We find ourselves in the middle of a great gardening dilemma. Is gardening with peat moss environmentally irresponsible? Most of us don’t give our gardening practices a second thought. If something works, fine. If not, try something different. How often do we consider where any of the products that we use in our gardens come from?
Peat moss is a fibrous organic material that is extremely lightweight. It has tremendous water holding capacity and is considered to be the perfect medium for growing plants in containers. It is tightly compressed into bale size bundles and sold as a soil enhancer. In parts of the world where oil and natural gas are scarce, peat is an important fuel for home heating and cooking. The use of peat as fuel accounts for nearly half of the annual global harvest.
Here’s the controversy. Peat bogs store billions of tons of carbon, more than all of the trees on earth. The mining of peat releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. What’s more, peat releases carbon as it burns or decomposes. Some peat bogs even release carbon into the air long after they’ve been mined. These carbon emissions are significant contributors to global climate change.
Peat is composed of wetland vegetation, predominantly Sphagnum moss. This moss grows on the surface of the bog. The accumulation of this material in the marshy environment forms Sphagnum peat. The gradual build-up of peat is the first step in the geological formation of fossil fuels such as coal. Peat accumulates at less than one millimeter per year. At this slow rate, it takes thousands of years for a harvestable amount of peat to form. Most modern peat bogs began to form more than 10,000 years ago.
Most of the peat used in American horticulture comes from Canada. Canadian bogs account for 25 percent of the world’s peatlands. Fewer than 1 percent of Canada’s peat reserves are subject to harvesting, according to a recent report from Cornell University. The Canadian government strictly regulates the mining and maintenance of its peatlands. In Great Britain, the use of peat is even more controlled. The British government has called for an end to the use of peat in backyard gardens by 2020. Even with stringent controls, can a resource that grows so slowly be considered sustainable?
Are there acceptable alternatives to using peat moss in our gardens? Maybe. Coconut fiber is called coir (pronounced core). It’s the byproduct of coconut production and has been promoted as the favored replacement of peat. It’s lightweight and has the same water holding capacity as peat. Most of the global supply of coir comes from the Philippines, India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. The fuel required to ship such vast distances would cancel any environmental benefits. What’s worse, rain forests are being cut down to meet the growing demand for coconut plantations. Lastly, coir fiber production generates significant water pollution such as organic toxins and harmful bacteria.
Like most gardeners, Rachel and I try to be good stewards of our environment. We no longer use peat for any in-ground projects. Leaf mold and compost have proven to more than adequate. We’ve also quit using peat moss in our rose beds. We only use peat moss in hanging baskets and containers. We blend our own potting mix and have reduced our annual use of peat moss from 10 cubic yards to two. We still have room for improvement. Awareness is the first step to being a responsible gardener.
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org