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Peat Moss
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

November 9, 2003

Did you get your leaves all raked up this year? Are they in bags laying alongside the garage? Did you stuff the bags right full and now it seems as if they are half empty? Congratulations, you are on your way to making leafmold. If you have them in a large heap or even a fancy enclosure you are busy making compost. In either form, the use of leaves is an important component in your overall soil management and conservation program. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the decomposed leaves are a valuable amendment in that hey add humus to the soil structure. Humus is the "glue" that holds everything together. It retains an incredible amount of moisture, absorbs the sun's warmth in spring, provides an environment for the wee little organisms, and to a lesser extent, assists in making nitrogen more available. Sounds awesome doesn't it? And it is all free.

The second reason is that it can supplant the use of peat moss. Peat moss is a natural resource created by the decomposition of organic matter (trees and plants) under water. This means the sequence is very slow in comparison to the dry-land process that results in humus (what you find on a forest floor). Once you dig it up, the peat is gone. We can't replace it, manufacture it, or "replant" it. Only time (lots of time) and undisturbed wet lands can do that. There are some interesting terms in use. Some say that peat is harvested, others say it is strip mined. If you're ever down Alfred, Ontario way (head east on Hwy #17 from Ottawa) visit the peat bog- well, take a look at what's left.

We as home gardeners can readily adjust our management programmes to reduce the use of peat moss. Those in the nursery industry will have much greater difficulty. The attractions of peat moss as the base for growing media, such as Pro-Mix, is that this organic, biodegradable product is free of pathogens, fungi and other unwanted bugs and is remarkably consistent in its makeup. These are, arguably, the main reasons why compost is not as widely used. It's not that the industry hasn't tried to find alternatives. Do you remember the rock-wool insulation, the yellowy stuff that was incredibly itchy? As a growing medium it wasn't bad. The down side is that it is virtually indestructible. In Holland, there are mountains of it. Currently they are trying to turn it into bricks but have run into a snag or two.

Am I saying to stop using peat moss? No, I am saying understand its nature, be aware of why you are using it, and be prudent in its use. The same can be said of any of the natural resources in this Good Earth. A last word on peat moss. Expect it to become more expensive. Expect to note that the product is no longer domestic in origin. Expect to be making greater use of your leaves. Okay, I'm curious to know who will lay claim to having the last bona fide outdoor blooming plant. Flowers set in September and just hanging on don't count. They must be "new" blooms. My list of contenders as of 10 Nov. is about ten plants long. The most surprising, to me, aren't the impatiens hiding under the junipers but a container of petunias. These chappies have been going strong since June so I suppose we're looking at day neutrals. Write or E-mail in your claim to gardening fame.

Moira Bryson e- mailed quite some time ago to say, "My favourite summer flower is the wax begonia. It flowers all summer, survives all kinds of weather including drought and hot sun, and (best of all) requires virtually no maintenance. Of course it also looks pretty. " A lot of people agree with Moira, including the plant propagators. Remember when fibrous begonia meant only gin and vodka?

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