Peat Moss vs Sphagnum Moss - What's the difference?
Peat Moss vs. Sphagnum Moss
The type of moss you choose may not seem like a big deal or even that elaborate of a decision. It's just moss, right? Well, of course, that is not the case or I wouldn't be writing this article! The type of moss you use for planting purposes does make a huge difference and that difference mostly relates to the environment and health of our planet.
What is Sphagnum Moss?
Sphagnum moss grows naturally in wet climates on the surface of the soil or in a swamp or bog. There are over 350 varieties, however, the ones used for gardening mostly come from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Peru, and Michigan. Sphagnum moss is a living plant and is harvested alive. It is then dried to be used commercially.
When sold commercially, sphagnum moss comes in two forms: long-fibered and milled. Sphagnum moss has a neutral pH, is pliable and soft, and holds water very well. It is a great addition to potting soil to improve water retention and aeration. It is most often sold in craft stores for use as decoration or sold to be used as packing material for plants.
What is Peat Moss?
Peat moss is also Sphagnum moss and this is where all the confusion lies. They are two parts of the same plant that are often referred to by the same name. But, they are not the same thing. Peat moss, often listed as Sphagnum peat moss, is water-logged, decayed, sphagnum moss that has sunk to the bottom of the bog. Peat moss is not just made up of decayed sphagnum moss, though. There is also another organic matter, like insects, animals, and other plants, that have sunk to the bottom of the bog and mixed in with the old sphagnum moss. When it is
harvested, it is dead and decayed.
Peat moss is also dried before being sold since it is mostly water. It is naturally compacted and usually compressed into bales. It is very acidic and high in tannin. Peat moss is used as a soil amendment for acid-loving plants, like blueberries. It is also a frequent addition to potting soils as it adds water retention and aeration properties to the soil. Peat moss is popular in the making of seed-starting pots. It is lightweight and it is also quite inexpensive.
Why is the difference so important?
Plain and simple, after peat moss is removed, it takes thousands of years to build up again. The bogs are often drained completely to access the peat moss and make harvesting easier. Harvesting of peat moss destroys habitats, environments, and any potential for the bogs to regenerate.
Sphagnum moss doesn't require the digging up of bogs or swampland to be harvested. It can be removed ecologically with the health of the habitat at the forefront and without totally killing the environment where it came from.
However, many commercial harvesters take the living sphagnum moss and then drain the bog to access the peat moss as well, to maximize time and profits. The bogs are being drained at a much higher rate than they can ever regenerate and between 90-95% of the bogs that existed are now gone.
What should a gardener do?
Always read labels! I know it can be confusing and believe me, the companies selling this stuff are not trying to make it easy. Especially if they are selling peat moss. Peat moss is most often written as 'Sphagnum Peat Moss' or just 'Sphagnum Peat'.
Avoid using peat moss if at all possible. This likely means avoiding the use of sphagnum moss as well since the labeling between the two can be so iffy. Definitely avoid any product that does not list a source or is not open about their harvesting practices. The best thing to do is to use something else entirely. Luckily, there are options on the market today that work just as well, if not better, and aren't prohibitively expensive either. Coco Coir is a great option. Rice hulls, ground corn cobs, peanut shells, and compost are also good choices.
It is important that we are responsible for the choices we make, especially as lovers of the natural world. Destroying natural environments to recreate natural environments in our homes does not make sense. Next time you are at the store buying potting soil, seedling start material, or soil amendments, look at the composition and make an educated choice. Investigate all the new options that are available to gardeners today and I don't think you will be disappointed.