Many of you might be thinking that if you don’t use sphagnum, this doesn't affect you. But if you are a gardener, you are affected whether you know it or not. Sphagnum peat moss is a main ingredient in most soilless mixes that gardeners use.

I was the greenhouse chairman for our Master Gardener group for a number of years and was responsible for purchasing all of the supplies needed to begin our planting process each spring. Year after year, I noticed the cost of seed starting, as well as soilless mix, was increasing by a few dollars each year. Suddenly the prices rose dramatically. I began doing a little research and was shocked when I discovered the reason for the rising costs.

Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss (CSPM) is not in itself a soil nutrient. However it is very porous, which results in it holding nutrients as well as moisture. This makes it valuable in the production of potting mixes.

It is formed by nature over centuries, through the decomposition of vegetative matter in wetlands that contain poorly drained, oxygen-deprived soils. In these types of conditions, decomposition is somewhat slower than we are normally accustomed to. Most of the sites that are favorable for producing CPSM in North America are located across northern Canada.

This is a very slow process; the rate of accumulation is less than 1/8 of an inch annually. A depth of 6 inches of peat is considered a jackpot. As you can guess, the rate of harvest greatly exceeds the rate of accumulation.

Peat was used as a fuel by native Canadians as well as Americans for hundreds of years. What has taken Mother Nature thousands of years to produce has been depleted by man in a fraction of that time.

What are gardeners supposed to do? There are several alternatives that seem to work quite well.

Leaf Mold

In the United Kingdom, leaf mold is the soil connoisseur’s choice for amending poor soils as well as a very effective mulch. It is simply shredded leaves that have been kept damp until fungi begin to break them down. Most leaves are on the acidic side when dry. When they begin to decay, they move to a more neutral pH making them ideal as an amendment to your soil. Leaf mold is great at holding moisture as well as making the soil more friable. The best part is the cost: leaves are free and all you need to do is shred them with the lawnmower, keep them damp in a shady location and let nature take its course.

Coir

This is the shredded fibrous husk of a coconut. It holds moisture very well and drains well also. Being a natural substance it breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil, and it is a plentiful, renewable resource. It is also high in potassium. On the down side it is acidic; if you use it on vegetables or other alkaline loving plants you need to monitor the soil pH. Lime can be added to raise the pH if warranted. It is also a little on the costly side as it is not produced in North America, which can add to the transportation costs.

PittMoss

A new kid on the block was noticed noticed after the creators made their appearance on the TV show Shark Tank. PittMoss is a mix of proprietary additives and recycled paper. The producers say that it is comparable in cost to peat moss with a zero impact on the environment. During trials, plants grown in PittMoss require 50% less water than plants grown with peat moss. At the present time this product is only available to commercial growers. A manufacturing plant is being built in order to increase production and make the product available to the general public. For a short six minute video on PittMoss click here

Whether you use peat moss in your garden beds, or as an ingredient in your own soilless mixes for seed starting or containers, I hope you will give some of these alternatives to CSPM a try. By switching to an alternative, you will help to conserve a valuable natural resource and slow the rate of depletion in Canada's natural peat bogs.