Photo: Is peat moss an eco-friendly option for my yard and garden?

Don't use peat for your garden.(Credit: mmwm via Flickr)

Not really. In nature, peat accumulates at a rate of half to one millimetre per year! And harvesting peat moss is like mining—a top layer of earth is scrapped off. But when left intact, peat is like any wetland ecosystem; it purifies and stores water. It's also the single largest terrestrial store of carbon.

Canada is the leading world peat producer. We currently mine about 270 million acres of peat bogs—primarily in Quebec and New Brunswick. The Canadian government requires that peat bogs be returned to functioning wetlands once extraction is complete (not unlike what they propose for the oil sands).

The moral of the story is, find other options. And from a gardener's perspective (which I am not) peat has little or no nutrient value, and it's poor mulch; it tends to dry out and even blow away.

Here's how to choose peat-free products:

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  • If the bag doesn't say peat-free, it probably isn't.
  • Products with labels like "eco-friendly", "compost" and "organic" can contain peat.
  • A high-quality peat-free material will typically be more expensive than you're used to.

What are the alternatives?

First, choose native plants that are well-adapted to your region. By well-adapted, I mean they'll grow best in local conditions and moisture and have a natural ability to combat pests. Or, use compost. It's one of the easiest, cheapest and most eco-friendly ways to improve your soil (especially if you make it yourself) and it contributes more nutrients than sterilized peat. One downside is that most compost has high pH and high levels of nutrients—some plants will benefit more than others.

Another newer alternative is coir, which is made of coconut-shell fibre—a byproduct of the coconut industry in Sri Lanka and India. It holds water and nutrients extremely well and has a pH suitable for all plants. The major downside is that it's shipped from far-away countries.

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