For many years, and for many garden beds I would revel in buying peat moss, a cheap and effective garden amendment that conditions soil. Peat moss is lightweight, holds on to moisture, but not too much, it prevents soil compaction, it is a sterile medium for starting seeds, and it also has slight acidity, which many garden plants thrive in. It seems like such a no brainer that something that good for the garden would be great to use for the garden. It’s often even labeled organic. Unfortunately though, peat moss comes with a heavy environmental impact.
First off, what is peat moss (or sometimes sphagnum moss)? They are collection of tiny moss plants that, either alive or dead, hold onto impressive quantities of water. Again, this sounds great in theory, a plant based way to improve soil structure to grow plants in optimum conditions. There are some problems though, however.
Peat moss, much like fossil fuels, takes a long time to develop. One inch of peat moss may take 15-20 years to develop (1). Most peat moss sold in the United States comes from the boreal forests of Canada (2). According to the Washington Post, “Peatlands store a third of the world’s soil carbon, and their harvesting and use releases carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas driving climate change.” Mining peat also strips the upper living layer of plants to reach the decomposed and partially decomposed areas. Peat forests cover around 2% of the earth’s land, mostly in Russia and Canada.
In the United States, peat moss use is on the rise. In many places in Europe, countries are moving away from its use. The Royal Horticultural Society in the UK, for example, has helped reduce peat moss use by 97%.
If you want to reduce your use of peat moss, there are many different alternatives. Coconut coir is a great medium for starting seeds and conditioning soil. Compost and worm castings offer similar benefits for soil conditioning. Natural mulches such as wood chips, straw, or leaf mold also break down over time to condition soil, as well as help to improve drainage and evaporation.
Garden College. https://gardencollage.com/change/climate-change/stop-using-peat-moss/ July 1017.
Higgins, Adrian. Is This Popular Gardening Material Bad for the Planet? Washington Post. May 2017.