Peat isn’t bad in itself, but it shouldn’t be used for gardening. This is because it’s much more valuable when it’s left in the ground, and there are plenty of great alternatives we can use in our gardens instead.
Peat is a wonderful substance that our planet dearly needs. It is a carbon sink more powerful than rainforests, provides habitat to rare plants and wading birds, and purifies polluted water. Peat also prevents flooding and wildfires.
But when we start digging peat up to garden with, the carbon sink effect gets damaged, and it starts releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
This article will tell you everything you need to know about peat soil. I’ll also cover peat moss and responsible alternatives, so you can grow healthy, delicious plants without contributing to the destructive peat industry. Let’s get started!
Peat Soil: What It Is & What It’s Used For
There are admittedly many benefits to using peat in your garden. So before we understood the environmental and social implications of its use, it seemed like a dream come true for gardeners. But what exactly is this mysterious substance?
What Is Peat?
The official definition of peat comes from the International Peatland Society:
Peat is the surface organic layer of a soil that consists of partially decomposed organic matter, derived mostly from plant material, which has accumulated under conditions of waterlogging, oxygen deficiency, high acidity and nutrient deficiency.
In layman’s terms, peat results from plant matter slowly breaking down in wet, boggy conditions.
Peat can vary a lot in different climates. In colder regions, it is mostly made out of shrubs and sphagnum mosses. It might also contain herbs and small trees.
In hot and humid climates, peat is made from fallen trees in the rainforest. You can also find peat in mangroves, which are wetland habitats on the edge of the ocean. Peat is sometimes known as turf.
What Is Peat Soil Good For?
Peat soil is rich in nutrients and can hold 20 times more water than its own weight. It got a place in our gardens thanks to this unique ability to absorb water and release nutrition. But as the understanding of peat soil’s biological value increases, peat mining has become more regulated.
Some companies claim only to use responsibly sourced peat. But while it’s true that some extraction processes are less destructive than others, peat is not a renewable material.
After all, peatlands take thousands of years to form. Despite that, over 80% of them are currently being mined, drained, or otherwise interfered with. The good news is that there is absolutely no need to be using peat in your garden.
Where Is Peat Soil Found?
Peat soil can be found all over the world, but only in tiny amounts. In total, peatlands make up 2.84% of the global land area. (Source). There are considerable deposits of peat in Canada and Alaska, Northern Europe, South East Asia, The Amazon Basin, and Western Siberia.
Scotland has a remarkable 20% peatland cover!
Those biodiverse bogs and fens are essential for filtering Scottish drinking water. But they also have archeological value.
Researchers have discovered some incredibly well-preserved remains in the Scottish peatland, including people that died over 3000 years ago. (And, even spookier, they found a murder victim that was hidden in the bog in the 1700s. His head wound was visible and his clothes were perfectly preserved!) (Source).
As permafrost melts, we are likely to discover more peat deposits in the Northern Hemisphere.
Is Peat Soil Good for Plants?
Peat soil can be good for some plants. It is typically acidic, it provides good root structure and it holds a lot of water. So, plants that love moisture and don’t mind acidic conditions can grow well in peat soil.
Peat soil does compact quite easily, which creates anaerobic conditions in which very few plants will thrive. This is why it’s typically diluted with another topsoil.
So though peat soil does have some clear benefits, it is best left in the ground. It’s not the magic potion that many gardening companies will make it out to be.
In fact, a good quality compost made with a mix of brown, green, and high nitrogen materials will be much better for your plants in the long run. And you don’t have to mine delicate ecosystems to get it!
Is Peat Soil Good or Bad? The Controversy Surrounding Peat
It’s easy to sit here in the comfort of my home and oversimplify the issue of peat. So I’m going to try to be fair and talk about the benefits of using peat as well.
Benefits of Peat
Here are some of the benefits of gardening with peat:
- It doesn’t contain weed seeds that could invade your garden
- It is rich in nutrients
- Spongy material is easy for young plants to push their roots through
- It holds water well
- It can improve soil aeration (crucial for biology and plant roots)
The thing is, a decent compost will provide all of those benefits too. So I can’t encourage you to use it in good faith. But there are some certifications available for responsibly produced peat now.
Peat Soil Certification
Peat Soil Certification is available for companies that extract peat for already degraded areas instead of touching pristine habitats. They also conduct environmental assessments and clean-up plans for after extraction.
While I like the idea, in theory, I worry that this could be yet another way to make consumers pay more money to feel less guilty, without having good outcomes on the ground.
If conventional peat companies keep extracting from the pristine peatlands, these ‘certified’ companies could just come along afterward and finish off the job that someone else started. (Except they’d get to charge more than ‘ethical’ peat!).
I don’t mean to be pedantic. But as a graduate in International Development followed by a career in soil restoration, I’m not so quickly reassured by certifications.
Why Is Peat Soil Bad?
To summarise the main concerns I have about using peat soil in a gardening context:
- It has been mined from delicate ecosystems that provide vital habitat to rare birds and plants
- Once degraded, peatland emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases. If we leave it alone, it works as a powerful carbon sink.
