Ministry of Controversy

Did you hear the one about Peat and RePeat?

Here’s another lawsuit targeting an alternative to an established garden product, in this case peat moss. The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association, Premier Horticulture, Inc. and Sun Gro Horticulture Distribution have filed a complaint against Organix, Inc. for its “RePeat” brand soil amendment. According to the Organix website, RePeat, developed as a renewable replacement for peat moss, is manufactured by recycling anaerobically digested dairy manure from renewable energy biogas plants. (This yucky-sounding process is explained on the website.)

I have only occasionally purchased peat moss as an ingredient among others in growing mix, but I’m not a big fan. I like dirt. It seems to hold water better and plants seem to do better in it. In my few encounters with peat moss, I’ve really hated it: blows all over the place, gets in your eyes, hair, nose, just a big pain to work with. But I know the mixes are used for seed starting, and everybody else I see at Home Depot seems to need it by the ton. If the peat bogs, which are wildlife habitats, are endangered, then I would agree that creating a sustainable substitute is important.

However, I have to sympathize a bit with the plaintiffs here. If the stuff isn’t peat, then why call it RePeat? Why not say “peat moss substitute” or something? I would further wonder: is it possible to do without peat moss? I thnk it might be for home gardeners, but pehaps not for the nurseries.

Posted by on November 4, 2007 at 5:08 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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17 responses to “Did you hear the one about Peat and RePeat?”

  1. firefly says:

    Actually, I think the issue is, why does the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association think it has a lock on the name “peat moss,” which was not arrived at as a trade term in the first place? Isn’t that a little bit like trying to lay claim to “sand” in court because you manufacture childrens’ sandboxes?

    Sounds like somebody knows their material is on shaky legs to begin with. You can start seeds in any kind of sterilized potting soil, and some of them prefer direct sowing.

    This “substitute” sounds interesting because peat also has the nasty habit of drying out quicker than surrounding soils so young seed plugs have to be watered more frequently until their roots grow outside the original cell boundaries.

    Sphagnum moss is also capable of transmitting a fungal skin disease to forestry workers, according to this:

    http://www.ext.vt.edu/departments/envirohort/articles/misc/sphagnum.html

  2. What firefly said. I’m not sure about Canadian law, but in US trademark law you can’t own a generic word. So their only case would be proving that consumers are confused by the naming and think they’re buying peat. Then it’s more a “false advertising” case than a trademark case. Anyway, I’m disgusted by their move.

    I’m aware of the need to move to other things besides peat for planting. I don’t use peat indiscriminately. At this point I only use it for plants, such as my blueberries or miracle fruit, that need acid soil. And before I read this post I was just about to post on some gardening forums asking more experienced gardeners if they knew of other ways to acidify soil.

  3. sandra says:

    I agree with Elizabeth and Firefly about all the disadvantages of using ‘peat moss’ in the garden.
    However it is possible that ‘peat moss’ is some sort of trade name. Peat, which when I lived in the Shetland Islands was used for fuel, is vegetable matter decomposed by water and partly carbonised. I think that the ‘moss’ in the original use of ‘peat moss’is an old word for a bog, rather than for the plants that make up the moss family which don’t neccessarily grow in bogs either.
    In my experience peat and peat mosses exist where there is already surface ground water for it to steep in and, usually, high rainfall and cool temperatures to keep it moist. I have never really understood why it should be considered to hold water in other soils. So the question might in the end turn out to be in this court case, that both are dependent on misleading advertising.

  4. eliz says:

    Yes, I read somewhere in all this that peat moss is supposed to hold water well–that’s a total crock.

    Spidra, there must be better ways to acidify soil. Wouldn’t composted leaf matter/coffee grounds, etc. work as well or better?

  5. ann says:

    I like how the plaintiff’s letter, in support of its claim that “RePeat” is a “false, misleading, or confusing trademark”, says “when searching under the products tab on Organix’s website, one first sees the ‘RePeat’ name in large letters, followed by the subscript, ‘the renewable peat moss substitute’… the website then lists three lines of information about the product, but fails to mention that RePeat contains no peat, but consists of dairy manure.”

    Perhaps because most people comprehend the meaning of the word “substitute”?

