There are many things in gardening that are quite commonly used in everyday gardening jargon. Peat moss is one such name that is amply famed, so much so that you will find its mention in every other How-to guide.
Versatile in its usage, Peat moss is healthy for your garden, be it vegetable or flower, seed or soil. But, understanding how it works is essential to not only making the best use of it but also for using it correctly.
Where Does It Come From?
Peat moss is derived from Sphagnum, a bog-dwelling soft moss. Sphagnum is not only used for potting, but also for dressing up of wounds. But, the peat moss itself isn’t remotely similar to its progenitor. As opposed to the lush green of the sphagnum, the peat moss is a dark shade of brown matter that is densely packed.
It not only contains decomposed sphagnum, but also fibrous remains formed by other living things found in peat bogs, forming the rich matter over millennia without the presence of air. It’s found globally and used by gardeners, both amateur and professional, for sprouting seeds and enriching the soil. It is a very effective absorbent.
Just How Good Is It For Your Plants?
As mentioned previously, it is a terrific absorbent. The absorbency of peat moss not only directly benefits the plants but also complements other things in the soil. Water retainment is another benefit of using peat moss as opposed to other soils, aiding other garden soils and potting mixes in absorbing and retaining water better.
It also prevents compaction. Compaction happens when an upper layer of sediment or an external force weighs down upon a sediment, squeezing its grains tightly and reducing its porosity in the process. Compaction can cause severe damage to plants, and the airy nature of peat moss keeps the soil sufficiently wet. Moreover, one application of peat moss can last for years.
Peat moss also has an acidic pH level that is good for your plants. In order to understand how pH affects your soil, we must first go the basics of it. So what does pH stand for? Power of Hydrogen, with the p originating from the German word potenz.
It is a scale that has 7 as a neutral and measures the acidic or alkaline level on either side of this number. The descending numbers from 7 are acidic and increase in their acidity as the scale gets closer to zero. Anything above 7 is alkaline.
The pH scale for a soil usually ranges from 3 to 10, with 3 being highly acidic and 10 being extremely alkaline. Not only does yearly rainfall determine a soil’s pH levels, but also the primary soil used in the mix. In cultivation, a pH level of 6.5 is considered amicable for most plants.
A mildly acidic soil is nutritionally beneficial for most plants. Iron deficiency is not just harmful to humans, and the lack of sufficient acidity in the soil can cause vein yellowing of young leaves. If the pH level goes lower than that, leaves die and turn browner.
The effect isn’t contained to leaves alone as roots are damaged with stunted growth, and a plant becomes incapable of intaking nutrients. This is caused by low pH releasing aluminum. Conversely, a high pH can cause adverse and toxic effects on the plant as molybdenum increases beyond its safe limits.
The pH level of a soil has an influence on the fauna that resides in the soil. A mildly acidic pH level in the soil is healthy for both plants and earthworms and helps in the conversion of nitrogen into nutritional forms by microorganisms.
The average pH level of peat moss is 4.4 and gets closer to 7 rather than to 0. This makes it more acidic than the average 5.0 that most plants are adapted to. Hence, though there are plants that welcome acid, other plants require alkaline mixtures to balance the pH level.
Apart from its anti-compaction and healthy pH levels, peat moss is also a fantastic incubator for seeds to begin their sprouting process. Seedlings are curated with peat moss in most mixes. The absorbency greatly helps the seeds, while the sterility of peat moss deters weed seeds and pathogens that might threaten the life of a seed.
The Downsides, They Are A-Coming
Nothing in the world that promises you goodies is bereft of some chinks in the armor. And there are a few to be found in this mushy material. The first being its cost. The highly recommended benefits come with an uncomfortable price tag for your wallet, more so if you plan to use peat moss in large quantities. You can definitely balance this out by opting not to buy pre-mixed potting soil and making a mixture of your own.
Nutritionally speaking, peat moss is not too high, though rumors of its nutritional value being zero are false. One can find benign microorganisms in peat moss to help with fertility, and more can be added externally. Ultimately, it depends on the area where the peat moss is derived from.
As mentioned above, peat moss stands at a general 4.4 on acidic pH scale, and not all plants are accustomed to its level of acidity, while some require a more alkaline treatment. Hence, balancing its pH levels is important, if not for substituting moss for compost for some plants. Some composts, based on how they are composed, are more neutral or alkaline in nature.
The biggest disadvantage of peat moss is its lack of reusability. It is a good resource, but one that cannot be renewed and this deters gardeners from using it. Peat moss develops its richness in the absence of air, and when put to use it naturally starts decomposing completely, and when it does it releases the nutrients but makes it especially useless for carnivorous plants. Live sphagnum is a good alternative for them. In spite of this, there are ways to use peat moss for longer periods. Mixing the parts that are breaking is one.
So, What To-Do With It?
The usability of peat moss is relative to the reason for using it in in your garden. More than being a major component of your potting soil, it works better as an additive and amends your soil proficiently. It is also more beneficial for your vegetable garden than otherwise.
