When most people think of peat moss they recall sphagnum peat moss and its use as a soil amendment. Open a bag, and the first thing you'll notice is the extreme dryness of the moss, so much so that a puff of the brown particulates may even fly into the air. However, you'd be limiting yourself as a gardener if you limited peat moss to this single job since it's much more than just one of the options for amending your soil. Read on to learn more about where peat moss got its start and why it is such a useful part of your soil mix.

What is Peat Moss?

Peat Moss Growing on a Log

Peat moss became available in the 20th century but the dry, brown substance often purchased in the form of bags of sphagnum peat moss, but the end product is very different from the original plant. In bogs, sphagnum moss grows wet and green, and brighter dried versions are often used to create a base inside hanging baskets. The peat itself, however, is a mixture made up of mostly moss and some other plants that have been slowly decomposing in the bog wetlands for a very long time. While this time intensive process makes peat a fantastic soil amendment that can endure longer than comparable options, it takes so long to re-form the peat that it isn't actually considered a renewable resource.

In fact, industrial scale production of the thick brown layer under the moss, presents a threat of over-harvesting peat since it doesn't replenish quickly. Peat moss is not just something you can grow, harvest, and grow again so simply.

While it has been used in communities all over the world for centuries for things like creating insulated homes and even for burning as fuel, peat moss became a major soil amendment later on when people began to see just how many useful qualities it possesses.

Benefits of Peat Moss

Compared to compost, peat moss has a few easy benefits: for instance, it doesn't break down as quickly, so you don't have to apply it every single year, and it doesn't contain the seeds of other plants, which could potentially survive the composting process and sprout in your soil. Here are a few other ways that peat moss brings life to your garden.

Acid-Loving Plants

Camelia Trees with Pink Camelia Blossoms

If your soil isn't naturally acidic and you want to grow blueberries, tomatoes, or other acid-loving plants, your best bet is to amend your soil with some peat moss. A little bit of peat moss is alright for alkaline loving plants, but you are better off with an alkaline compost amendment, since this will also provide some of the mulching benefits but won't give them the incorrect pH. Acid-loving plants, like camellias, however, will thrive in the environment created by a soil generously amended with peat moss.

Nutrient Retention

A major problem with soil that lets water move through it freely is that nutrients often move through as well, leaving plants' roots with less to draw upon. The nutrients generated through worms and other insects, run-off from other soil, and fertilizer will stay longer among your plants if you have peat moss, since it doesn't allow those nutrients to simply wash away with each watering. Many people note that this results in healthier plants with better fruits.

Water Management

Peat moss can hold a lot of water and while this alone doesn't make it unique among gardening materials. However, using water-retaining peat doesn't result in a soil that's waterlogged and prone to rot that can damage delicate plant roots. Instead, it releases water slowly, allowing a natural flow of water into the aquifer without immediately drying out for your garden. This ability to retain and disperse water makes it a great amendment for sandy soil, which tends to pass water straight through and down into the deeper soil.

Better Aeration

Handful of soil amended with peat moss

Aerated soil avoids compacting and restricting root growth, as well as allowing access to oxygen and other needed air particles. When you are creating a potting mix, peat moss can be a great option for part (not all!) of the potting medium. An excellent sample of a garden mix that will combine aeration, nutrients, and a good texture is 1/3 sphagnum peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 compost. This ratio creates a balanced pH that combines all of the positive qualities listed above with some material that will keep water moving through the potting mix while retaining nutrients and enough water to not dry out entirely.

It is true that peat moss is a non-renewable resource, so it makes sense to avoid amending all the soil in all of your beds with this substance. A good rule of thumb is that, if a bed can thrive with compost as an amendment, a more renewable and nutrient-rich option. However, for acid-loving plants or starting seeds in a new bed, amending with peat moss will give you some excellent benefits. While most peat moss is not accessible for harvest, it is regenerated, albeit slowly, so sustainable use of peat moss could be possible. No matter why you use peat moss in your mixes, be grateful that this useful decomposed moss matter is available for our gardening use. It can certainly keep a garden bed appropriately aerated, nutrient-rich, and hydrated, even when mixed in only a small proportion with other substances.