Since the 1950s, gardeners trust peat moss as a suitable soil amendment for their flowerbeds and potted plants. While it’s only been around for some 70-years in the United States, peat moss has a long history of use in the UK and throughout Europe.
The principal benefit of including peat moss in your soil amendments is its improvement in soil texture. It also improves airflow to the roots while enhancing drainage to prevent root rot.
This guide to peat moss gives you everything you need to know about using this material in your garden this season.
What is Peat Moss?
Peat moss is an organic material found in nature. It exists as layers of partially decomposed plant material from the surrounding environment. The peat forms over centuries as the natural decomposition process breaks down the materials into peat.
You can find peat moss in bogs and swamps across the northern hemisphere, and there’s plenty of it around waterlogged countries like Canada, Ireland, Finland, and Russia. These countries export peat to the global market for use in a variety of commercial products.
It might surprise you to learn that Scotland has some of the biggest bogs in the world, with over 23% of the country’s surface being peat. However, the Scots protect their marshes rather than commercializing them for sale.
It’s important not to confuse peat moss with sorghum moss. The sorghum variety grows on the top of peat moss, but it doesn’t have the same properties as peat moss.
Why Use Peat Moss In Your Garden?
When the peat moss arrives at your local nursery for sale, it’s in a dry format, losing all its moisture during the harvesting and transportation process. Most nurseries advertise it as a suitable complement to compost.
Gardeners love the dry, airy feel and texture of the substrate, using it as a soil amendment in flowerpots and flowerbeds. The peat moss is absorbent, sucking up any water it can get. This property of peat moss makes it ideal for starting seedlings or for a soil amendment in arid areas where you want to keep as much moisture in the soil for as long as possible.
Adding peat moss to your soil gives it a fluffy look and feel. As a result, it won’t compact, and it allows loads of airflow into the soil to enhance plant growth. The soft, springy peat texture makes it easy for seedlings to push roots deep into the ground, establishing the plant properly during the growing season.
Unlike other soil amendments, peat moss is sterile, and it comes with no pests or pathogens lurking in the material. You can add peat moss to your flowerbeds and pots without the concern that there might be weeds, pests, or pathogens hiding in the peat.
There’s only one issue with adding peat to your soil – the amendment creates an acidic pH balance. Plenty of plants love growing in slightly acidic soils, but some might have a problem with it. The addition of peat moss also has surprising effects on plants. For instance, adding peat around the base of pink hydrangeas turns them blue.
If you need less acidic soil, you’ll have to add some lime to the peat soil to increase the alkalinity in the ground. Peat moss is also an expensive soil amendment compared to other options we’ll discuss later.
When harvesting peat, commercial operations drain the bog or swamp of water, letting the materials dry out. The contractors remove layers of natural vegetation, exposing the top layer of the peat to the air.
When the peat contacts the air, it starts to dry, becoming ready for the “scraping” process used to harvest the material. Commercial producers may harvest up to 100 acres of peat every day during the right time of the year.
When harvesting the peat moss, the more desirable product is the top layers. The manufacturing companies market the lower levels of peat as a cheap fuel.
Occasionally, a bog may experience ignition after drying out, resulting in an underground fire as the peat burns away.
Is Peat Moss the Best Choice for Your Garden?
When thinking about purchasing peat moss for your garden, you need to think about the environmental impact you have on the planet. Currently, peat harvesting is under review due to its high cost to the local flora and fauna that use bogs as a natural habitat.
To harvest peat, companies must essentially destroy these habitats, causing the destruction and displacement of local wildlife. Bogs and mires are tremendous sources of biodiversity. Several activist groups protect the destruction of these environments for commercial purposes.
Peat moss reserves grow slowly, at a are of around 1/16th of an inch per year. While manufacturers claim they use sustainable harvesting practices, there is no government authority regulating the market or the production and harvesting of peat moss.
Some countries like Canada have excellent systems for tracking their peat moss reserves, while others have no plans in place. Some countries even placed bans on the sale of peat moss due to the government’s inability to regulate the market and commercial producers.
Scotland and Ireland are leading the way in global peat protection, returning the natural landscape to a non-commercial project. According to science, peat bogs are a significant contributor to the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
What are Options for Peat Replacements?
So, now that we understand that the horrors of the commercial peat industry are destroying the planet, it’s probably best for gardeners to avoid peat and use another material.
Ethical gardening might not be for everyone. However, you can consider several peat replacements for your garden that aren’t destroying natural habitats in the wild.
Creating a compost heap in the corner of your yard is a great idea if you have space. Natural compost costs you nothing, and all you need are garden trimmings and a bit of time to get rich, organic compost for your flowerbeds.
However, you might not have the space for a compost heap. If that’s the case, then you can use the following suitable soil amendments to replace your need for peat moss in the garden.