- Peatlands cover less than 3% of the world’s surface. It’s not a renewable or abundant resource, but the planet needs to keep what we’ve hot!
Is Peat Moss the Same as Peat Soil?
Peat develops when organic matter slowly decomposes beneath water over thousands of years. In cases when that organic matter is exclusively or mostly sphagnum moss, the resulting product is known as peat moss.
Peat Soil is typically topsoil that has been mixed with peat by a garden center. It is used in gardens due to its benefits to plants. That peat may be predominately made of moss, or it might have originated from a different type of plant.
Is Sphagnum Moss the Same as Peat Moss?
Peat moss is created when Sphagnum moss decomposes. The moss grows on the surface of the peatlands. As some of that moss is submerged by water and dies, it begins the slow process of turning into peat moss.
Sphagnum moss is sometimes harvested and dried before it decomposes. It then becomes a fibrous absorbent material that you might see lining hanging baskets or other planters.
Is Peat Moss Acidic?
Peat Moss is acidic, with a pH of around 4.4. Because of this, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to use it in already acidic soil.
Those acids will reduce over time, though. For example, one of the primary acids found in peat is humic acid, which is known to leach out in rainwater.
With that in mind, peat moss wouldn’t be a long-term solution to alkaline soil. You’d be much better off addressing the root of the cause, which would be an inappropriate balance between fungi and bacteria. Both of these microorganisms are essential for healthy plant growth, but they need to be in harmony.
Is Peat Moss a Good Mulch?
Peat moss doesn’t make a good mulch.
The idea of a mulch is to prevent water from evaporating off the surface and to prevent weeds, while still letting oxygen make its way to the surface of the soil.
But a peat mulch will hold on to the water so it can’t get down to the plant roots below. In hot weather, it would dry out and blow away. So all your hard-earned money would be wasted!
Something like straw would be a more affordable and effective mulch. It looks lovely and natural in your garden, too. As it slowly decays, it feeds the soil. Then you can pop on a fresh load when you’re ready.
Can You Mix Peat Moss With Topsoil?
Some people do mix peat moss with topsoil, but it’s not any better for plants than a good quality compost. I would think carefully before using a non-renewable resource for short-term solutions.
Because your peat moss might improve aeration in your soil for now, but it’s not going to last more than a year or two. If you establish a healthy community of microorganisms in your soil, the changes you make now can last a lifetime.
Using Peat Moss for Rooting Cuttings
Since the 1960s, it’s been fashionable to use peat moss for rooting cuttings. A lot of people found the method very successful.
But we’ve got some great alternatives now that do the same job!
Best Peat Moss for Rooting?
I would encourage you to forget peat moss for rooting and try using coconut coir instead. Don’t worry; it’s not expensive.
It’s easy to get your hands on these days and it’s a byproduct of the food industry.
Just like peat moss, coconut coir will help give your young roots the best start in life. I find these disks really easy to work with because they’re already cut to size, and you can just pop one in each pot.
You add some water and the disk will expand before your eyes, providing a great environment to start off new plants.
Peat Pots for Starting Seeds?
You can also get coconut coir pots which are great for starting seeds. I came across these pots when I was looking for the best peat pots for rooting. When I read up about why people are using these alternatives, I was convinced!
I love coconut coir pots for seed starting because they are so easy to use.
Once you’ve got your seed started, you can just plant the whole pot, so you don’t have to worry about damaging your roots in the transfer to a bigger pot or garden.
I haven’t found them to be more expensive than peat pots, but they do just as good a job,
What To Use Instead of Peat – Peat Moss Alternatives
In my personal experience, the best alternative to peat moss is coconut coir. This fibrous material comes from between the white coconut fruit and hard shell.
I’ve used coconut coir rooting pots and starter disks for all kinds of growing projects, from tomato seedlings to courgettes, and even ornamental succulents.
But you don’t have to use coconut coir. So long as you have good compost that’s free from weed seeds and pests, your plants are going to be absolutely fine. And if you liked the idea of planting rooting pots straight in the ground, you could try making seedling pots out of folded newspaper.
These are free to make if you’re reusing your paper, and they can be planted straight into the ground!
You don’t need to worry about the newspaper ink in your soil. In the past, we indeed made ink from heavy metals. But the ink we have nowadays is safe. It’s mostly typically based on soja.
If you were hoping to garden with peat, I’m sorry for killing your buzz!
I know it can be frustrating to find conflicting information, but rest assured that my information comes from the highest quality sources.
I read up on papers from the National Trust to the Royal Horticultural Society and the UK Center For Ecology And Hydrology.
I also spoke to my personal mentors in soil restoration and relatives who have been farming for over 50 years.
The verdict is clear. Peat should be kept out of our gardens and left in the ground where it belongs.
But the good news is that our gardens can thrive perfectly well without it!
UK Center For Ecology And Hydrology – Peat Fact Sheet
International Peatland Society
Royal Horticultural Society – Statement On Peat
Peatlands and environmental change, D. Charman. Wiley, Chichester, 2002.