Peat Wars: Should Ancient Bogs Be Miracle Plant Food? Or Precious Carbon Sink?

By Ashley P. Taylor | October 10, 2012 2:45 pm

An English bog

It’s a battle over turf—peat, to be exact. In Great Britain, government plans to phase out the use of peat in gardening products—intended to protect bogs, from which peat is harvested—have created a division between gardeners and environmentalists, writes The New York Times. That’s because peat bogs are tremendous carbon sinks that hold one-quarter of the carbon stored in the world’s soil, or more than 200 billion tons of carbon, but also happen to contain nutrients that make plants grow like gangbusters.

Peat bogs are ancient: they are pits of rotted plant matter, particularly Sphagnum moss, that have been accumulating for millions of years. Peat bogs decay so slowly because the oxygen-free environment of the wet bogs along with compounds in the moss’s cell walls deter microbes that would otherwise digest them. But harvesting the peat for gardening is depleting the bogs—Alan Knight, head of a task force that is advising the government on how to shift away from using peat in horticulture, told the Times that Britain will run out of peat within decades, while the carbon they sequester will be released into the atmosphere as the preserved organic matter is digested by bacteria activated by the presence of air.

The British government is facing resistance from at least some gardeners, though, who cite peat’s ability to hold more than its dry weight in water and to increase the soil’s grip on nutrients that otherwise just wash away. “If you love your garden, you really can’t just abstain,” the Times quoted a celebrity organic gardener called Bob Flowerdew. Flowerdew says that peat is “irreplaceable for cultivating certain hard-to-grow plants and for getting seeds to sprout” and that if need be, he’ll take to the black market to get that black soil.

Read the rest at The New York Times.

Bog photo courtesy of Peer Lawther/Flickr 

  • Kaviani

    There is absolutely nothing “nutritious” about peat. It is, in fact, devoid of most nutrients and its only redeeming value is to retain moisture in sandy soils.

    Do you know what else does that? Renewable sources like compost (which is also high in soil flora and trace minerals) and coconut coir.

    These gardeners are simply victims of their own dogma and stubbornness. They are an embarrassment.

  • Janice

    I agree with Kaviani. Gardeners who hold to their outdated ideas of peat moss are not gardeners at all.

    Peat just washes away in the rain, and if you are trying to use it to amend a clay-based soil, it will adhere to the clay and turn into concrete. Use coconut husk if you must, but a mixture of compost, sand and decaying leaves will do much more for your garden than peat, which is completely useless.

    Leave the peat in the bog where it belongs. Peat mining is a travesty and is destroying entire watersheds and valuable ecosystems. I think it should be banned, and peat moss removed from the market.

  • Brian Too

    Is there any good reason why peat isn’t a renewable resource??

  • Cynthia

    Brian Too,

    Like the article says, peat bogs are created by rotted plant matter that has been decaying for MILLIONS OF YEARS. And it goes on to explain: ” Peat bogs decay so slowly because the oxygen-free environment of the wet bogs along with compounds in the moss’s cell walls deter microbes that would otherwise digest them.”

    No oxygen = slow decay = peat bog
    A lot of oxygen = FAST DECAY = NO PEAT BOG, you’d probably end up with something like compost

    Because of the different chemical reactions in oxygen and no oxygen conditions, (oxydo-reduction reactions) carbon is stored when there is decomposition without oxygen. It doesn’t happen in aerobic (with oxygen) reactions.

  • Cyber

    Those who forget the past are doomed to de-Peat it…

    Don’t Peat it! (peat it)
    Don’t Peat it! (peat it)
    Gardeners must be defeated
    Coconut husks can
    Do the job right
    Compost is better
    Plants will delight!

    Don’t Peat it! (peat it peat it peat it)!
    Don’t Peat it! (peat it peat it peat it)!

  • Cyber

    Oh, this is “80beats” blog, not “80’s Beats”…my bad

  • Treset

    In well drained sandy soil peat moss is at its best since it really helps hold water, allowing plants to make use of the water before it drains away.


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