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Jeff Ball Defends Peat Moss

Guest Rant by Jeff Ball, the Yardening Guru

I am really getting tired of reading newspapers, magazines and books that tell us we should not use Canadian spaghnum peat moss in our landscapes because it is not a renewable resource. That, my friends is a bunch of hokum. This nonsense has been promulgated consistently for 20 years. How long does it take writers to begin doing some basic research and find they are completely wrong.

And now we have the new website Landscape for Life sponsored by people supposedly in the know, including the United States Botanical Garden, telling us again to avoid using Canadian peat moss.

Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry Peatharvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.

This information has been readily available for 20 years from the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. The bugaboo in all this is that in Europe peat moss is definitely not a renewable resource. As soon as a writer reads about European peat moss, they extend the same assumption over to the Canadian peat. At least now everybody in southeastern Michigan knows the straight skinny.

I have always been high on using peat moss for various tasks each season:

1. If you don’t have chopped leaves to leave on your lawn each fall, a mixture of peat moss and some compost is just as good. Buy a bale of peat moss and mix it with a couple of bags of compost like Organimax. Spread the mixture over the lawn with a grass rake in a layer thin enough so you can’t see it. That combination becomes food for the soil food web over the winter.

2. If you have compacted clay soil, mixing in a good dose of peat moss will help to keep that clay soil from compacting and become a good place to raise plants. Peat moss stores an enormous amount of water but at the same time drains very well.

3. Any quality commercial potting mix is composed primarily of Canadian peat moss. Avoid any mixes containing sedge peat moss also called Michigan peat.

All too often our misguided writers recommend replacing peat moss with a product called “coir” that is made from crushed coconut shells. Most of it comes from Indonesia, so the carbon foot-print for coir is very high because it has to be shipped a long distance. It has a much higher salt content than does peat moss. And finally, most of the coconut groves producing coir require cutting down the rain forest to create the space for the trees.

So now you know why I prefer to use Canadian spaghnum peat moss in my lawn and gardens.

Jeff Ball is a freelance garden writer living in the Detroit region.

Posted by on December 11, 2010 at 5:01 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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25 Responses to “Jeff Ball Defends Peat Moss”

  1. Worms love Peat Moss.
    I’ve dug a few two-foot cubed bales into clayey soil along a backyard fence and been rewarded 6 months later with more worms that you can shake a stick at.
    And this in Toronto, too.
    Charles Darwin would have embraced Peat Moss, I think.

  2. Christy says:

    This article would be far more convincing if the resource for the facts about Canadian peat moss came from a more non-biased organization.

    All of the members of the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association appear to be Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss sellers. I can’t help but to be a little skeptical of their motives.

  3. rosmar says:

    Using a little peat moss doesn’t seem to be a big environmental problem. But also, notice from the industry’s own website: “It will take hundreds of years to replace all the peat that was removed…” They go on to say that, despite that, they can recreate all the important functions of a bog.

  4. Jeff Ball says:

    I have to trust a source I’ve worked closely with for 25 years. I have visited bogs in Alberta. I have given talks to the Association on three or four occasions at their annual meetings and have gotten to know these peat moss sellers pretty well. Those sellers are the ones that accepted the need to actively take steps to restore a harvested peat bog with replanting. It is good data.
    Jeff

  5. Rileys_GC says:

    Here in Kingston we use Fafard as our peat supplier. They were recently awarded the first-ever VeriFlora certification for responsible management of peatlands. All it takes is a little research and education to separate the good from the bad.

  6. Great post and happy news! I’ve been avoiding using peat moss for years because I was told that it was nonrenewable. I understand the confusion, but it’s also true that “a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Thanks, Jeff & Garden Rant.

  7. Hap says:

    While your rant has valid points I have to say that I disagree on several points:

    Peat bogs are one of the planet’s largest and perhaps best ecosystems at long term carbon sequestering. Strip mining them not only releases that carbon, but huge amounts of methane which is a high powered greenhouse gas. It does so at the destruction of a species rich environment that does not bounce back with species diversity in any real sense. And with the destruction of the ecosystem there is an issue of “acid” runoff entering local waterways and impacting the fisheries.

    Coir is a by-product from coconut plantations producing food and oil, as well as an extra commodity that brings in income from locally harvested “wild” trees in many locations. The husks being used for coir or fiber help raise the income of some of the world’s poorest people without jeopardizing their food production. And while a lot of Coir comes from south Asia and Indo-Pacific countries it is also being exported from Mexico and Central America. Modern Coir has very little salt issues, though when it first hit the market it certainly did. Since it is shipped via the ocean it has very low “carbon-points” due transportation and it would be interesting to see the energy input of that ocean freight, compared to the “carbon-points” of peat that is extracted using enormous diesel powered mining equipment and land based transportation. But those kind of numbers are hard to come by and I certainly can’t afford to pay for the impartial study.

