Alternatives to Peat

MY FAVORITE GARDEN BLOGGER has been writing about peat. A lot of people are raising questions about the environmental cost of using peat, which is taken from bogs and wetlands. Blogger Jodi DeLong, aka Bloomingwriter, is a thoughtful, concerned gardener (to say nothing of a charming and knowledgeable writer) who, in addition to all the other useful information she dispenses, takes the time to ponder questions such as this one.

On reading Jodi's blog, my first thought was to offer an alternative to peat. Fortunately, I know about a mulch/soil amendment formula that is so good I doubt anyone who uses it will ever want to give peat another thought. I got the recipe from Anne Lovejoy, a garden writer who lives in Seattle and is very popular on the West Coast:
*composted manure + dried alfalfa*
If you can’t get the dried alfalfa from a garden-supply company, blocks of dried alfalfa (aka 'alfalfa pellets') are sold as goat feed in small sizes or horse feed in large sizes; the smaller size works better if you can get it. If you buy alfalfa as animal feed, you have to be sure that it hasn’t been medicated, however.

When it gets wet, the dried alfalfa swells and forms the best weed barrier you've ever seen. This combination also feeds the plants. Lovejoy says, “When combined, manure-based compost and alfalfa synergistically release extra nitrogen to plants, which benefit them both quickly and over time.” I mostly know that I'm in love with this stuff. It's much easier to put down than peat is; as far as I know, the nutrient value is much higher. And it rewets readily, which peat does not.

Now, I have always remembered the recipe as calling for equal parts of the two ingredients. I've gotten excellent results just by putting down a scoopful of manure followed by the same amount of alfalfa, and so on. However, Lovejoy gave a more complicated explanation in a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer column I found on the Internet. Personally, I plan to stick with my easy version: one scoop manure, one scoop alfalfa pellets, repeat.

What about peat? One of the advantages of being primarily a native plant gardener is that I don't usually have to worry about questions like this. Generally speaking, native plants are adapted to native soils. Sometimes I have to make changes to soil that has been badly treated (compacted, for instance) in the past, but the changes are generally minimal. I usually start a native garden by putting down cardboard topped by compost. This kills any grass and attracts various critters (worms, burrowing animals) who will break up compacted soil. After that, however, a native garden is supposed to take care of itself. Most of the time, the closest I come to improving the soil is to toss around any rotting logs, wood chips, stumps, broken branches (I make brush piles), rocks, leaves, or other natural materials that happen to come my way. My idea of mulch is to plant things so close together than no weed would dare to try to get in the way!

All of which is to say that I don't know much about the peat controversy because I don't have to: This is one of those environmental questions that, being largely into native plants, I get to skip on the test.

I'm grateful for gardeners who, like Jodi, take the time to do their homework and make environmentally responsible choices in their gardens. If you're looking for an easy way to be environmentally benign, however, think about gardening with native plants: You get to be virtuous, and it's a lot less work.


jodi said...

Thank you, dear WF, for your kind words and your wisdom about peat. I've been away today, run off my feet and now doing the deadline dance tonight, so haven't had time to do a lot of personal email. I really like the idea about the manure and alfalfa, and agree with you that native gardeners don't often have to bother much with peat. One thing that irks me is that people think adding it to a garden will acidify the soil sufficiently for ericaceous plants, etc. That's not what the people in the know tell me. (who are plant breeders and nurserypeople.) I no expert, I just know lots of people who have taught me things and continue to do so. Including you. That's the beauty of gardening; we're all in this together and can learn from each other, on a daily basis even. :-)

cheers, jodi

Ashraf Al Shafaki said...

Yeh, I strongly believe in using local stuff when it comes to gardening and farming. Not only does it save cost and is better for the environment, but I believe it is better for the garden or farm itself. Local stuff tends to be more in harmony with its surroundings and create better balance when used, specially if you're growing organically.

This is the reason why I'm now starting to experiment with using sand as a main ingredient in my potting mix, as I live in Egypt which is mostly covered with sand with only a relatively thin vertical line in the map which is fertile silt based soil. Peat moss is not harvested in Egypt and all the peat here in Egypt is imported, hence I believe I should aim for using less of it and hopefully do away with it all together. Yet till now I find it superior for germination, perhaps I'll find a good alternative for germination as well in the future.

Wild Flora said...

When I started this blog, I never imagined that I would have readers as far away as Egypt. I do love the Internet!

Thank you for your comment Ashraf. I think it's interesting that you're experimenting with using sand, a local material, instead of peat. FYI, I was reading just the other day that rock is being used very successfully as a mulch around trees in desert climates. Evidently the tree is planted two feet deeper than it ordinarily would be, and the top two feet of the planting hole are filled with rocks. Water condensing on the rocks in the early morning helps to keep the tree watered, and later in the day the rock is an effective mulch to help retain moisture in the soil. I never ceased to be amazed at the inventive ways we can learn to work with nature, if we just put our minds to it.