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What is Peat Moss?
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont

Most of us take our gardening for granted or are too busy to stop and think
about why certain practices work, or where certain products we use come
One of our main gardening staples,
peat moss, has interesting origins and uses.
From Bogs to the Garden

To begin with, the terms "peat" and "peat moss" often are used interchangeably
although they are slightly different.  Over thousands of years, plant materials
submerged under water in bogs have broken down to form a type of soil called
"peat".  Most common is peat from the sphagnum moss plant.  

Don't confuse the peat from dead plants with the actual sphagnum moss from
living plants.  Sphagnum moss often is seen as a liner for hanging baskets.  This
moss grows on tops of such wetlands, and is harvested first, then the peat
below.  Even sphagnum is not all the same, with over 150 different species.  
Peat can derive from other plants, such as sedges or reeds, and would be
labeled as such although these are seldom seen.
Peat is what firms harvest, often drying out the bog temporarily so they can
suck up the peat with vacuums.  The peat is then dried further, screened, and
compressed into the bales of peat moss--this final product-- that we buy in

Most of our peat moss comes from Canada, much of it Quebec, although some
in the Midwest and South comes from Michigan.
Products Made from Peat Moss

Some other products made with the peat moss are peat pellets, used for
starting seeds, and peat pots.  These can be planted directly in soil where they
will dissolve, enriching it.  

If using peat pots, make sure and break off the rims above the surface, or bury
them completely.  Otherwise, the peat pot rims will wick moisture from the
soil and from around roots.
Some reports in the past have mistakenly attributed a rare skin disease causing
lesions to peat moss.  The fungal disease "cutaneous sporotrichosis" actually
has only been identified with sphagnum moss, not peat moss.
Peat from Canada is harvested only after environmental analysis and impact,
using sustainable methods, with conservation and bog restoration in mind.  
You can learn more about the whole process of harvest and conservation at the
Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association website.
Peat Moss: From Canada and Russia

Peat mosses mainly are found in bogs and wetlands in the northern
hemisphere, covering about two percent of the land on earth, about one billion
acres.  About two-thirds of the world's supply is in Russia, and one quarter in

About two-thirds of the world's wetlands are peat, and about seven percent of
the peat has been used for agriculture.  Of the peat in Canada, only about 0.02
percent is harvested yearly, or about one million tons.  At the same time, an
estimated 70 million tons of peat is being created by nature each year there.
Harvesting Peat is Sustainable

Even though peat in virgin bogs may date back hundreds or thousands of
years, research has shown that harvested peatland can be returned to an
ecologically balanced system in only 5 to 20 years after harvesting.  Peat itself
forms at a rate of an inch every 15 to 25 years.
Even though peat bogs cover large areas of Finland, Ireland, Scotland,
Germany, and Sweden, many are concerned there about over-harvest,
depletion, and using alternatives instead.  

Peat has been harvested in northern Europe for many decades for many uses.  
It has been cut from bogs in "bricks", dried, and used both for insulation and
burning for heat.  Peat moss also is a key component of growing mushrooms.  
The living sphagnum moss was used as a wound dressing in both World Wars,
due to its absorbent and antiseptic qualities.  The latter comes from its acidity
preventing growth of bacteria and fungi.
Perhaps most interesting is the finding of several ancient human bodies,
preserved well, in cold and anaerobic (lacking oxygen) sphagnum bogs.  The
acidity dissolved bones, but preserved skin, clothing, and even hair for
thousands of years.
Most of us know peat moss for its horticultural uses to provide better soil
aeration, add substance to sandy soils, to help the soil hold nutrients more
effectively, and to help retain soil moisture without being waterlogged.  It also
is a major component of soilless potting mixes.  You can add it to holes when
planting perennials or woody plants.
How Much Peat Moss to Use

If adding to a whole annual flower bed or vegetable garden prior to planting,
you can figure that a 3.8 cubic foot bale spread one-half inch deep will cover
about 180 square feet.  If spread one inch deep, this bale will cover about 90
square feet.  If adding to a whole bed or garden, make sure and test the soil
afterwards.  The peat moss will acidify the soil, meaning some lime will be
needed in many cases. Many gardeners spread compost on a garden or bed
along with the peat moss, then rake or till in both at the same time.
Peat Moss photo by Wapedia