USING PEAT MOSS – Good or Bad?

Surprise Encounter: When my kids were very young, longtime horticulture friend Bob Brzuszek took us out into a Mississippi bog to show us wild pitcher plants (Sarracenia), carnivorous plants which get their nutrients from dissolved insect prey trapped in tall, hollow, water-filled leaves.

Semi-digested insects
Semi-digested contents

In a shocking real-life case of deus ex machina, as Bob sliced open one of the colorful funnels to reveal the partly-digested insects inside, a recently-ensnared honeybee flew out, released from the grisly death trap.

That came rushing back to me the other day when my sweetheart and her sister and I, looking for a rare colony of naturalized pitcher plants, were out “bog yomping” which is what locals around my summer home in northern England call hopping from tufts of grass to keep from getting muddy while traversing the remote moors. 

Fens and Bog People

            The misty moors of Lancashire are steep and windswept, nearly treeless except in the deep waterfall-fed ravines; the hillsides are covered with grasses and sedges, and rife with shallow pools gouged out by ancient glaciers, now matted with deep blankets of sphagnum moss, wildflowers, pink-and-purple heathers and thickets of sweet blue wimberries, tart blackberries, and succulent raspberries.

Some of the most exotic plants found only on wet bogs are pitcher plants, native to North America but often found in the wettest peat bogs in Great Britain. There is even an English plant society dedicated to collecting American native Sarracinias and other carinverous bog plants.

These pools, called fens when fed by alkaline, mineral-rich flowing surface water, become acidic, nutrient-poor bogs (sometimes called mires or quagmires) when perched high and fed only by rainfall. These bogs are usually surrounded or even covered with the same type of sphagnum moss once commonly used to line hanging baskets.

Rain-fed perched bog pool
Rain-fed perched bog pool

Sometimes the vegetation forms thick floating mats over deep, tea-colored ponds, creating “quaking bogs” that feel like walking on a partly-deflated bouncy house. Trees around the edges actually bend towards walkers, whose probing sticks and sometimes bodies can easily punch through into the hidden underground lakes; during peat excavations, dozens of hapless “bog people” have been unearthed, mummified after centuries in the acidic muck.   

Colony of pitcher plants on an upland bog in Lancashire
Colony of pitcher plants on an upland bog

 Over centuries, as this moss grows thicker, dead moss underneath is packed into firm masses of crumbly, chocolate- or reddish-brown colored peat. Until outlawed fairly recently, the  densest types of peat were cut into burnable bricks for heating or cooking; most of that high-grade fuel peat is now gone, but there are well over four hundred million acres of looser, fluffier types of peat in both the US and Canada, not to mention northern Europe and Russia.

Garden Controversy

I actually use very little peat in my garden, other than adding a bit to mostly-bark potting soil and around my blueberries. And I understand the major ecological issues in nearly all agricultural endeavors.

But why are some experts band-standing against the use of peatmoss in our gardens? Is it really being used up completely, like coal and oil, and releasing tons of carbon dioxide in the process? Or is there a viable way to use some of it wisely, like we ought to do other natural resources?

On several environmental inspection forays into Canadian peat bogs, I found that the harvesting of horticultural peat isn’t a problem. Members of the Canadian Peatmoss Association go to great lengths to harvest sustainably; in the 70 years since we started using peat for gardening, only around two-tenths of one percent of all available North American peat has been harvested – and fresh peat is accumulating faster than it is taken out of bogs.

They basically clear off the top few inches of vegetation from the swollen bogs (some of which are 30 feet deep), trench around them to lower the water table, then as the surface layers dry they vacuum off – at most a couple of inches of peat per year. When a bog is down to about three feet of peat left, they smooth it out and spread live sphagnum moss and native plant seeds. It’s sorta like opening a pillowcase, removing most but not all of the stuffing, and then smoothing the pillowcase back down.

Sliced open peat bog showing layers
Sliced open peat bog showing layers

The area quickly returns to being a perfectly sound, functional wetland filled with vegetation and wildlife. Can’t tell a reclaimed peat bog from the surrounding countryside, as far as my own eyes can see.

As I already mentioned, since we started using it in potting soil in the 1950s, less than .02 percent of Canadian peat has been used for horticultural purposes, and there are hundreds of million acres left which will never be touched. So, other industrial uses aside, and even taking into account the costs associated with hauling it from Canada, gardeners are hardly contributing to peat-harvest environmental issues.

By the way, just like the unsustainable overuse of cypress mulch, the production of coconut coir, which doesn’t hold nutrients as well as peat, has its own serious environmental issues.

Why, then, do so many gardeners quote English garden guru Monty Don and others who urge us to not use peat? Simple: Great Britain and Ireland, which hold less than half a percent of the world’s peat bogs, have depleted most of their available peat – used mostly for fuel – leaving little left for conservation. This is not and never will be the case in America.

So. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to any peat use, simply reduce what we use. Bark and compost are my main garden and potting soil amendments, with a little longer-lasting peat added to better hold moisture and nutrients. And I will continue to use peat around blueberries.

To me, that’s a pretty good compromise.

Cotton grass - a sedge that grows only in acidic peat soils
Cotton grass – a sedge that grows only in acidic peat soils

3 Replies to “USING PEAT MOSS – Good or Bad?”

    1. thanks, lady – i have been working with horticultural myths for a long, long time, and thought i would put this one to rest as well. by the way, your photos of your night blooming cereus are AWESOME. mine came from my great grandmother, and i miss is flowering every summer because i am far away from home…

      Liked by 1 person

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