I never thought much about peat moss or where it comes from until this spring. Peat is found in wetlands and is dead vegetation that is partially decomposed. It is partially decomposed because the peat bogs don’t have ample oxygen and microbes that are found in other areas. In Canada, peat is moss and other wetland plants. In tropical climates, it consists of mostly trees and wetland plants.
Peat bogs are an important ecosystem. They help filter water, act as a natural flood control system and store rain water and hold carbon. Peat bogs also provide habitat to plants and animals. Over the years, peat has been used for fuel, medicine and as a place to bury the dead. In some cultures, peat bogs have spiritual significance.
To harvest peat, trenches are dug around the harvesting area. After the water drains out of the peat into the trenches, the peat is dug up which leaves open pits. The pits can be filled with crops, lakes or renewed. According to the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association, peat bogs in Canada are sustainable because they are reseeded with sphagnum. Depending on the source, reseeded bogs can be renewed in a relatively short time or can take hundreds or thousands of years. If the pits are replaced with crops or lakes, that is a resource forever lost.
After the peat is packaged in plastic and it is shipped off to garden centers to be sold. When the average consumer buys peat, he may need to make several trips or use a larger vehicle to get it home depending on how much he needs. And what about the plastic packaging? Does the average consumer recycle it or throw it away in a landfill?
Coir is being promoted as a sustainable alternative to peat moss. It is made from the outer husk of the coconut, which would otherwise become waste and take about 20 years to decompose. I couldn’t find much on how a coconut is processed to become a brick of coir but what I did find seems somewhat un-sustainable. After coconuts are harvested for food and drink, it appears that the outer husk is soaked and rinsed in water – which is then wasted – and partially decomposed.
At some point, the coir is compressed into bricks or pots, packaged and shipped. The package of 4 bricks that I bought measures 11.75 x 11.25 x 5.25 inches and weighs 12 pounds. After soaking, one package equals 3 cubic feet of peat moss and 4.5 packages equals half a cubic yard. There is very minimal packaging for a very large amount of product and you can easily transport large quantities in a small amount of space. On the other hand, since coconuts don’t grow in Minnesota, all those bricks have to travel a very long way by boat or plane.
The other issue I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is whether the workers who process the coconuts and coir are being paid a fair wage and under what type of conditions they work. It appears that most of the coir is produced in India and Sri Lanka, two countries that don’t have a great reputation for working conditions.
In the end, I decided to go with coir because it feels slightly more sustainable when compared to peat moss. The coir turned out to be about $20 more expensive than peat moss but it will save us one pickup load and many trips up and down our steep hill with wheelbarrow fulls of peat moss.
For anyone in the Twin Cities, we purchased 4 packages of coir from Mother Earth Gardens ($11 a package) and will get the 50/50 blend of black dirt and compost ($40/cubic yard) from Kern Landscaping. This should fill the following raised beds:
2 – 4′ x 2′ x 10″
1 – 4′ x 4′ x 10″
1 – 4′ x 4′ x 12′