    I don’t think either product is really sustainable in the long term, but we all have to make choices that work for our gardens, houseplants and in my case business. I use more coir than peat… but I use both. We are testing using local rice hulls to replace both. Unfortunately while rice hulls make a great potting soil ingredient they do not hold moisture like coir or peat, nor do they seem to give any “grip” to the slow release organic nutrients we mix in to the soil… and we see much lower nutrient persistence in the pot. There is a “fluffed” rice hull option out there, but but I feel adding a factory process and the energy load that would take, sort of defeats the the whole idea. Hopefully using “lightly composted” rice hulls will make a difference.

    But then trying to be “sustainable” is all about making choices that work for the task at hand, while taking in to consideration the impact of those choices make and making the best choice you can. After seeing peat bog strip mines in Canada and Alaska I choose to try not to use it.

  8. UrsulaV says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Christy…they may indeed be absolutely correct, but nobody can claim they don’t have a vested interest, so good journalism would really require another source. Is there a third party that investigates this sort of thing independently?

  9. Jeff Ball says:

    I refer Hap and others to the devastating report by the Center for Science In The Public Insterest called “Cruel Oil” referring to palm oil and coconut plantations. They show strong evidence that coconut plantations in Southeast Asia do very serious harm to rain forests and wildlife. It is bad stuff.
    We all make our choices. Most of us still drive a gasoline powered car. Most of us use electricity coming from coal burning power plants. Most of us eat a fair amount of beef coming for factory farms. All making serious contributions to the causes of global warming, much more, I suspect, than the harvesting of Canadian peat moss. Those of us in the garden writing business would be a sorry group if the U.S. hort industry was forced to stop using peat moss. It’s an absolutely critical horticultural material.
    So I continue to use peat moss. I don’t recommend anyone using coir. And I’m saving up for my first electric car.

  10. Foy says:

    I don’t have to buy a product from Canada. I can use local stuff – dare I say it? – uber local stuff, the leaves from my own trees. Instead of arguing for or againest imported materials why don’t we just go local?

  11. John Walker says:

    How convenient (and predictable) that Jeff’s pro-peat-industry rant doesn’t mention the carbon released by mining peat. The irony of using peat is that it is contributing to global warming which in turn is drying out/thawing peat bogs worldwide leading to the release of even more greenhouse gases.

    Materials are only renewable if they are replenished at the rate at which they are extracted: peat bogs grow at 1mm per year and yet on average we rip off 200mm/annum. Saying there is plenty of the stuff is a distraction and suggesting peat is a renewable resource is pure industry spin which you now find everywhere, including here in the UK.

    He also conveniently seems to have forgotten that mining peat destroys pristine and irreplaceable landscapes where other species live.

    I recently wrote an article on the delusion of peat being a ‘green’ and ‘renewable’ resource:

    http://www.kitchengarden.co.uk/news/the-peat-delusion

  12. Hap says:

    Jeff,

    I agree Palm Oil Plantations are devastating to tropical lowlands! I was appalled when I saw them in Costa Rica, but we should not confuse plantations of Elaeis guineensis ‘African Oil Palm’ with Cocos nucifera ‘Coconut Palm’, which is not grown in the same extensive factory farm monoculture manner as Oil Palm in most of the world (yes, there are exceptions). In most places Coconuts are usually grown as an ancillary permaculture crop or simply harvested from naturally occurring groves. However the main difference (other than environmental degradation) is Coconuts are grown primarily for a food source, where Oil Palms are pretty much only grown to produce oil for export for use in cosmetics and a few other industrial uses. But “the big picture thing” is Coir is a by-product of food production, so it is a “value added” product, which in the developing world is asset as well as making use of the “whole product” and that is one of the driving ideas behind sustainable agriculture.

    And being part of the horticultural trade I doubt that peat will ever disappear from use, but reducing it’s use has benefits and is certainly being discussed in the trade magazines and the growers I work with. My goal is to source all our soil ingredients within 500 miles, which other than coir or peat, we do for all of the main structural ingredients. For the slow release nutrients it is more difficult and will take a lot more testing and creative resourcing. I am rather happy with Neem Seed Meal (the by-product left after extracting Neem Oil) and it’s residual anti fungal and insecticidal properties on top of it’s nicely balanced fertilizer ratios. But it is from India and that is a long way to travel to get mixed in to potting soil. So we are testing other ingredients to find something local that is also a byproduct with low energy input. I had hope for Olive Oil crush residue, but it is difficult to get in reasonable amounts for a small grower and does not test out as well. But I will keep looking and make the best choices I can.

  13. Michelle D says:

    I’ve never had the need to use peat moss exclusively.
    There has always been adequate products available to use that gets the job done without using it.
    To renovate and maintain a healthy organic lawn there is plain old compost to feed the soil web, no peat is required.
    If one has heavy clay soil, which is ideal for holding moisture, there is no reason to add peat as a moisture retentive additive, that’s redundant. If you want to alleviate compaction then improve the tilth with adding more air space via larger granular organic materials such as rice hulls or pumice.
    As far as using a high quality potting or seeding mix, one can find many on the market that does not contain peat.
    It’s not that I go out of my way to avoid using peat, it’s just that there is no reason to use it when there are other products locally and readily available. .