    What’s next, the turkey farmers of America suing the Tofurkey making company? it has a T and urkey, it’s confusing!

    although if they changed the name, it might make it easier for consumers to find the product online. RePeat, how many Google hits does that word get…

  6. Lisa says:

    Except for seed starting, I’d happily switch to a cow-poop based potting soil. I don’t know whether it would do any better than peat-based or coir-based potting mixes, but I’m always up for anything using microbes and manure. I used to add powdered bentonite or fine granulated bentonite (aka unscented clumping kitty litter) to my potting mix along with some organic fertilizer anyways. The bentonite enhances nutrient and water retention in the mix–just don’t add too much. I also like to add some decomposed granite or granite chicken grit. But I digress–

    I don’t know where the plaintiffs in this case get off. Gardeners can READ, yanno?

  7. peter Hoh says:

    Well, I’ll confess to using peat moss in my garden. I use it to amend compacted soil, to make my own potting mix, and to store my canna tubers during the winter.

    I can’t tell you if it actually works or if I’m just using it out of habit. I’ve always used it.

    I was under the impression that the environmental concerns about peat moss were largely related to the impact of peat harvest in the UK, while the Canadian industry was sustainable. I’ll try to learn more — I suspect that the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association might not be the most unbiased source for such information.

    Would I use RePeat? I’ll probably give it a try when it comes to a garden center near me.

  8. eliz, I was reading up on coffee grounds and they’re Ph neutral-ish. I use them in my garden anyway. It’s not like I’m using peat like crazy. I think I’ve bought 1 bag of it in the 4 years I’ve lived in this house. And I’m actively looking for substitutes as far as acidifying soil is concerned. Lawsuit? Ridiculous.

  9. Claire Splan says:

    From what I hear, nurseries are in fact gradually making the switch from peat to coir, which is considered sustainable. It’s hard for me to imagine there are enough coconuts out there to keep all of us in seed and soil mix, however. And there’s also the issue of where the coir is coming from and how much energy is used shipping it all over the world … and sometimes trying to be “sustainable” just makes my head hurt.

  10. eliz says:

    Spidra, that’s interesting about the grounds–as you can guess I’ve never really had to think about acidifying, It’s already quite acid here.

  11. Elizabeth, your comment about dirt versus peat moss is a bit surprising (” I like dirt. It seems to hold water better and plants seem to do better in it”) if you truly mean you prefer to garden in dirt, i.e., plain mineral soil. Plain mineral soil would be described as “poor” soil, lacking the structure and nutrients necessary for a majority of plant life.

    If the “dirt” you so prefer seems to retain moisture well, and allows for the successful growing of plants, then we know it ain’t dirt. It’s decent-to-good gardening soil. If it retains moisture, it MUST have some healthy degree of organic matter in it. If it were lacking in this regard, adding peat moss would certainly help it retain moisture, and help plants grow better.

    To anyone who wonders if peat moss has good moisture-retention qualities, buy a large compressed bale, slit it open, soak it completely with a hose, cut off the entire top of the bag (leaving the bottom and sides), let it sit in full sun, and tell me how many days it takes before you’re strong enough to budge the bale one inch.

    Applicable to gardening, little in nature or laboratory retains more moisture per volume than peat moss. It’s the main ingredient in every brand of soiless potting mix you can buy for a reason.

    And I don’t use it much. It’s not the greatest soil additive. It’s good for perhaps a season, copious amounts will greatly improve soil chemisty, moisture retention, and structure for maybe two season, but after that, it pretty well peters out. (Sorry.)

    Compost doesn’t retain moisture quite as well, but is a rougher, better soil lightener (peat moss is wimpy), and the effects of compost last longer in soil.

    As to the peat producers filing a complaint against Organix/”RePeat”, they have every right to, and should. It doesn’t matter if “peat” or “peat moss” is a registered or trademarked brand or trade name. The law looks at intent and potential for a) confusion and b) profiteering from similarity in “established name,” packaging, or advertising that takes advantage of other products. The legal area of “trade dress” will no doubt come into play in this, and trade dress always includes product name, registered or unregistered, generic or trademarked. The law looks at what meaning as been established in society by the word or words in debate.

    For instance, “brick” in not a registered or trademarked product name, yet you cannot call a product brick unless it is exactly that, a short list of organic and syntheitc ingredients that are then hardened by heat. The brick manufacturing associations win those lawsuit every time. It’s the reason why concrete products must be called concrete pavers, and not bricks. It protects the consumer.

