Understanding Peat Moss and Its Environmental Impact
What is Peat Moss and Why is it Used in Gardening?
Peat moss is a collective amount of numerous sphagnum moss species that have been growing on each other’s decomposed bodies for thousands of years. As the moss layers get thicker, they grow in size and in such a manner that could allow them to hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water- this is also one of the reasons why they are favored by gardeners in their crop growth.
Environmental Concerns with Peat Moss Usage
Despite their upsides, peat moss growing and harvesting processes are deemed environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable options for gardening. They originated from the northern hemisphere, in marshy mossland that covered 2% of the earth’s land. Most of the supply is from Russia and Canada.
The mossland when harvested, beside the exhaustion from machineries used, will release carbon dioxide themselves, and this gas has made its name known in every environmental paper of how harmful it gets when the amount rises. In some sense, they are renewable, but the rate renew is abysmally slow, and harvesting work can only be performed every cycle of an amount of centuries- right now, they are being harvested much faster than they could grow, explaining why they are deemed unviable for the long run.
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Furthermore, the peat bogs created a unique ecosystem- researcher put them on the same preservation level as rainforest, over-exploiting will lead to serious environmental problems.
Top 7 Peat Moss Alternatives for Sustainable Gardening
1. Coconut Coir: A Versatile and Sustainable Substitute
From the husk of an already processed coconut, through processes made into a product that is versatile and so much more environmentally friendly in comparison to peat moss. Before the discovery of coco coir substrate, coconut’s empty husk was considered a waste product of the coconut industry. By making them into coco coir, it solves a type of waste dumped into the world, and with the nature of growing and harvesting coconut, this product is inherently considered environmentally friendly and sustainable while still offering most of the upsides that peat moss offered- so that is why such a new name like coco coir is getting more and more recognition by gardeners as the number one peat moss alternative.
2. Wood-Based Materials: Bark and Wood Fiber as Eco-Friendly Options
Wood based materials consist of wood fiber, sawdust, or composted bark. They are not ideal, but if you have plenty of them, they still offer benefits as an alternative. They have been a part of commercial potting mixes for such a long time already- they are there to improve water retention and add organic matter.
When choosing a wood product, it is best to use ones that are made from byproducts of untreated, locally sourced wood and not products harvested from trees specifically for horticultural uses. Wood-based materials are relatively inexpensive. Many municipalities also offer free wood chips for residents to use.
3. Compost: Nutrient-Rich Organic Alternative
Differ to the prior options, compost is a nutrient-rich alternative: they are full of microbes and “black gold”, going by the grower’s language. They help with drainage, creating an inviting and suitable environment for earthworms while providing their nutrients to the soil.
The same as wood-based materials, compost is no new name in the field. But with the need to find alternatives to peat moss, they have been fitted in as soil amendments while providing microbes, nutrients, and reducing the amount of landfill waste.
4. Pine Needles: Natural Mulching Material with Acidic Properties
Pine needles are leaves from evergreens- lots of households have them as decoration or shades, so these are pretty easy to come by for most. They provide a renewable and readily available alternative source of peat moss. Despite not providing any significant nutrient, they alter the texture of the soil mixed with them. It is recommended to use as a mulch material- the needles knit together, creating a mat that water can penetrate, but the wind doesn’t easily blow away. Unlike peat moss, however, pine needles do not retain water and can’t help with increasing water retention.
5. Rice Hulls: Lightweight and Renewable Medium for Soil Amendment
Rice after being harvested has to be rid of their outer skin, which is the hulls, before packaging and sale. These hulls, when preserved instead of discarded, can be used as a beneficial addition to soil. They can lighten the soil, improve drainage, aeration, and water absorption. Rice Hulls are biodegradable and non-toxic, as they feed the soil as they break down.
Add rice hulls to your garden when you fertilize in the spring and then mix them into the top 6-12 inches of soil. Alternatively, for potted plants, you can add 10-50% rice hulls to potting soil. Rice hulls can also work like straw as a mulch to retain moisture and fend off weeds.
6. Leaf Mold: Natural Leaf Decomposition for Soil Enrichment
A well-known amongst organic gardeners, leaf mold is made by leaving piles of leaves in the outdoor environment, allowing them to decompose or compost into a cheap, renewable, and easy to access source of peat moss alternative. They can increase water holding capacity of the soil they are mixed with, as well as acting as a natural soil conditioner. When making leaf mold, be sure to turn over your leaf pile often to help accelerate the breakdown process, which can be slow.
7. Composted Manure: Organic Fertilizer and Soil Conditioner
For a grower who has their own farm with livestock, or in the neighborhood of one and has a stable provision, composted manure is one of the best options for peat moss alternatives. This is a renewable and organic conditioner for soil that increases their carbon content and provides beneficial microbes, improving plant’s growth. By using this, they also increase the amount of water that soil can hold.
Considerations When Choosing Peat Moss Alternatives
The options have been laid out, now it is just the matter of what to choose and what should be keep in mind:
- The comparability of the alternative: The manure was too acidic that it killed seeds and seedlings, or other unaccounted factors that goes against your growing conditions
- Sustainability: The main reason to look for a peat moss alternative is because of its sustainability, so if the alternative isn’t sustainable, there is no point changing.
- The availability of the alternative: Depending on your conditions (growing purposes, crop variety, outcome, etc.) as well as availability of each type (easy-to-buy place, cost, characteristics), opt to the one that suits you the most.
- Nutrient content and pH level: basically the detailed characteristic of the option. Somes might work with adjustment, some might not. Those should be considered: disease, pests resistance, pH level, nutrient content, aeration/air porosity.
Consider these conditions to form an “opportunity cost” that would benefit you and your plans the best.
Conclusion: Transitioning to Sustainable Gardening Practices
Sustainable gardening is better for the environment and your health. It takes some effort to switch over to organic gardening, but it’s not difficult at all. The main struggle for most people is that it requires a bit of patience and a lot of commitment. For small, family gardens, moving to more sustainable methods isn’t as tricky as it is for the larger mono-crop operations.
The hardest of the transitioning process is the start. When things are in their places, it should be expected to have lighter workloads.