  14. Jess L. says:

    Here’s Linda Chalker-Scott’s pretty good assessment of problems with peat moss, FYI:

    http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~linda%20chalker-scott/horticultural%20myths_files/Myths/Horticultural%20%20peat.pdf

    I, too, am skeptical of data from inside an industry. Not that it is guaranteed to be false, but it does beg for independent verification.

  15. Nothing beats peat for potting up carnivorous plants and planting blueberries. I prefer coir’s moisure-retaining properties, as it forms a nice crust on top that keeps the moisture at soil level. And we use it to keep the moisture level of our worm bin perfect.

    We humans eat a whole lot of coconuts – milk, meat and juice. We’ll continue to have a lot of coir as a byproduct, so it’s a good thing we are using it.

  16. vicki says:

    Aside from the “renewable or not” question, I hate the stuff. When the bloody stuff dries out, it repels water. And since I have trouble with drought, there’s no way I’m going to swallow the hogwash that peat is a good way to help the earth in my garden retain moisture. Coir works much, much better.

    And, I’m sorry, but the math calculated by the industry that profits from peat moss harvesting is suspect, at best. And, the whole renewable argument re coir is a much easier one to swallow.

  17. greg draiss says:

    And there is talk as well the earth is continuosly producing oil too. After all this nonsense that by digging a hole you are cotributing to global warming those who promote this fact need to know they are elitists snobs who claim they know how to dig a hole better than I do and are blatantly creating a case of hubris. Enough already. Peat moss is a complicated compost system.

    To the eco-warrior who says peat bogs are the best place on earth to filter pollution: It may be true but nobody lives near peat bogs so there is little pollution to filter. I suggest then you begin digging your own primordial swamp to become a peat bog. Good luck since the Army Corps has rights to your back yard.

    I am just waiting for someone here to declare gardening a contributor to global warming/cooling/change (insert next fake distaster here)……..

    The TROLL

  18. alan haigh says:

    From a horticultural standpoint, I disagree strongly with Jeff on the efficacy of peat moss. It is a wonderful component in potting soils where its main weakness is its quick breakdown to humus once removed from the bog. This only means that plants must be frequently repotted as the more condensed soil looses drainage.

    However, as a soil amendment it is far less affective than a quality compost for the very same reason- it quickly disappears when removed from the highly acidic, anaerobic conditions of a bog. You will get far better bang for the buck using compost when creating raised beds in clay soils and also for serving the nutritional needs of lawns and plants in general.

    For related research, check out Carl Whitcombs studies on the fate of peat moss as a soil amendment.

    By the way, when that peat breaks down it is releasing carbon in the atmosphere- in the bogs it’s more or less sequestered.

  19. David says:

    I also would agree that using coir makes more ecological sense as it is a byproduct that would otherwise be wasted, and it does add revenue to poorer countries where the extra income is a great boon. I use it for soil mixes and new landscapes, and it has given me excellent results over the years without making the soil more saline in a northern California context. Conflating what is happening with oil palm plantations on converted rain forests with coconut plantations is sloppy statistics, as new coconut palm plantations are not the prime culprit, the market for coconut products is no where near the demand for oil from oil palms.

    If the statistic sited that 200mm of peat is removed yearly while it only 1mm per year is the natural growth rate is in fact correct, it doesn’t hold that the peat is being harvested sustainably.

    Also, it is rather ignorant of the Troll to assume that just because there are no large population centers or industry in northern Canada where peat is harvested, therefore there is no pollution. In fact, it is a proven fact that chemicals in air pollution are concentrated at the poles, due to global air currents. What looks pristine may in fact be more polluted than in the lower 48 states. Many marine mammals at far northern latitudes in particular have higher chemical concentrations in their fat and blood than most Americans do.

    I’ll stick to coir, thank-you very much, as I believe it is more beneficial to help relieve poverty in the tropics, as well as fully utilize a waste byproduct of tropical agriculture, and it is a proven renewable resource from an already existing industry.

  20. amy manning says:

    Thanks for the post. I was just thinking I needed to make some seedling soil, and one of the ingredients is peat moss, which I’ve been feeling anxious about.

  21. Mary says:

    I am glad that you explained this to me. I hate it when good things are brushed aside. I have a very bad piece of land that I can not grow anything on. I am going to try this system and see if I can turn it into a work of art. I love this site because you never know what you are going to learn.

  22. Frank Hyman says:

    Locally produced compost is a pretty darn good substitute for trucked-in peat, whether you’re potting things up or planting blueberries, etc. Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery uses 2 parts compost and one part sand for his potting soil and I ‘ve switched to that mix as well. Happily. And as far as needing peat to make the soil acidic enough for blueberries–any pile of organic matter is acidic. How do you think blueberries were planted before we had bags of peat. For peat’s sake.

  23. alan haigh says:

    Actually organic matter becomes sweeter as it decomposes and even peat moss is a poor acidifier long term. If you test soil pH in undisturbed woods around here, the top, highly humus layer is consistently less acidic than the paler soil below.

    If you want to acidify soil for blueberries incorporate granular sulfur and mulch with wood chips. As raw wood decomposes it releases acids that make plenty of iron available- even in soils close to neutral.

    If you include sulfur, most any airy compost is suitable for blueberries.

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