Peat moss is frequently used by gardeners. However, as a permaculture gardener, it is important to delve a little deeper and look at the true cost of everything we use in our gardens. Peat moss has long been prized by gardeners. But this is a material which may not have a place in a permaculture garden.
While peat moss is an entirely natural material – it is certainly not a sustainable choice without aggressive extraction regulation. So in permaculture gardens, we must understand why peat moss is commonly used, recognize why it may be a problem, and find alternative solutions.
- What is Peat Moss?
- Why is Peat Moss Used in Gardens?
- The Problems With Peat Use
- Permaculture Alternatives to Peat Moss
What is Peat Moss?
Peat moss, or, more correctly, peat, is decomposed organic material which accumulates in peat bogs and wetlands in suitable climate zones. The name peat or peat moss is used to refer to organic matter which comes from the accumulation of Sphagnum and other mosses in these ecosystems or to refer to the mosses themselves.
Why is Peat Moss Used in Gardens?
Most commonly, peat moss is prized by gardeners for:
- The creation of soil-less growing media for container growing.
- Improving garden soil.
The reason that peat moss is so widely used for these things is that it has a range of beneficial characteristics as a material:
- Peat moss has excellent water retention capacity.
- It has an open, spongy texture which improves compaction issues and keeps the medium or soil aerated.
- It is sterile and free from pathogens.
- It may help balance pH or increase acidity in certain (though not all) circumstances.
Often, however, peat composts, potting mixes, soil amendments, etc. are simply used because they are often cheaper, more affordable, than peat-free options.
The Problems With Peat Use
Unfortunately, while peat is undoubtedly a useful material for gardeners, its use could cause ecological harm and can have a negative impact on people and the planet. Its use, therefore, could be a direct contravention of the core ethics of permaculture: planet care, people care, and fair share. The environments from which peat/ peat moss come must be left intact.
When We Use Peat, We Disturb The Carbon Cycle
Peat bogs and wetlands are fragile ecosystems that are essential to maintaining the carbon cycle on this planet. Peatland ecosystems cover around 1.4 million square miles of our planet – only around 3% of the land surface. Yet they are responsible for storing 42% of all soil carbon. They are the most effective carbon sink on earth.
When we rip peat from these ecosystems to use in our gardens, we are possibly contributing to their destruction and we could be contributing to an increase in carbon emission. Since when peat is extracted, organic carbon is exposed to air, and CO2 is emitted. Total global emissions from degraded peatland (including fires on drained wetland) are estimated to account for almost 6% of all carbon emissions worldwide.
Peat is a Non-Renewable Resource Without Highly Regulated Management
Peat forms naturally over time. However, it cannot be considered a renewable resource in most cases because it forms only very, very slowly – at a range of around 1mm per year. Its use for gardening and other uses in developed nations can outdo the rate at which it regenerates.
Peatlands which have taken thousands of years to form can be decimated extremely rapidly. And degradation of wetland ecosystems means that regeneration and regrowth only takes place at all in 30-40% of peatlands. In permaculture gardens, of course, we should avoid extractive industry wherever possible, and use and value true renewables wherever we can.
Peat is Essential to the World’s Water Cycles
Peatlands also play a crucial role in the water cycle, flood mitigation, and in drinking water provision and filtration. When we use peat in our gardens, we are playing role in disrupting freshwater cycles on our planet. This is not only an environmental issue. It is an issue for humanity too.
Many people rely on wetlands to supply their drinking water. Globally, peatlands provide nearly 4% of all potable water stored in reservoirs. When peatlands are degraded, issues with flooding and other threats to human habitation and human health also occur.
Peat Use Worsens Ecosystem Degradation and Biodiversity Losses
It is not only humans who suffer from the destruction of peatlands, of course. The distinctive environmental conditions of peatlands mean that they provide crucial habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna. Preserving wetlands is critical for preserving biodiversity and halting losses.
Wetlands are the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems. It’s important that we protect these precious ecosystems.
Permaculture Alternatives to Peat Moss
The good news is that there are alternatives which can help us avoid the use of peat moss/ peat entirely in our permaculture gardens. So let’s take a look at alternatives that can provide options for more sustainable gardening for each of the applications where peat moss/ peat might commonly be used:
Alternatives to Peat-Based Composts/ Potting Mixes
Peat has commonly been used in container gardening for its ability to retain moisture and retain good aeration in the medium. Historically, peat-free products were commonly considered to be inferior to peat-based potting mixes.
Today, however, after intensive research and development, a range of products have been developed and refined. These can now be just as good as, or even superior to, the traditional peat-based composts/ potting mixes on the market.
Most peat-free composts or potting mixes that you can purchase contain one or more of the following ingredients, which are carefully balanced to provide the same or very similar growing conditions to the traditional peat-based products:
- Bracken compost.
- Coconut husk (Coir).
- Green waste (sometimes municipal) (usually no more than 30% of the finished product).
- Leaf mold.
- Waste sheep’s wool.
- Woody materials (bark, wood-fiber, wood chip, etc..).
Bracken compost made from the bracken or eagle fern can be used as a potting medium but is relatively high in potassium.
Coconut coir retains water well and maintains good aeration, but does not hold nutrients quite as well and depending on where you live, may not be a local resource.
Even though Coconut Coir is a waste byproduct the process to make it usable as a peat substitute involves some processes that aren’t so ecologically friendly.
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Green waste has high levels of nutrients. But it can also have high pH and is not always the best option for seed starting and potting mixes.
Leaf mold (autumn leaves rotted down for a couple of years) is an excellent local resource that can be used as a seed sowing compost or mixed with other materials to use as potting compost.
Sheep’s wool is great because of its slow release of nitrogen content, and because of its good water retention.
Woody materials, however, are the most multi-purpose and tend to be suitable for most plants, as they have relatively balanced pH and excellent drainage properties.
When choosing a potting medium, you will be able to choose between soil-less growing media (without soil/loam component) and soil-based media. You can also choose between purchasing a mix, and making your own at home.
One way to make your own soil-based growing medium at home, for example, is to combine: 1/3 homemade compost. (With a good mix of ‘brown’ and ‘green’ materials.) 1/3 leaf mold. 1/3 inorganic soil elements (loam/ sand). The precise potting mix that you choose will depend on which plant or plants you intend to grow, their environmental needs, and stage of growth.
There are numerous complexities to choosing a growing medium for plants in pots. But one thing is clear – no matter what you are growing and what those plants need, there are alternatives to peat.
Improving Garden Soil Without Peat Moss
Peat moss is also often used to improve the soil in garden beds. Traditionally, it was frequently dug into the soil to increase its carbon content, improve water retention or drainage, and to reduce compaction issues. But garden soil can easily be improved by using other, far less harmful sources of organic matter, such as, for example, homemade compost, leaf mold, or well-rotted manure. Chopped and dropped plant matter, straw, woody material, etc. can also be used as mulch around your plants. Specific mulches will be suitable for specific locations and specific plants.
By developing a better understanding of the soil in your garden, and the plants you wish to grow, you can find solutions for your permaculture garden which certainly doesn’t involve using peat. As a permaculture gardener, you should always be looking into creating no dig, sustainable, and closed-loop systems, and aiming to avoid the need for external inputs. Your garden itself should be able to provide all that it needed to maintain the health and fertility of the system over time.
To avoid the use of peat in your garden – in containers and when growing in the ground – the first step is to generate plenty of biomass that can be utilized for composting and mulching. The careful use of specific plants and specific gardening strategies can help gardeners create gardens which themselves provide all that is needed for their own ongoing health and productivity.