Peat and re-peat.

This spring, many gardeners will be doing just that to prepare their garden beds and landscaped areas for the season. However, one might want to ask whether this treatment is advantageous or even necessary.

I brought a package of the ubiquitous, plastic-wrapped square of peat last weekend to add to my garden. In retrospect and after a bit of research, it appears that I might not have needed it.

There is currently much debate on whether to use this natural resource. Opponents argue that peat is not a renewable resource, taking centuries to regenerate, and that humans are mining it at an irreplaceable rate. Producers contend that with proper harvesting, peat bogs will restore reasonably quickly.

Peat is a unique and unusual material. It hails from wetlands, mainly in the northern hemisphere, where over 90 per cent of peat bogs are found. Russia, Finland, Canada, Ireland, the United States and Sweden have significant peat bogs used for harvesting. Peat forms slowly as plant material decomposes under oxygen-deprived conditions where decay is inhibited.

This no-oxygen environment has also yielded other precious things. During peat cutting activities, it is not uncommon to find bog bodies. These are human remains which have been preserved over thousands of years as a result of the rotless environs.

In addition to providing an almost eternal burial site, peat has been historically employed for many other uses besides just garden mulch. In areas where it is plentiful, locals used peat as a fuel for cooking and domestic heating. It has even been employed as fuel for small-scale electrical power generating stations.

For those concerned with climate change, note peat’s ability to sequester large amounts of carbon. In Britain, half a million tons of carbon dioxide a year are emitted as a result of peat extraction. Alternately, that country’s existing peat bogs store carbon equivalent to 20 years’ worth of the country’s industrial emissions.

Aficionados of Scotch whiskey probably already know of and appreciate peat. Peat was traditionally, and in some cases still is, used as a fuel to dry the malted barley that will be fermented for the distillation of the Scotch whiskey. This is what gives this whiskey its smoky, often also called, peaty flavor. Now you know why! I would never want to stand in the way of the production of this spirit, so long live those peat bogs!

Keep up your and others’ spirits and use peat sparingly. Look for substitutes for your garden and yard needs. Improving soils and retaining moisture can be accomplished using household compost, mulched leaves and bark, manure, and other products that can be found at garden stores such as coir (the brown fiber from coconut husks), and spent mushroom compost.

Don’t do what I did and use peat out of habit or take it for granted as the best option — use it thoughtfully, sparingly, and after consideration of the alternatives. Preserve the bog for peat’s sake!


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.