How can I reduce my use of peat-based products?
Peat moss offers many very desirable qualities as a growing medium component that are hard to replace. It is a lightweight, organic and sterile material that supports moisture, air and nutrient resources at a plant's roots. The light texture allows fine roots to expand without undue restriction and yet structurally supports the fast-growing, above-ground form of a young plant. The environmental impact, however, of peat extraction for use in horticulture is too acute to be ignored by conscientious individuals. Peatlands, from which peat moss is harvested, are an essential carbon store and peat extraction releases substantial quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. They are also a valuable and unique ecosystems with a profound ability to manage storm water.
Research is underway to create improved alternatives to peat-based growing media, but for the moment there are no ideal products that mimic the use of peat as a soil component in every attribute. The most common alternative ingredients in peat-free soil mixes are coir (coconut fiber), compost and wood products which are mixed with inorganic materials, like sharp sand and perlite, for improved drainage and texture. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none replace peat ideally and, while significant improvements compared to the destruction of peatlands, none are entirely eco-friendly. Coir, for instance, is good at holding moisture but does not secure plant nutrients very well. It requires a large amount of water and energy in production to remove a high salt content and is not locally sourced in many markets. There is not a universal consistency in texture or chemical properties to the plant-sourced substitute ingredients.
What can you do now to reduce your reliance on peat as an ingredient in gardening mixtures? Experiment thoughtfully and challenge yourself to make this change in gardening practice.
- A good place to begin is by eliminating peat use in high volume gardening areas like landscaping and perennial gardening, where good quality compost is often a fine substitute for soil enrichment when it is needed. Incorporate aluminum sulfate rather than peat in landscaping soil to reduce pH.
- Experiment with peat-free potting mixes for container plants. Use trusted brands that will have taken the time to develop a manufacturing process that ensures consistency and eliminates contaminants in the mixture.
- When re-potting your houseplants, try substituting a non-peat alternative for a portion of the new potting mixture and observe the adjustments in care required.
There are some planting situations that are more difficult to address peat-free. Seedlings' need for a fine textured growing medium along with salt and pH sensitivity presents additional challenges. Plants that grow naturally in wetlands, like pitcher plants, are another example. Trials are currently being conducted for these and other growing environments using peat-free mixes.
We encourage gardeners to be ambitious in reducing dependence on peat products. We are not able to recommend commercial products, but the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension offers this page of "recipes" for mixing your own peat-free soil mixes for various garden needs.
Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service
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