We just talked about how a compost heap can give you a never-ending supply of nutrients for your garden. However, if you don’t have the space for a compost heap, you can always pick some up from the local nursery.
Organic compost is a great choice for a soil amendment. It improves airflow while adding vital nutrients into the soil for your plants to feed on throughout the growing season. You can add the compost into your flowerbeds of pots before planting or sprinkle it around the base of the plants for a light mulch during the growing season.
Compost is affordable, organic material and widely used in gardens around the world. Choosing it as a replacement for peat moss will provide you all the same benefits without the ecological devastation caused by peat harvesting practices.
Sand, Mulch, and Leaves
Compost is a great choice for a peat replacement due to the high nutrient value of the material for your flowerbeds. However, it’s not the only natural material you can add to the soil to improve the texture and consistency.
When added in the right quantities, sand, mulch, and leaves are organic materials that can improve soil quality. Plus, you can find these materials in your yard, reducing the costs of your soil amendments this growing season.
Adding sand improves the draining capability of the soil while adding airflow to the roots. Mulch releases nutrients into the ground and locks in moisture. At the same time, Leaves also break down, sending nutrients into the earth while limiting evaporation.
However, it’s important to note that you should only use freshly harvested leaves from the lawn. Old leaf piles are a source of fungi, and you don’t want to add these pathogens to your flowerbeds.
This soil amendment is a lesser-known material starting to gain traction with gardeners across the United States and the globe. Perlite is essentially expanded volcanic rock, with a visual resemblance of small white Styrofoam balls.
You can pick up perlite from your local nursery in large bags for little cost, and it’s a fantastic addition to your flowerbeds. Including perlite with your soil mix adds airflow to the soil while allowing for moisture retention in the ground.
Perlite also improves drainage, and the material absorbs nutrients, steadily releasing them into the soil with each watering. Adding a few handfuls to the base around the plant during planting ensures that you enhance the drainage and water retention in the ground. It’s ideal for use in dry climates where rainfall is scarce.
It’s important that gardeners don’t confuse perlite and vermiculite. Perlite is a light, white volcanic rock, while vermiculite has a gold/black color and a dusty, somewhat powdery appearance. Vermiculite comes in slightly bigger chunks with an irregular shape, and it feels spongy between your fingers.
Adding vermiculite to your soil mix increases its ability to hold onto water. It’s the ideal amendment for flowerbeds in dry regions of the country. Vermiculite occurs naturally as the result of super-heated aluminum iron magnesium silicate, resembling mica in its appearance.
Vermiculite can hold up to three to for times its volume in water. The material also absorbs nutrients, helping to slow release into the soil. This natural material comes in four sizes, and it’s commercially available at almost every nursery.
The small vermiculite product is great for starting seedlings. The material has a neutral to slightly alkaline pH, avoiding the acidity you get with peat moss. It’s also affordable, making it a great choice for a low-cost amendment for your soil.
This organic material is fast becoming one of the more popular peat replacements for use in potted plants. Coco noir offers you a husky material that’s light, air, coarse, and ideal for adding to your soil mix. Manufactures harvest the cocoa noir from the husks of coconut shells.
Coco noir is available from most nurseries as a standalone product or as an amendment to soil premixes. You can combine cocoa noir with other gardening materials like vermiculite, perlite, and compost to create a rich, airy blend that your plants will love.
Since coco noir comes as a byproduct of harvesting and manufacturing coconuts, it’s a much more eco-friendly product than peat moss. Coco noir seems dry and husky when you rub it between your fingers. However, it’s actually really absorbent, improving the drainage and water retention in the flowerbeds and pots in your yard.
Worm farmers and hydroponic gardeners rely on coco noir to help them grow and raise worms for casting production.
When Should You Use Peat In Your Garden?
Unfortunately, few of the gardening resources we utilize come from sustainable and renewable resources. Composting and mulching your garden waste is probably the most efficient way to create a sustainable soil amendment for your flowerbeds and garden.
However, that doesn’t mean that peat can’t have a place in your gardening practices. If you have to use peat moss, use it sparingly and for garden tasks like fuel for your tiller, or saving water for your garden. If you have choices for other options, then go with some of the ones we outlined earlier.
If you have a natural bog near your area, don’t go digging around in it for your peat. Remember, there is local wildlife that depends on the marsh for their survival. Digging up slabs of peat moss might seem like it’s saving you tons of money, but it costs the local environment a fortune.
Please stick to the alternatives we mentioned in this post, and avoid using peat moss in your garden where you can. However, if you have to use peat moss, don’t let us judge your decision. As long as you use it sparingly and responsibly, there’s nothing wrong with adding this organic material to your flowerbeds and potted plants.