Get the facts, gardener tells peat opponents

Peat moss doesn’t provoke heated discussions in most circles, but a Winnipeg gardening expert says a small number of avid gardeners have extremely strong feelings about the subject.

“You get certain garden purists who passionately feel that peat moss is not a sustainable resource. They’ll say that they will absolutely not use it,” said Colleen Zacharias, a master gardener and Winnipeg Free Press garden columnist.

The topic of peat moss is particularly heated in England, where both organic and conventional growers advocate for peat-free gardening.

They claim that removing peat from bogs destroys wildlife habitat and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

However, Sara Williams, former horticultural specialist with the University of Saskatchewan’s extension division and author of 10 books on gardening, said the case against peat moss has been overstated.

“There’s been a lot of media coverage and it’s all been negative towards the peat moss industry,” said Williams, a master gardener who lives near Saskatoon.

After touring peat bog harvesting sites in Canada and reviewing practices in the peat moss industry, Williams concluded that peat companies are not destroying the environment.

“I think peat moss is doing a lot less damage than other industries,” she said.

“I think that they’ve been self-regulating and responsible, in terms of only (harvesting) so deep, re-flooding and letting the sphagnum grow again.”

It may take 20 years for the moss to regenerate, she added, but it does grow back.

Williams, who is an advocate of organic gardening, said she uses peat, as well as compost and manure, because it increases the amount of organic matter in the soil.

Gardeners who oppose the use of peat say there are alternative products to increase organic matter, such as coconut fibres, but Williams said coconuts are an inferior product and don’t make environmental sense in Western Canada.

“What’s the carbon footprint to get coconut fibre from a beach in the tropics to the Prairies?”

Zacharias, who also adds peat moss to her soil, said there is a vocal group within Manitoba’s gardening community that’s hostile toward peat moss.

However, she isn’t sure if the group is sizable or represents a fraction of gardeners.

Either way, Zacharias said most gardeners don’t have enough information about Canada’s peat moss industry to know if it is environmentally sustainable or not.

“For anybody to say, definitively, ‘it’s a non-renewable resource, don’t use it,’ I would say, what do they really know? Maybe we all need to understand this issue better.”

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