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For Peat’s Sake, part 1

Jim Boxberger
Posted 2/4/22

As I mentioned last week, this week I will be talking about peat moss. There are 160 different species of sphagnum peat moss.

What characterizes sphagnum peat is that it naturally accumulates near …

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For Peat’s Sake, part 1

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As I mentioned last week, this week I will be talking about peat moss. There are 160 different species of sphagnum peat moss.

What characterizes sphagnum peat is that it naturally accumulates near bodies of water and it’s been doing that for almost 10,000 years, when the glaciers receded after the Ice Age.

It commonly grows by evergreen forests where acidic soil, cold weather and a lot of rain offer the ideal environment for sphagnum peat moss to thrive.

Sphagnum peat comes from northern temperate zones, which is why Canada is the perfect place for peat to grow. When my son Ryan was in Boy Scouts, we went to summer camp at Camp Massawepie up in the Adirondacks for many years.

Just south of the camp on a logging road was a huge peat bog said to be the largest peat bog in the United States east of the Mississippe River. One of the camp counselors, when still in college, came to this bog on a college survey and drilled core samples of the bog to two-hundred fifty feet and still didn’t hit the bottom of the bog.

That is a lot of peat. Peat moss has been the base of almost all growing mixes in this country since the beginning of growing mixes. The horticulture industry started mixing sphagnum peat moss into its growing media in the 1960s.

And it’s been a key soil amendment for years and years because the properties of peat moss have always provided a consistent and reliable product for growers, for everything from ornamentals to edibles. But now there is growing concern over the sustainability of peat moss.

In Europe they don't think so. Last year, the UK announced it would require all garden centers that sell peat-based growing media to stop offering the products by 2024.

This mandatory requirement started out as voluntary with the hope that garden centers would pull them from the shelves on their own by 2020. But when Covid hit and the increase in gardening went through the roof, only about 20 percent of retailers said that they had removed peat-based products from their stores.

With the slow reaction to the ban at the retail level, it’s not clear how it will affect commercial growers, who are supposed to stop using peat-based growing media by 2030. Keep in mind that peat use in Europe is different than in North America.

Dried peat has been used for centuries as fuel in some parts of Europe that didn’t have access to coal, oil or natural gas and the practice has contributed to the release of a significant amount of CO2 (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.

As of now, only Ireland and Finland still use peat for fuel, but they’re working on phasing this out. Peat grows slowly, about 4 to 6 inches, with an eighth-inch spread per year. So peat bogs are slow to restore.

Plus, there just isn’t enough land in the UK and the European continent to dedicate to peat bog restoration. Hence, the inevitability of the UK going away from peat moss use.

But peat it’s very adaptable and small, but mighty, even sometimes pushing trees out of an area because it’s so competitive for water. In north America, yearly accumulation of new peat in bogs are about 20 million tons, with 1.38 million tons being harvested each year.

In Canade alone, there are over 281 million acres of peat resources, with only about sixty thousand acres being used for harvesting during the past 90 years, so less than 1 percent is being currently used.

Thirty to fifty percent of the world’s wetlands are peatlands and a lot of that is in Canada. Other countries with large swaths of peatland are Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Eighty-one percent of Canada’s peatlands are ‘virgin peatlands’ that have remained untouched to date. These peatlands, if managed properly, can be a renewable resource. For over 30 years, peat suppliers in the horticultural industry have been the driving force in managing and restoring peat bogs responsibly.

There have been a lot of innovations in technology and advances in research that have allowed peat suppliers to continue to offer peat as a product, while also being good environmental stewards.

Like good old-fashioned crop rotation, after a peat bog has been harvested for a few years, it is restored and allowed to recover for a period of time, before being harvested again.

The land mass in Canada allows for this to happen as Canada's peat reserves are as large as some European countries. When I was thirteen, my father took me to a peat bog in Canada when he was on a business trip as this peat supplier was the producer of Agway’s peat moss.

Even at a young age, I was impressed with just how big this operation was. Next time you are vacuuming your carpet, imagine vacuuming your yard and your neighbor’s yard and your other neighbors’ yards.

Part two, ‘For the Love of Peat’ next week.

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