What is peat moss? (with photos)

A handful of peat moss.

“Peat moss” is the name commonly given to the decayed and dead remains of sphagnum moss, a plant native to many parts of the world. Gardeners tend to love it for its ability to hold water – it can usually hold up to 20 times its weight. It also has a nutrient-rich composition that can promote faster growth for a variety of plants, from crops to ornamental shrubs. Peat’s popularity has caused some controversy when it comes to features, however. Although sphagnum grows in many places, it usually takes a long time to decompose and die. When demand exceeds natural production, there is a danger of overexploitation.

Growing region and conditions

Peat can be used to fertilize farms.

Sphagnum moss grows most commonly in swamps, which are essentially deep, wet swamps. Moss grows on top of the swamp and peat is produced below. Some of the oldest peat bogs in the world have very dense and seemingly endless supplies of decaying matter, although it is also available in smaller amounts in trees, rocks, and even on top of the ground in places.

Peat retains a lot of water, which makes it useful for gardeners.

Cold climates are generally best for sphagnum and peat. Canada is one of the world’s largest producers, for example, as are many countries in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. In the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand has some of the largest wetlands and natural moss habitats.

use as fertilizer

Most garden centers sell baled peat. It tends to be more expensive than traditional fertilizers such as manure or compost, but it is generally easier to use and quicker to act. Peat moss is prized by gardeners for its nutritive content and water absorption and is often mixed with potting or planting soil to increase plant growth potential and aid erosion.

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Acidity care

“Peat moss” is actually the decayed and dead remains of sphagnum moss.

Using peat effectively is often more difficult than it looks. Although the material looks like dirt, it should generally not be used interchangeably with regular pots or planting soil – and should generally only be incorporated into potting mixes in small proportions. Peat moss is typically very acidic, which can actually make it toxic to plant roots. If the surrounding soil is already acid-rich, adding peat can make the garden intolerant of growth. Most experts recommend starting with a small amount and working up more gradually over time.

mulching

Inhaling peat moss can cause respiratory problems such as asthma.

Peat often looks like it would make a good mulch – its water retention is often something gardeners want in and around their plants. Few experts actually recommend this use, however. As the moss dries, it tends to absorb water into itself. This may give the impression that the soil is good and moist, but in reality, moss often robs plants of the water they need to thrive. It is usually best to incorporate peat into the soil so that the plant’s roots can access any water stored by the moss.

Use in compost

Some people add peat to their compost heaps, although this practice often has only mixed results. Peat is already almost completely decomposed, which means that it is usually not able to help speed up the decomposition of other organic material – and in some cases actually slows it down. It can absorb moisture from a compost pile, however, and often masks the smell of decaying plants and food. Composters generally should not rely on peat to facilitate disintegration, although using it in conjunction with other carbon-based materials can be beneficial.

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Preservation capabilities

Sphagnum and peat are excellent preservatives thanks to their slow rate of decomposition. Bodies that were found in peat bogs generally remained relatively intact after hundreds or even thousands of years. Bone tends to dissolve, thanks to the high acid content of peat, but hair, skin, and even clothing are often easily recognizable.

Harvest

Peat moss is harvested commercially in most parts of the world. Bogs are often “mined,” either by hand or with mechanical removal equipment designed to separate the peat from the living sphagnum. Many farmers have tried to cultivate artificially-constructed “peat farms,” though the success rate of these ventures has tended to be low. It often takes years for the sphagnum to begin to die off and regenerate, and it can be difficult to create the right conditions to encourage this cycle to happen all on its own.

Conservation and Controversy

There are many people who oppose the commercial use of peat for environmental reasons, arguing that it is not a long-term sustainable resource. While it is organic, peat is being used and mined faster than it can be produced. Critics often point to dwindling natural supplies and bog destruction as evidence of a supply problem. Depleting natural peat may be a problem in its own right, but it can also lead to the change or ultimate destruction of bog habitats that supports a number of different birds, small mammals, and insect and microbial life.

Possible Health Concerns

Like most mosses, peat is made up of a number of different spores. Inhaling these into the lungs can be dangerous, although not usually fatal. It can lead to respiratory problems like asthma, wheezing, and chronic shortness of breath.

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In some cases, peat has been found to contain harmful bacterial cells known as Sporothrix schenckii which can lead to infection if inhaled — and often skin irritation if touched. If this bacteria enters the blood stream, it can cause the potentially deadly condition sporotrichosis. People who regularly handle peat moss often wear face masks and protective gloves as a precaution.

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