Peat moss is commonly used around the garden. But what is it really? Peat is the partially decayed organic matter that comes from bogs or muskegs. And bogs are the most efficient carbon sink there is. These peatland ecosystems take thousands of years to develop. Peat forms in wetlands where there is stagnant water, which blocks the airflow and slows the rate of decomposition of vegetation. The peat bog provides habitat for very distinct fauna and flora. Not only does harvesting peat change this habitat, it drains the bogs. This exposes the sequestered carbon and releases it into the atmosphere. It also takes centuries for the bogs to recover from any disturbance. So it isn’t very sustainable.

In some places, peat is harvested as a source of fuel and heat. This makes it a fire hazard as the fires in peat are not extinguished easily. We have even had some wildfires in the Yukon go underground and keep burning in the peat for many years.

Peat moss has been stocked in gardening centres for decades. It is used in container gardening to retain moisture, as it absorbs up to 10 to 20 times its weight in water. It is even in the very convenient peat pellets used to start plants in. But all this gardening use is destroying wetland habitat. And while the peat will rebuild, it will take centuries. Which makes it more of a non-renewable than a renewable source. So what is an eco-minded gardener to do? Well, here are some substitutes that might work:

Derived from the outer husk of the coconut, coir can be used in much the same way as peat. I did notice that it does have very long strands sometimes, which may be difficult to work with, but it mulches much the same as peat. It does have to be shipped to the Yukon, so the carbon footprint is larger than if it were produced in the territory.

Always a good addition to any garden. Not only does it add water retention properties to the soil, it brings nutrients as well. And if you compost, it costs next to nothing and diverts waste from the landfill.

Bark chips/wood fibers:
Can be used as a mulch in the garden. But they do have the disadvantage of needing a source of nitrogen in order to break down and do the garden some good. If you have outdoor animals, chickens, or pigs, the wood fibers can be used as bedding first, composted and then spread onto the garden. This is a great way to clean up the bark leftover from a season of heating with wood.

Pine needles:
Help retain moisture and suppress weeds when used as a mulch. If it is tilled into the soil, it helps with drainage and will provide nutrients. It does raise the pH a bit, but for berry bushes this would be perfect as they require a bit more acid in the soil. So when fire smarting this summer, remember to collect the pine needles to be used in your gardening.

Leaf mold:
Is what last year’s leaves are called. It is very beneficial to the garden as it can be used as a mulch to prevent moisture loss in the early spring, but then it breaks down relatively quickly and will then add nutrients to the soil. And if you leave the raking of the lawn until spring, wait a while before that clean-up project to allow any hibernating insects to awaken naturally.

Animal manure:
Especially if it has composted for a season or two, it’s a very good addition to any garden. The nutrients are ready to be taken up by plants right away. It aids in water retention in the soil and gives good bacteria something to eat so they can thrive as well. Some plants are able to make use of fresh manure but most will actually be damaged by it as the nitrogen is too high. So care should be taken when sourcing animal manure for your garden. One thing to keep in mind is the source animal. There are some diseases that can be transferred from cats, dogs and human manure. So it is best to avoid these, especially for the vegetable garden.

By using something other than peat moss, our gardens will still grow as well but without contributing to the destruction of a wetland somewhere. So this spring, for peat’s sake, use something else.

Great Thumbs, Great Ideas