by Akiva Silver

Many of us are aware of the horrors of industrial agriculture. We have seen the videos of animals crowded into meat or egg factories never seeing the sun or feeling the ground. We have heard about the intensive use of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers polluting waterways and depleting soils.

People have reacted to these practices by choosing alternatives. Local food movements, organic farms, and sustainable agriculture are all becoming more and more common. When will the horticultural field catch on?, when we ask it to.

There are many degrading environmental practices that the nursery and landscape industries use. I believe the worst one by far is peat moss. This seemingly harmless product is found in just about any garden center, and virtually every bag of organic potting soil.

Peat moss is a great soil conditioner. It improves soil structure, by increasing water retention and drainage at the same time. It is light and easy to handle. Conveniently, it comes in large plastic wrapped cubes for about $15. It can transform a clay soil into one that drains and is full of organic matter. Peat can turn a poor site into one that is favorable to everything from tomatoes to laurels. But, where does this wonderful substance come from? What is the true cost of the moss beyond the $15?

Under wetland conditions, where oxygen is low, peat is formed by decaying plant matter. It takes a long time. Peat moss builds up at the rate of about one millimeter thick per year. Peat moss can form in several types of wetland habitats including bogs, fens, pocosins, and peat swamp forests.

These areas are home to many unique plants, including carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews, wild blueberries and cranberries, Labrador tea, sphagnum mosses, tamarack trees and many others. North American peat bogs are generally found in the Canadian wilderness, in areas that people seldom inhabit. In places that are home to moose, black bears, wolves, ermines, and other northern dwellers is where our horticultural peat comes from.

So, how is the moss taken from these places? I wondered this and wanted to believe that it wasn’t so bad because I was hoping to use peat moss in my potting mix. I decided to look at information put out by the industry rather than environmental groups. The industry alone, convinced me to never buy peat moss or any bag of mix that contained it, by simply describing their process of extraction.

Typical peat harvests take place on 200 acre or more plots in the Canadian wilderness. First the land is cleared of all trees and plants. Next the land is drained to dry out the moss. Canals or ditches are dug around the entire area. Once it is dry and the surface cleared off, a giant vacuum begins sucking up the dry peat one thin layer at a time. To describe this machine is almost impossible, it looks like a weird spaceship patrolling the moon. Simply google ‘peat harvest images’, and you will see what I am talking about.

The harvesting can take years, depending on how deep the layer of peat is. After they are done, reclamation begins. This primarily involves blocking up the drainage canals and letting things slowly return. Some companies may do more or less. And in a few thousand years, a peat bog will return.

The industry claims this process is sustainable, and I agree with them. There is actually enough peat land in Canada that we could keep doing this and not run out of space. However, I don’t think sustainability always matters. We can do lots of terrible sustainable things. The government could wrongly imprison 1 person every day out of the whole country and we would not run out of people. That doesn’t make it right.

To completely scrape off an ecosystem and put it into neatly wrapped packages for sale at Agway is sustainable, but is it really what we want to do?

As gardeners, our goal is often to make the world more beautiful one yard or farm at a time. How can we make the world any more beautiful if we are destroying one place to improve another? This is after all, one world.

The choice of peat moss is ours. We can easily live without it, and our gardens can thrive without it. I have successfully established blueberries, rhododendrons and laurels without a drop of peat moss numerous times. It is cheaper, feels better, and the plants don’t care either way, so long as they have good soil to spread roots into.

Peat moss alternatives are abundant and easily found locally, often for free. Old wood chips are my personal favorite. These come from arborists grinding up branches. Good wood chips contain twigs, buds, leaves, bark, and wood. As they age, they turn dark brown and become filled with either worm castings or mycelium. They are free from most municipalities or cheaply delivered by arborists. Some people worry about adding all that carbon to the soil, saying that it will rob all the nitrogen. If this is a concern, then simply add nitrogen from an organic fertilizer (there are lots to choose from).

Other peat alternatives that I have successfully used include leaf mold, compost, aged pine bark mulch, and rotten wood. Bags of leaves are left out every fall as if they were garbage. I collect as many of these as I can for free. A pile of leaves after two seasons, makes an outstanding compost, unsurpassed in texture.

The potting mixes we use at Twisted Tree Farm are made with aged woodchips and compost as primary ingredients. We have started everything from vegetable seeds to oak trees with no adverse effects. Some people advise sterilizing potting mixes, but I prefer not to. I like a living soil, not a clean dead one. Besides, any plant that needs sterile soil, can never live in the garden anyway.

Every gardener can make their own compost or purchase it locally. There is no reason to strip the north woods. The world is full of tough environmental issues, but peat moss is an easy one. We really don’t need it.

-Akiva Silver

If you like my writing, check out my book Trees of Power: