Ever wonder where some of your garden materials come from? Or do you just take them for granted as we seem to do for most things these days. Take peat, for instance.
Most people know it's a natural product, but did you know that peat is essentially very ancient soil enriched by decomposed plant matter deposited over many years? It's mined all over the world although but the oldest and richest deposits are found in Canada.
Peat is lighter, softer, and more crumbly than ordinary garden soil. The crumbly texture means that it traps air and water differently than soil. It is naturally aerated so that air circulates among plant roots.
It absorbs and releases water more slowly than soil, helping keep roots evenly moistened, which is especially important during early plant growth. The light, crumbly texture helps encourage healthy root growth and doesn't hinder development like heavy soils can.
Because peat slowly decomposes and mixes completely with garden or potting soil, peat seed-starting products can be transferred directly to planting containers or to outdoor plots. Peat pots and strips are completely biodegradable, so they slowly blend into garden soil, enriching and aerating the soil as they decompose.
When planting in soil, make sure the peat container is completely covered. Otherwise, it may act as a wick, pulling moisture from the soil and drying roots.
Peat pellets can be transferred directly to planters or to outdoor gardens where they, too, add peat's richness and aerating properties to the soil. Unlike some seed-starting pots made of non-peat products, peat does not rob essential nitrogen from the soil.
Peat is Not Peat Moss
So far I've described peat which, just to confuse you, is different from peat moss. Peat moss is the organic matter that mixes with soil to form peat. And to confuse the issue further, there are several different types of peat moss!
The only peat moss you really have to know about is sphagnum peat moss. This is the type commonly found at garden stores that you add to the garden to improve soils and add organic matter.
It simply is decomposed sphagnum moss, the wetland plant that was used for lining hanging baskets before plastics became popular. Other wetland plants such as hypnum, reed, and sedge will decompose as well, forming different types of peat mosses.
Some sphagnum peat moss used in this country comes from the northern Midwest states, primarily Michigan, although most comes from Canada. It's interesting to note that vast amounts also are found in Europe, covering one-third of the land in Finland and about one-sixth of the land in Ireland and Sweden. The Soviet Union has about two-thirds of the world's supply of peat moss. With so much available in Europe, it has long been burned in many countries as a source of fuel.
I also find how peat moss is harvested to be interesting. It can either be mined as coal or literally harvested off the surface like strip mining by large machines resembling combines.
So, the next time you are in a garden store, make sure you know and ask for what you really want - peat, peat moss, or sphagnum moss.
Leonard Perry is Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist with the University of Vermont.