    It might seem like a trifling matter here, but in the end, it ensures better understanding and the ability for fair and reasonable judgment on the part of us all.

    RENEGADE GARDENER

  12. eliz says:

    Yes, RG, I mean an amended soil, as all mine is, more or less.

    But I’m also saying I don’t like soil-free mixes much. I don’t use them for potting. I really dislike working with peat moss, but I don’t do seeds so it’s not much of an issue for me. But I gotta say I have not seen much water retention in those mixes and I know they have a lot of pm in them. Could be the pots I use, the exposure, who knows.

  13. Eliz, I was deathly certain that your comment concerning a preference for “dirt” implied amended dirt, fabulous dirt, Elizabeth Licata Special Blend Premium Dirt, but you know me, I’m a stickler for definition.

    And surprised you don’t like soiless mixes for containers. The big selling point is that they are so light, the very fine roots of annuals penetrate and grow much more readily than in a soil-based medium. They are blended very carefully so that when you (or rain) oversaturates the medium, the excess water drains out the bottom, and what’s left retained in the medium is the perfect mixture of water and air.

    The amount of vermiculite (or perlite) is key in this regard, it acts as the primary water retainer, releasing H20 as needed into the peat moss, which has the primary function of plant stability, yet is easier for roots to penetrate than mineral soil. A small amount of sand is standing by to usher excess H20 to the drainage hole.

    My experience with containers has been that in full day, full sun exposure, plants perform far better in soiless mixes.

    But your point about the pots you use and other exposures (shade, for instance, where soilless mixes can stay moist for too long) and even what you are growing certainly create situations where how you are doing it and what you are using works better than a soiless mix.

    Besides, you’re probably growing all sorts of fancy-schmancy containers with canna lilies and hosta and kniphofia and sweet corn, and up here in Minnesota I’m growing, like, pansies. What works best for each gardener is always right.

    RENEGADE GARDENER

  14. Michele Owens says:

    Peter Hoh, I don’t even bother packing my cannas in anything. Just throw them in a box, stick in basement. And they haven’t dried out for me.

    I hate dealing with peat moss and don’t want to deplete the world’s peat bogs without a reason. So, I use wood shavings for packing my dahlias. Works great, with a moistening or two in Feb. or March.

  15. firefly says:

    “For instance, “brick” in not a registered or trademarked product name, yet you cannot call a product brick unless it is exactly that, a short list of organic and syntheitc ingredients that are then hardened by heat.”

    Then you better get on the phone and let the Brick Manufacturers Association of America know that people are actually making bricks of something called “coir.” And some other people are making bricks of something called “tea.”

    Scandalous, ain’t it? What happens if someone makes a house of tea bricks? or coconut fiber? and it RAINS? Oh, the humanity!

    Seems perhaps the interpretation of the law is selective, as in whenever a corporation or other body wants to limit market competition.

    Kleenex can sue if someone uses their trade name, but not over the term “tissue.” I think the same should be true for a botanical term like “peat.”

    And, for those who are wondering, “peat moss” is harvested from sphagnum moss bogs — it’s the underlayer of dead material that the living moss is growing in.

    Not all peat is from sphagnum moss — heather is a big part of bogs in Ireland. “Peat” is partially decomposed vegetable matter, often waterlogged, with an acidic pH and a high level of tannins.

    In other words, the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association does not have a lock on the term “peat,” and unless Organix specifically calls their product “Sphagnum RePeat” then I don’t think they should be waving their lawyers at anybody.

  16. Firefly, I failed to distinguish the point that brick manufacturers look to protect the definition of “brick” as it relates to commerical building materials, and are not overly concerned about products used in other capacities made from tea and coir. And they never lifted a finger back in the days when marijuana was sold at the wholesale level in “bricks,” that I ever noticed.

    RG

  17. eliz says:

    Well, though I think Firelfy and others have raised excellent points, my only thing remains what I said in the post. Why call if it peat if there’s no peat? To me “repeat” implies “double peat” “even more peat,” not “better than peat.” It’s a language thing.

    Having said that, I am very interested in trying out RePeat, if I think I need something like that. Which I probably do. I am sure my soil is crying out for all kinds of help I’ve been denying it.

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