In recent years, gardening trends have shifted significantly towards the environmentally friendly. Organic fertilizer, native plant varieties, and drought-tolerant landscaping are easy choices. But sometimes green isn’t as easy as it seems. Such is the case with sphagnum peat moss.
Renewable doesn’t mean sustainable
What is peat moss? Many of the people who use the product don’t know the answer, or at least not the full answer to that question. It is natural, nontoxic, and renewable. It is an excellent growing medium or additive to certain heavy soil types. Unfortunately, it is also destructive and non-sustainable.
Peat is not grown in a field and harvested every autumn. It is grown by nature, in peat bogs that took hundreds or thousands of years to form. Yes, it is “renewable” by some definitions. However, the rate of renewal is so slow, and the rate of consumption so rapid, that the term hardly applies. The United States alone imports nearly a million tons of peat moss a year. About 6 million tons of peat moss is used for monoculture purposes around the globe with an additional 16 million tons used for fuel.
Natural doesn’t mean nature-friendly
The problem with peat moss goes beyond the fact that it is being used up. Like many other dwindling natural resources, peat bogs serve an important function in nature. They have been compared to rainforests in their importance. In fact, there is more carbon stored in peat bogs around the world than there is in all of the rainforests. Like burning coal, when peat is harvested and disturbed, that carbon is released back into the environment.
Of course, peat bogs are not simply nature’s carbon storage containers. They are complex, delicate, and unique ecosystems, providing a unique habitat that is essential to many species. Some species of butterflies, which thrived in peat bogs, decreased in numbers by 90 percent when the bogs were drained for harvesting. Often these areas transition to forests, but that does not repair the damage to the area’s biodiversity.
Peat moss may be beneficial in a garden, but it is certainly not essential. Many alternatives exist, including coir (coconut dust), which is sometimes called “coconut peat.” It is actually a byproduct of coconut harvesting. While the longer fibers from husks are retained for textile use, the dust and short fibers have traditionally been treated as waste. A study from the University of Arkansas found that coir performed comparably to peat moss as a soil amendment.
For gardeners simply needing to increase the organic matter in soil, compost is an excellent alternative. A simple bin backyard composting system can simultaneously reduce household waste and produce an excellent soil amendment.