Peat moss is a wildly popular soil amendment that rears its head just about anywhere you shop for gardening supplies. It’s in a large number of potting mixes and soil bags. It’s even sold by the bale in many places!
But many folks don’t know that there are some questionable environmental impacts of peat moss…and a lot of doubt about its sustainability.
Read on to learn more about the environmental impacts of peat moss, plus five alternatives that can be better for your soil, easier and more affordable to us, and more sustainable overall.
Fast Facts About Peat Moss
What Is Peat Moss, Exactly?
In terms of its primary gardening uses, peat moss is a soil amendment that does not, in itself, contain any actual soil. Peat moss is a deep brown, fibrous material harvested from peat bogs or wetlands. Organic compounds such as sphagnum moss are broken down in peat bogs over hundreds or even thousands of years before being harvested for use in soil amendments, potting mixes, and more.
Peat moss is commonly used to amend the soil wherever plants require high acidity. This most often includes fruits like blueberries or flowers such as rhododendrons or azaleas.
The high demand for peat moss generally arises from its ability to help the soil retain moisture, as well as to aerate and lighten the earth around these acid-loving plants, offering good airflow and preventing mildewing and other diseases.
Where is Peat Moss Commonly Found?
In the wild, peat moss is found in decomposing peat bogs–a large majority of which can be found in Canada’s wetland regions. The moss itself is created by the natural breakdown of organic materials in the boggy environment over time, creating an anaerobic setting where the peat moss can then continue to form indefinitely.
Chances are, due to the conditions required to create true peat moss and the very, very long time it takes for the compounds to break down in this environment, you would never be able to create peat moss on your own. However, short of harvesting it from a wetland bog yourself, you can find this material at just about any lawn and garden center in numerous products.
In fact, many gardening stores sell peat moss by the bale, in a cakey, soil-like form. It also features heavily in quite a good deal of popular, off-the-shelf potting soils and soil amendment mixes.
Why is Using Peat Moss Bad for the Environment?
The debate rages over whether peat moss is truly bad for the environment. In fact, when left undisturbed in its natural state, peat moss serves its surroundings in some great ways! This includes how it helps prevent flooding, purifies water, and absorbs carbon dioxide from the surrounding environment.
Some preservationists have likened the environmental importance of peat bogs to that of rainforests. And unfortunately, they are being harvested at much the same rate. Because of this, harvesting peat moss can lead to some problems.
One of the primary concerns is that the harvesting process of this moss upsets the peat bog ecosystems, which many birds, insects, and plants rely on to thrive. In addition, some opponents of peat moss use have raised concerns about the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the environment from the peat bogs during the harvesting process.
Although it remains unclear whether the amount of carbon released during peat moss harvesting is significant enough to truly have a lasting negative impact on the environment, there remains undeniable concern about the impact on natural habitats and ecosystems when peat moss is removed at such a rapid rate.
In addition, the environmental factors to consider with peat moss in your own garden include its effects on its surroundings, its cost, and how it’s formed. Because peat bogs break down over close to a thousand years, there is no real way to naturally sustain its production and use. The high demand for the soil amendment it offers far outweighs the speed at which peat moss is created in nature.
There is also the fact that, while peat moss is favorably sterile and free of weed seeds, it does not contain any nutrients in itself. As a result, it cannot add nutrients to the soil. Couple this with its high acid level, and peat moss can be a detriment to your gardening space and lawn over time.
In addition, while it is often used to aid in water retention, peat moss that is allowed to dry out can also hamper water absorption in the long term. It can take a long time for fully dried peat moss to allow moisture to soak through again, which can dehydrate your plants.
Lastly, the cost of peat moss is a factor to consider. While not outrageously expensive, this non-sustainable compound will get pricey if you continue using it for all your gardening needs over time.
Better Peat Moss Alternatives
If you’re feeling convicted about using peat moss, don’t fret! As prevalent as peat moss may be, it’s not the only option for aerating and improving soil water retention in the soil…in fact, it’s not even the simplest or most cost-effective!
There are plenty of other options for improving your soil without contributing to the use of peat moss and the subsequent decline of peat moss bogs. Some of these, you can even make without spending a single extra cent.
Check out these five fantastic peat moss alternatives!
Let’s start with talking about one of the best and easiest soil amendments you can use as an alternative to peat moss. This one is sometimes referred to as “black gold” because of the sheer value it adds to your gardening situation.
We’re talking, of course, about compost–a substance resplendent in beneficial microorganisms that add great nutritional value to your soil. Like peat moss, compost improves drainage in the soil, but in addition it also attracts earthworms and offers a buffet of nutrients to the soil.
Though compost requires regular refreshing to continue serving your garden, the upside is that compost can be made from just about any organic substance you would otherwise throw away. Think of raw veggies, egg shells, citrus peels…even coffee grounds!
Compost is easy to make from your table scraps and fantastic for the health of your soil.
2. Coco Peat/Coconut Coir
If you are having a hard time imagining yourself giving up the fibrous commodity of peat moss with its water-retaining, soil-aerating properties, then coco peat–also known as coconut coir or coir peat–is an alternative worth looking into.
In many ways, coco peat is considered the best and nearest alternative to peat moss on the market today. This substance is made from the fibers of the coconut husk. Chances are, you have encountered similar types of fibers in other places already; the longer coconut fibers are often used to make doormats, brushes of various types, and even kinds of ropes!
But the shorter fibers from a coconut husk make such an excellent peat moss alternative. They have pretty similar rates of water retention, aeration, and soil drainage–all of which are among the highest appeals of peat moss. In addition, coco peat has naturally occurring antifungal qualities, making it an even more nutrient-dense alternative to peat moss.
The pH level provided by coco peat is also an ideal, balanced level. Regarding environmental factors, coco peat has a higher cost in shipping and processing; however, this is offset by the fact that coconuts are already being grown and harvested for consumption. Therefore, unlike peat moss, the use of coco peat reduces the waste that might otherwise come from discarding the coconut fibers.
3. Wood-Based Materials
While they are not considered the absolute best replacement for peat moss, nevertheless, wood-based materials can be a fantastic, low-cost alternative. They are among the best for those acid-loving plants that peat moss potting mixes often serve.
These wood-based materials can include wood shavings, wood fiber, composted bark, or sawdust. These woody ingredients naturally help with water retention and keep the soil acidic for those plants that can’t get enough of a high acid level–which is often a key draw toward peat moss.
When choosing your wood-based materials, be sure to use ones that come from untreated wood, Locally sourced is best if you can find it, as this will help ensure the health of your soil.
4. Leaf Mold
In many ways, leaf mold is among the closest alternatives to peat moss. Both are naturally occuring, caused by the breakdown of organic compounds in the environment. However, leaf mold breaks down faster than peat moss, does not have the issue of carbon dioxide release, and is quite sustainable annually.
Leaf mold is an even simpler soil amendment to make than compost. All you have to do is pile up leaves that fall from your local trees, turn the pile often to accelerate the process of compound breakdowns, and then mix the leaf mold with the soil during the next growing season.
Leaf mold, like peat moss, helps to increase the water retention rates in the soil and mends the soil for better nutrient density and overall health. This makes it a highly sustainable, incredibly low cost, and relatively low-effort alternative to peat moss.
5. Composted Manure
While not necessarily the most pleasant-smelling peat moss alternative, composted manure is certainly among the most classic options out there…and arguably among the best. Manure is fully organic and highly renewable; in fact, it helps to improve the presence of carbon in the soil, rather than depleting it, and helps both the soil and your plants to be at their most nutrient-dense state.
Compared to peat moss, composted manure also aids in the soil’s water retention and overall structure. You can amend the soil with manure or mulch with it, depending on your preference. As a soil amendment, however, you want to be sure that the manure is fully composted before you spread it out; otherwise, your plants might be damaged by high levels of concentrated nutrients, especially nitrogen.
Frequently Asked Questions
Peat moss and sphagnum moss – is there a difference?
Often, you will hear of sphagnum moss directly related to peat moss. Although many sphagnum varieties are present in peat moss, sphagnum moss is still living, whereas peat moss is quite dead–often hundreds of years dead!
Both are used for horticultural purposes, specifically to aid in soil retention and amendment. However, sphagnum moss can be a more sustainable soil amendment as it requires far less time to decompose than peat moss.
The difference between the two is visible even at a glance, as sphagnum moss retains its mossy appearance, while broken-down peat moss has a more soil-like texture and appearance.
Despite their similarities, sphagnum moss is still not an alternative we recommend. It has some of the same environmental impacts as peat moss. In addition, the regular harvesting of sphagnum moss can also affect the ability of peat moss to form over time, as the two are closely united in the ecosystem.
Should I be concerned if I’ve used peat moss before?
Thankfully, you do not need to worry about the health of your garden if you are a legacy peat moss gardener, so long as you have not seen it damage things like low-acid plants you’ve grown in the past. This soil amendment does not do much visible harm to the soil itself…if it did, it likely would not make it into so many potting and soil mixes!
However, moving forward with a peat moss alternative will allow you to make your soil even better. This is made possible by the organic compounds and nutrient density in our suggested alternatives, which are absent from peat moss.
Help! I feel guilty about using peat moss in the past! What should I do?
No gardener guilt here! When we know better, we do better. Peat moss is highly marketed and widely used, so it’s no surprise that many, many gardeners have used it at least once in an attempt to make their garden the best it can be.
Use this new knowledge you’ve armed yourself with to improve your garden even more! And where possible, raise awareness about the impact of peat moss. This can help in training gardeners everywhere to create and source sustainable and high-nutrient amendments.
These methods and sharing knowledge will improve soil and plant health everywhere!
Wrapping Up the Low-Down on Peat Moss
Feeling excited about some of these peat moss alternatives you’ve found? Can’t wait to use them in your garden from now on?
Our blog post on the Best Compost Starer will give you great ideas on one of the most affordable alternatives to peat moss.
Want more garden content? Visit our gardening page for in-depth guides, explainer posts, and great ideas!
- About the Author
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Renee Dugan is a lifelong writer, professional editor, and lover of all things nature, gardening and the big outdoors.
A Midwest girl who’s been in the garden since she could first hold a hand trowel, Renee’s love of growing things has bloomed into a passion for healthy living, holistic lifestyle, and knowing where our food comes from.
Now a mother and maturing gardener herself, Renee is passionate about channeling everything she knows and continues to learn about gardening into lessons for her son and others. Her excitement for sharing this knowledge is only superseded by her excitement about being able to finally grow her own citrus plants in pots.
Renee can be reached at email@example.com