But, for the best usage of peat moss, you will need to go through a few steps that require some efforts and your diligence, especially for potting.
The first step is a two to three weeks process wherein you need to pour the peat moss in a tray or a pan and let is be exposed to morning dew and rain. Due to its resistance to water, it can be primed with rainwater or spray it once daily before using it for pots.
Peat moss is a good ingredient in your potting mix, but exactly how much of it do you need to find the balance? Well, the equation is quite simple. Use equal parts of the peat moss with the garden soil. Add perlite or builder’s sand to it with the same measurement and mix them thoroughly using a spade.
The next step requires a bit more attention to detail. You will need to sprinkle fertilizer to this mix, but use exactly half tablespoon of 14-14-14 fertilizer for a gallon of peat moss mix. Multiply this measurement based on how many gallons of peat moss you are using. Stir it well before filling a pot with the mixture and planting seeds or transferring plants.
Seeds germinate quickly in peat moss because it keeps the base adequately moist. You can also use garden vermiculite instead of perlite to the mix. If the soil is very dry or sandy, peat moss helps in retaining moisture and improving the drainage, preventing compaction and increasing nutrition. This is useful when growing vegetables, balancing both dryness and wetness. Not only is peat moss acidic, but it also is rich in carbon and aids compost piles in this regard.
If you’re using peat moss just for soil amendment, then using a ratio of 2:1 is recommended, with the peat moss being one part and the soil two parts. The first 12 inches of your soil’s layer should be injected with an even distribution of peat moss and other amendment mixes.
But, if your purpose of adding peat moss to the soil is for seed germination, you are afforded the luxury of experimenting with the ratios in order to see what works best for your seed starting mix. Additionally, you can purchase organic peat moss if you’re into organic gardening.
It is important to remember that dry peat moss is very fine in nature and you are susceptible to inhaling it. So, it is better to wear a mask while dealing with it.
Where Can You Buy It?
Given its popularity, you might be mistaken in believing that it has been in usage for centuries, and you are forgiven for believing so. It wasn’t until the 1900s hit the United States that peat moss appealed to farmers and gardeners. Once it did spring into the market, its applications became quickly widespread and widely known, and it eventually turned into the international gardening material it is known for today.
There is absolutely no shortage of peat moss in garden supply stores, both in the United States and abroad, and both online and offline. The price can vary based on manufacturer, the brand and on the type. Sphagnum peat moss is available in both small and large quantities, and this obviously affects the prices with the latter coming with various discounts.
Using the cubic foot as a unit of measurement, peat moss is sold by the quart in smaller bags as a pot mix of small amount and for containers.
As for the brands, there is no concrete way of deciding which is the best for you. Lakeland peat, Fertilome, Majestic Earth Sphagnum peat moss, Sunshine, Espoma organic peat moss, Hoffman Canadian Sphagnum peat moss and Premier Pro Horticultural peat moss are more than decent recommendations.
The quality fluctuates temporally and regionally. Nursery and grower-grade peat is consistent and cleaner in quality when compared to consumer-grade peat, and organic is safer to use.
What Nature Has To Say About It
It is important to remind that peat moss as a resource is incapable of renewing. This is so because it isn’t an artificial material like fertilizers. It undergoes an excruciatingly slow biological process of many millennia and the heavy quantity that we buy and use in our gardens to grow our plants and enrich our gardens only grows under one millimeter per year.
Hence, peat moss, though widely available for purchase, is heavily regulated for harvesting. In spite of this, the fact remains that the industry has contributed to carbon emissions around the world. When you mine peat moss, it exhumes carbon dioxide in enormous amounts and releases it into the atmosphere. Peatland, as an ecosystem, is designed by nature to retain carbon and keep it trapped.
So, even when we are contributing to the environment by using peat moss to grow more plants and trees, we are also contributing to the overall impact of climate change on the environment.
What’s The Alternative?
If the price of peat moss has you questioning your choice to buy it for your garden or its effect on the environment morally obliges you to look elsewhere, then Compost is the best way to help your garden grow. When compared on a skeletal level with peat moss for garden benefits, it is not too different from its Sphagnum contender. But, where peat moss cannot be renewed, Compost can.
In this way, you reduce wastage and also save on cash because while peat moss is expensive, compost is generally free. Additionally, it has more microorganisms than peat moss and holds water well along with decent aeration and nutrition. But, unlike peat moss, compost is susceptible to compaction and has weed seeds in it sometimes.
It is also neutral or alkaline in nature, as opposed to peat moss which is acidic. Hence, using minimal amounts of peat moss for soil mixes neutralizes the downsides of compost.
So, Yay or Nay?
While it has environmental downsides and the pricing is on the expensive side of the scale, it does add to the richness of your soil. So, if you cannot afford to buy it and if Compost is readily available, the alternatives are better. If your soil has issues with dryness and the plants you’re growing need a more acidic pH level, peat moss is good for you.
Taking all the facts into consideration, it rests entirely up to you to buy it or not.