Peat moss poor choice for eco-conscious

A bit ago, I received an interesting article about how peat moss is actually suspect for gardeners to use liberally or even sparingly in their gardens.

How can that be? Peat moss has been layered onto garden soil since our great-grandparents began toiling away in their vegetable plots and flower beds. Why in the world would the use of peat moss suddenly be an issue for gardeners worldwide?

Well, apparently as wetlands across the globe are being drained, filled and cut away, many environmentally savvy individuals are curious if using peat moss to build up their gardens isn’t at the expense of a fragile ecosystem elsewhere.

This is a relevant issue for gardeners because lawn and garden products are a source of substantial peat demand. The irony is as we are trying to beautify our earth, the use of peat moss isn’t really contributing toward that goal.

In actuality, fallen leaves and grass clippings make much better mulch than peat moss, as does wood waste, composted garden and kitchen waste, farmland manure and spent mushroom compost – most of which are also less expensive or free soil augmenters.

Kelly Kindscher, plant ecologist for Kansas Biological Survey at Kansas University, says that even farmers who depend on their bounty for a livelihood use alternatives.

“Most organic gardeners and farmers who need added fertility turn to mulch and various nutrients for their production, not peat moss,” he says.

OK, so what exactly is peat moss, and why does any of this have a consequence for you? Peat moss is the partially decomposed remains of a plant found in boglands known as sphagnum moss. Through its life, the lower parts of the sphagnum moss dies and is buried under the new growth, leaving the dead moss squished together. This forms a dense result that supports plant life in the bog.

Since it is paramount to the bog ecosystems, razing it results in the destruction of habitat for many other plants and wildlife. While the loss of wetlands is a highly pontificated topic around here, the loss of peat bogs has their own unique significances. Because of their unique ecosystems, many rare wildlife are losing habitat as well as untold numbers of highly specialized plants, a slough that may only be found in peat bogs.

If that wasn’t enough, peat stores one-third of the global carbon reserves, making it a “global cooler.” As mosses grow, they absorb carbon dioxide. These bogs might have more carbon than the entire world’s rainforests, and when disturbed, they release that carbon as a potent greenhouse gas. Instead of cooling, they are now heating the earth.

“Peat moss beds are tremendous sources of stored carbon,” Kindscher adds. “Releasing the carbon by using them is quite problematic.”

Now are you thinking, “Well, what is the big deal? Peat bogs are a renewable resource. They’ll just grow back.” True. However, the 3 percent of the Earth that is covered by peat bogs took thousands of years to develop. They are so slow to decay because of their high acidity that they provide historical records dating back 10,000 years.

Kindscher says: “The renewal time is so slow that they are essentially nonrenewable. They renew a little faster than coal fields. Peat bogs are so old and nonrenewable that they contain bog men.”

Northwestern Europe’s wetlands are known for their bog bodies. According to a National Geographic article, two men were discovered in Ireland perfectly preserved in a peat bog. Researchers say the bodies were of two wealthy men who lived well over 2,000 years ago. The bodies were so perfectly intact that the police were called in before the archeologists. The bodies looked as if they might have been expired but a few days because the cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions that bogs provide essentially mummify human flesh. So, in many respects they are living fossils.

Finland has the largest expanse of peat bogs, followed by Canada, Ireland and Sweden. In Ireland and Great Britain peat bogs are dangerously close to disappearing. The problem is exacerbated by the small areas of peat lands, over development, agricultural use and the commercial harvesting of peat for fuel. In these countries many gardeners have boycotted the use of horticultural peat and in fact peat extraction is legislated to cease in the U.K. by 2012.

So, this spring when you are at the nursery or hardware store, you might think twice about purchasing that bag of peat moss. While the jury is still out on the question of whether sphagnum peat moss can be considered a renewable resource, just consider that by the time a disturbed bog is renewed, your great-great-grandchildren would be spreading that growth on their garden beds.

With so many superior alternatives to peat moss for enriching your soil, it seems like a no-brainer to preserve this fragile ecosystem.