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April 22, 2009
It’s Earth Day, and in the spirit of stewardship I’m thinking about good soil. Gardeners all over the Northern Hemisphere are preparing for another season of growing, often beginning with readying the ground and germinating seeds. Every gardener knows that peat is a magical growing medium, creating ideal conditions in which plants thrive. But choosing this ancient dirt could do unforeseen damage to the Earth, while an otherwise environmentally engaged gardener’s plot thrives. The question has been, are the alternatives worth using? I think the answer is yes. Here I lay out 5 reasons home gardeners should go peat-free from now on.
1. Peat cannot be restored at the rate that we are using it. Peat is essentially a really old and rich compost, developed over 360 million years. If we left it alone, it would become coal in another geologic stretch of time. But in our lifetimes, this dense, layered stratification is growing only at the rate of a millimeter per year, while we are extracting (according to the BBC) around 22 centimeters per year.
2. Gardeners didn’t always use peat in their soil, they built their own soil with compost. Peat came into use in the 1950s, but gardens still managed to be fruitful and beautiful before then. How did they do it? By starting a compost pile — which is not only a great way to recycle your kitchen scraps, but also makes great worm food, and by proxy, great soil. Adding this nutrient-rich material to your dirt, along with mineral fillers like coir, perlite, green sand and black rock phosphate, will make for a good growing medium.
3. The environmental consequences of using peat are steep. Not only is shipping peat from bogs thousands of miles away unsustainable, but scientists have found evidence that peat bogs play an important role as a carbon sink. When we remove the peat and dry it, it releases many tons of methane (a gas 21 times worse than carbon) into our atmosphere. Peat bogs make up 2% of the earth’s landmass, and are home to many species that don’t live anywhere else. In using peat, gardeners are inadvertently contributing to the destruction of rare birds’ and other creatures’ habitats.
4. Peat-free alternatives work just as well, if not better. Kew Gardens, arguably one of the loveliest gardens in the world (with one of the most diverse groupings of plants), uses no peat on site for starting or adding later nutrients to plants. Some alternatives you can use in addition to compost include coconut coir and wood chip, both castaways of the fruit or logging industry that would otherwise go to waste. While these things also have to be shipped, they are very light weight (coir comes in dense and light bricks that you pull apart). Another popular seed starting tool, “peat pots” can be replaced by the local, sustainable answer: cow pots (biodegradable pots made in Connecticut by a small dairy farmer from manure).
5. Its the right thing to do. The United Kingdom has recognized the importance of protecting peatlands by setting the goal of reducing the use of peat in the UK by 90% by 2010. They are still struggling to meet their goal, mostly because consumers don’t understand the issue; bags of soil are not properly labeled in the UK or the United States, and so gardeners and growers still have yet to jump on board and work with alternatives. Proper labeling and education on these issues is key to changing our habits in our home gardens. But 66% of the peat extracted is used by amateur gardeners, so there is a huge opportunity to change the industry through the choices we make in our gardens.
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