier than other options.
Biochar is an agricultural by-product. It's a useful soil amendment and has the ability to retain water.
Wood (bark or chips)
Wood bark is a useful mulch that you can find in a variety of peat-free or low-peat products.
Straw, paper, and cardboard
Shredded straw, paper, and cardboard are suitable mulch materials. I am a huge fan of using straw in my garden.
When choosing an alternative to peat, make sure to select an option that’s clearly labeled as peat-free. If you have trouble finding a peat-free product, look for options labeled low or reduced-peat. Low-peat mixes are designed to mimic peat moss by maximizing airflow and water retention. If you can, look at user reviews for products or ask around for recommendations since quality varies greatly with this type of eco-friendly product.
Do you use peat moss in the garden? If not, what's your favorite alternative. Let us know in the comments below.