For Peat's Sake
Quick, make a list of the coolest places on Earth. Let me guess what might be on it: a sun-splashed beach beside an aquamarine sea, a winding canyon with walls the colors of sunset, a tranquil lake nestled in old-growth conifers. Some thing like that, right?
Now let me guess what is not on it: a bog. A lowly, musty bog. My own associations with bogs and their ilk have been unfavorable, mostly informed by dark chapters in treasured stories: Frodo Baggins sinking despondently into the Dead Marshes; Milo encountering the thoughtless Lethargarians in the soggy Doldrums; Magwitch threatening Pip in the marshy graveyard; and poor, noble Artax succumbing to the Swamp of Sadness. Bogs murder BELOVED HORSES?
No wonder we don't like them (if we think of them at all). But bogs have become the It Girl of ecosystems in the last several years, as scientists have shouted long enough at us laymen that more of us are paying attention, like Horton finally raising the Who-flower to his elephantine ear.
What's the big fuss? Well, wetlands in general are a kind of ecological darling. Besides being crucial habitat for a wild array of flora and fauna, they also naturally filter and treat the wastewater that runs through them, improving the groundwater we eventually drink. During storms, they divert excess rain, which can reduce or prevent flooding, and they can be a natural barrier to wildfires. And bogs, specifically, are full of peat, a spongy, fibrous accumulation of partially decomposed organic materials such as sphagnum moss and dead plants.
Peat is used widely in the energy, agricultural, and horticultural industries. You likely have used it in simple garden projects. On the surface, peat products seem like an environmental win. You can reduce waste by replacing plastic containers with biodegradable peat pellets or peat pots to grow seedlings.
You can improve soil structure and plant health by using lightweight potting mixes or composts containing peat. It's all the buzzwords: plant-based, organic, and renewable. Well, about that. Peat is renewable — if you have a thousand years to wait for the next bog to form and the next batch to decompose (it's more of a tortoise than a hare). But on our mortal timescale?
Not so much. And that's a big deal because peat is an incredible, long-over looked carbon sink, reducing excess carbon dioxide in the air. Though covering only about 3% of the planet, peatlands hold at least a quarter of its soil carbon (that's more than the world's forests). Not bad for a horse killer!
As we harvest peat and drain wetlands for consumption and development, we are doing damage that will long outlive us. The good news is conservation efforts in many countries are steadily expanding.
I, for one, will do my part by ditching peat products — well, once I use up the leftover pots I already have. Sorry, Artax.
A BOG BY ANY OTHER NAME
Wow, I'm using a lot of terms that are related but not interchangeable! Here is the difference between common wetlands (which is just land covered with water often or always):
BOG: An acidic freshwater ecosystem made of very slowly decaying organic matter. Few nutrients, small and specialized plants like Venus fly-traps and cranberry vines, lots of sphagnum and peat.
FEN: A shallower wetland with less peat than a bog and larger vegetation. Can become a bog if peat eventually dominates.
MARSH: An abundant, nutrient-rich ecosystem bursting with soft vegetation like reeds and rushes, as well as wildlife. Can be inland freshwater or tidal saltwater.
SWAMP: A wetland with rich, saturated soil that supports woody shrubs like mangroves or trees such as cypress and maples.
The best part of peat pods or pots is being able to put them straight in the ground, which helps protect your tender seedlings from transplant shock and root damage. Never fear! You can do the same with these biodegradable substitutes, most of which are trash you probably already have on hand:
CowPots: This brand puts cow manure to good use, taking a plentiful dairy byproduct and creating pots that add nutrients to your soil as they break down. Locally, Territorial Seed Company carries these.
Pulp pots: Made of recycled paper products, these are a real doppelganger for peat pots. They come in a variety of sizes, but you may not find them easily on store shelves so may need to order ahead online. (If you have some cardboard or old newspapers and a blender, you can DIY your own. Tutorials abound online.)
Egg cartons: Twelve little pots, right in your fridge! Obvious size limitations apply.
Eggshells: You'll never feel more cottagecore than when carefully filling an artfully broken eggshell with some soil and a single wildflower seed. A real Disney princess moment, if that Disney princess was also a thrifty Hobbit. Cue the Howard Shore.
Berry baskets: Those teal cartons you get with your raspberries at the farmer's market are made of molded fiber and luckily can accommodate seedlings much bigger than a single chicken egg.
Toilet paper rolls: As someone who compulsively overwaters her seedlings, I skip this one; but plenty of gardeners (and probably Hobbit princesses) swear by this budget-friendly option.
Nonbiodegradable junk: If planting the whole container isn't important to you, but you still don't want to buy a bunch of plastic pots that will fall apart after a couple seasons, consider starting seeds in whatever containers you already have — tin cans, Mason jars, yogurt tubs, wide-brimmed pickle or salsa jars. Think like your spendthrift grandmother (my goodness, was she part Hobbit?) and reuse what you have.
Peat is used in soil to lighten the structure, improve aeration, and retain water without sogginess. You can get similar benefits by experimenting with these, many of which can be found in your own yard or community:
Compost: Decomposed kitchen waste adds nutrients and improves soil structure.
Coconut coir: This absorbent fiber reuses a waste product and improves soil drainage, though controversially, it requires shipping across the globe to get to our gardens.
Leaf mold: Sounds grosser than a swamp, but it's just autumn leaves gathered and left to decompose until it becomes a crumbly and carbon-rich amendment or mulch.
Woody byproducts: Materials like wood chips or sawdust aren't an exact substitute for peat, but they can help aeration when mixed into soil and moisture retention when used as a mulch.
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