By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener
Peat Moss use has become a highly contentious issue, especially in Britain. The U.K. government plans to ban peat use among amateur gardeners by 2024. With the proposed ban and a pledge to restore 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of peatland across the county by 2025, retailers can no longer delay the transition to peat-free compost.
A Peat Bog is layer upon layer of vegetation and it acts like a sponge that holds 20 times its own weight in water. It is a life support for biodiversity. It increases by 1mm per year. Twelve metres of peat dates back to the last ice age. Peatlands support all types of natural wildlife and native plants.
In the last 2 centuries, peat bogs have decreased by 94%, mainly in Scotland and England. It is not an environmentally sustainable product. It used to be a major land cover in the United Kingdom. Because of many, many years of the use of peat moss for our gardens and for fuel, less than 1% of the national peatlands remain in places like Scotland and England.
The peatlands are a wonderful natural ecosystem. They protect our climate, accumulate carbon and protect endangered species. Professor Dave Goulson, from the University of Sussex said: “Globally, peatlands store half a trillion tons of carbon, twice as much as the world’s forests. Unearthing this precious store of carbon is a needless ecological disaster.” They are absolutely critical in helping with flood and climate control and the protection of this unique ecosystem.
Even in Canada peatlands are carbon and climate champs! We have about 25% of the world’s peatlands and they cover about 12% of the nation’s surface area. They are very delicate, slow-growing ecosystems, composed of semi-decayed biomass that has accumulated for many thousands of years. They take in so much more carbon than our forests and grasslands. We emit the carbon back into the air when we put the peat moss into our gardens.
It is a nice light-weight substrate and hangs on to nutrients and is perfect for growing plants when mixed with perlite. It is the mainstay of potting soils here and beyond and for years has been a big part of the gardening industry. Peat has long been a popular product in the Horticultural Industry as it is cheap, acts like a sponge to hold moisture and is a very good growing medium. Fifty percent of peat moss is used by gardeners!
The Horticultural Industry are now hearing the concerns with the use of peat moss. However, there are very few alternatives for them on the market. Some are trying a switch to Coconut Coir, a material in the husk of the coconut. It retains water well, up to 10 times its weight by volume. It also contains no fungal contaminants, deters fungus gnats and doesn’t burn, which can be an issue with peat moss. Compost is ideal but not everyone has the space to make their own and it is definitely heavier than peat moss. Another product known as Charged Carbon acts like a sponge, removing contaminants that can prevent strong and healthy plant growth. It is a material that comes from bamboo or feed stock. It is heated and you are left with a carbon skeleton. Both Coconut Coir and Charged Carbon are dramatically more efficient and environmentally responsible than the use of peat moss, however, their availability is limited and the cost of these products is much higher. Compost is more widely available as well as other products such as leaf mold, perlite, vermiculite, and bagged manures.
Some of the industries are making simple changes, but this could take several years. It involves understanding how the plants react to the different products, how they maintain water and watching for different growth habits.
Paul Short, President of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association says that “they have invested a lot in restoring peat lands after harvesting”, however, research has shown that peat lands take hundreds of years to be restored back to their original condition.
We could be on the same trajectory as the U.K. if we do not look after our peatlands. They are harvested not just for horticulture. We also have oil and gas infrastructure and fire management infrastructure running through our Canadian peatlands.
Think twice about buying that low-cost bag of planting material that contains peat. Help by encouraging our government to support the larger companies in their efforts to phase out its use. Look at your labels, consider the use of alternatives, if possible create your own compost and be aware of what we can do to help to preserve these amazing lands.
To learn more, read this interesting article put out by Plantlife.
From a Canadian perspective, check this article from The Canadian Wildlife Federation.