The art of gardening requires simulating in your backyard what happens naturally in the wild. With domesticated soil and plants, this can be a pretty delicate process—both for your plants and the environment.
You’ve probably purchased bags of soil from hardware stores or retailers specializing in plants and landscaping. While a bag of dirt seems harmless enough, as with any other commercially sold item, there can be negative effects from producing them in mass quantities. For example, harvesting of peat, which is commonly used as a soil additive, depletes a natural resource that combats global warming when left in the wild. Yet peat is still widely used, probably because most people don’t know it’s a problem. If you’re worried about reducing the environmental impact of your garden, it’s worth knowing what peat is, why using it is harmful, and what to use instead.
What is peat?
Peat moss is a natural, non-living material that forms in bogs as mosses and plant matter decomposes in peat bogs. The substance can be harvested and burned as fuel, but is more commonly formed into bricks and pellets used to create richer soil for seeding new plants. The problem (as with many mass-produced items) comes in the extraction of the panting aid.
The harvesting process actually releases the stored carbon dioxide produced by plant decomposition into the air, removing from the environment a natural carbon sink and contributing to global warming. It also disrupts the ecosystem of the water and animals in the area. Plus, peat is not an easily renewable resource and is being harvested at rates much higher than its regrowth. Additionally, because it can be used as fuel, it is highly flammable. The Washington Post reports peat fires account for, “5% of human-caused carbon emissions.” In short: In nature, peat absorbs carbon dioxide, preserving the earth’s homeostasis. Digging it up causes more harm to the Earth than the good it does for your garden.
What is peat doing for your plants?
Although peat is used in many soil mixtures, it is not an adequate option for root growth and often needs to be mixed with the material perlite to even work. Ken Druse with The Garden Rant writes, “peat moss is … a poor choice. It breaks down too fast, compressing and squeezing air out of the soil, creating an unhealthy condition for plant roots.” Peat, when added to soil, is touted for its ability to hold in moisture and bring vital hydration to the plants, but the fast rate of decomposition means the pros do not outweigh the cons.
What to use in your plant soil instead of peat
Peat is sold as a useful soil additive to hold carbon dioxide, creating a beneficial environment for acidic plants. But proper acidity levels can also be achieved via things like sawdust or composted bark. According to Gardening Know How, these peat alternatives have a low PH balance and, when locally sourced, can be a choice much more in line with your local environment—and better for the environment overall. Gardening Know How does warn that some sawdust and composted barks can suffer from the same over harvesting issue, and could potentially contain added chemicals. So if you are looking for a worry-free, environmentally sound option, they suggest doing your own composting. Composting mimics the fertilization process that occurs naturally in the wild, and puts your food, plant, and paper waste to good use.
Another unlikely and overlooked alternative to peat is coconut coir (the brown, fibrous outer layer of a coconut). Previously discarded, the coarse fibers were thought to have no real use. But the coconut hairs have been found to help plants grow just as well as, if not better than, peat. The Gardening Channel reports coconut coir holds 30 percent more water than peat and is an eco-friendly sustainable source. Coconut coir is also commonly sold at home and garden centers.