Sphagnum peat moss is valuable in horticulture because its fibrous structure helps it retain a lot of water and air while draining excess water. This has made peat a primary ingredient of soilless growing media (potting mix) around the world. These stable, light-weight, and porous products have been filling the benches, flats, and containers of greenhouse and nursery operators and flower and vegetable growers for decades. You’d be hard-pressed to find a gardener who has not benefited from soilless potting mixes for starting and growing plants, inside and outside.
What’s the problem with peat?
Peat is an organic substance formed from mosses, reeds, and sedges that accumulates and decomposes very slowly in waterlogged soils (bogs). Peatlands hold 30% of the earth’s soil carbon and occur mostly in cold, temperate regions. “Peat moss” used in horticulture typically refers to mosses in the Sphagnum genus.
The problem with peat is three-fold: stripping off peat from peatlands disturbs complex ecosystems; excavation releases enormous amounts of CO2, a major greenhouse gas driving climate change; and demand for peat-based soilless media is growing.
For decades, there have been calls to conserve the U.K.’s dwindling peatlands. Timelines are in place for soon phasing out peat as a growing media for gardeners and commercial growers. Most sphagnum peat is from Canada and there are no indications that Canada, with its vast peat reserves, will follow suit. But public demand for peat-free alternatives will drive the industry to develop new products.
Reducing the use of peat in horticulture will mitigate climate change and increase reliance on local materials as peat substitutes.
Think before you switch: what makes a good soilless growing media?
Any growing medium for plants has three main functions: 1) supply roots with nutrients, air, and water, 2) allow for maximum root growth, and 3) physically support the plant. This becomes especially important for plants growing in cells, flats, and containers because they are dependent on a relatively small volume of growing medium. Container plants only have so much space to find what they need and can’t grow around problems, the way that plant roots in your garden can grow around the rocks.
That small amount of growing media must supply the right amounts and proportions of air, water, and nutrients. The volume of pore space (“empty space” filled with air and water) in a high-quality potting mix is 50%-80% of the total. So to get your flower, herb, and vegetable transplants off to a good start you are basically paying for pore space!
Soilless growing media should also be free of pests, pathogens, weed seeds, and other contaminants. The manufacturers also adjust the pH and add fertilizer. The end products must also be very stable and consistent to be acceptable to growers and gardeners.
Make some peat-free moves this year
Here are some ways you can begin to reduce your use of peat and make your garden more climate-resilient:
- Stop using peat moss in your landscape and garden beds. Instead, use compost to improve soil. Gardeners sometimes use peat moss to reduce soil pH. This can be done more precisely with sulfur or iron sulfate, both readily available.
- Buy commercially available peat-free growing mixes. A lot of work has been done by the industry and university researchers on developing peat-free mixes that substitute materials such as coconut coir, compost, rice hulls, and small wood particles for peat. Here are two regionally-produced examples:
- Ask your local businesses that sell potting mixes to start carrying those that are peat-free.
- Make your own compost or buy locally-made compost. This can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
- Mix together a soilless growing medium with a high quality, screened compost (made from yard waste and/or food scraps). Experiment with mixes that are 25% compost and evaluate the results. If plant growth is good, increase the amount of compost to 50%
- Develop your own blend by experimenting with different components and ratios. The goal is a mix that drains well but also holds enough air and water for quick, strong root growth. Compost and coconut coir are good primary peat alternatives. Gardeners are also experimenting with bark fines and coarse sand.
- Compost- researchers have obtained good results growing bedding plants, including vegetable transplants in soilless mixes that range from 20%-50% compost by volume. This is always tricky for commercial growers because compost batches can vary even when the same ingredients and processes are used. The concerns with compost– high nutrients, salts, and pH– may not be as big a problem for gardeners. Since we can make our own compost or buy locally-produced compost, it makes sense to increase our use of compost in growing transplants.
- Coconut coir is natural by-product of coconut harvesting. It consists of the coarse fibers extracted from the husks of coconut shells, a renewable resource. Coconut coir is screened, washed and graded for premium horticultural use. It is similar to sphagnum peat in terms of bulk density, porosity, water retention, and water drainage. Sources countries are Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Mexico, India, and Costa Rica, increasing transportation costs. There can be some variability between products, so experiment with different options.
- Research shows good results growing a variety of plant species in mixes where coir is 35-80% of the total volume.
- Try coir/compost mixes that are 3:1, 2:1, and 1:1.
- Monitor plant appearance and growth and fertilize with a soluble complete fertilizer if needed.
- Don’t use garden soil- even a small amount. It’s too dense for germinating and growing seeds in flats and containers and could introduce pathogens and weeds.
Challenge yourself to reduce your use of peat this year and please share your experiences if you make and use reduced-peat or peat-free growing mixes (send to: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Joe Lampl podcast on peat featuring Merritt Turetsky
Royal Horticultural Society peat-free web page
UK Horticultural Trades Association- Growing Media (detailed information on the movement toward more sustainable products)
By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center. Read more posts by Jon.
I have been concerned about the impacts of peat for a long time (the issue was raised a long time in the UK because of the rarity of many peatland habitats where the mining was done). However you don’t mention that there are issues with coir too? Importing long distances, processing Produces fine dust which workers inhale and previously the coconut husks were composted to be used to fertilize crops. Now you can make more money shipping coir to the US and buying chemical fossil fuel derived fertilizers. The sustainable solution is compost which everyone who has the space/ ability should be encouraged to do. However many households and nurseries don’t have the resources/time/knowledge to create enough high quality compost. We need to pressure local government to improve collection schemes for yard and household scraps that can be processed in large facilities where it is easier to maintain high temperatures and regularly rotate, and then make this product available.
Excellent points. Yes, it would be much better to use only locally-sourced materials that don’t add to the climate change problem. High-quality compost can go a long way to meeting the needs of gardeners growing transplants. I have grown leafy green, cucurbit, and tomato seedlings in 100% compost with no problems.
I have always been concerned that the compost I produce in my backyard would introduce the same pathogens that reside in my garden soil. My compost decomposes well and is a great amendment for my garden beds, but my bins are not large enough to generate heat. Should I not be concerned?
RCook beat me to it. We were taught that sterile media should be used for seed germination. Certainly our home compost piles aren’t.
Using sterile soil media means your plants are starved of beneficial biology that aids roots in absorbing nutrients. Sterilization of soil has fallen out of favor to biologically active soils.
It is possible for plant pathogens to survive slow composting where temperatures are <130 degrees F. The level of risk depends on the particular pathogen, and soil and growing conditions.
Compost is a fairly common ingredient in many types of soilless growing media. Presumably, the compost has reached sufficient temperatures to kill most pathogens.
The diseases of concern in transplant growing are the water molds (damping-off). These organisms are probably present in all types of organic media, including "sterile" mixes. They only become a problem if the growing media is too dense (low porosity) and/or over-watered.
Did you kow about the Responsibly Managed Peatlands Certification? Approx 80% of the Canadian horticultural peat production is certified under this standard (managed by SCS Global). I encourage you to look at this. Also, the canadian peat industry has been partners of research on peatland restoration, which is now applyed widely after peat harvesting. This ecological resoration is bringing back the functions of natural peatland ecosystems, including the GHg sequestration within 10 to 15 years according. All growing media constituents have impact in a way or another, so it’s important to have an informed global vision.
Jon, when are Maryland Master Gardeners going to have a return of the Master Composter Classes? Malcolm Doying Master Composter Class of 2009
Hi Malcolm, our Master Gardener Coordinator said we haven’t been running the Master Composter classes here because we don’t have folks to teach them or a curriculum. Some other states are offering this program, a few are virtual.