Sphagnum Peat Moss


Known to gardeners everywhere as an ideal organic soil amendment, sphagnum peat moss is the basis of a major Canadian industry. Use it to aerate soils, reduce pH and speed up your compost bin. Sphagnum moss possesses a cell structure that can absorb water and nutrients from garden soil, retaining them for future use by garden plants.


One-quarter of the sphagnum peat moss used by the world's gardeners comes from bogs throughout Canada. That country is home to some 270 million acres of sphagnum moss bogs, or peatlands. Harvesters create shallow ditches to drain water from the top layers of the bog. After a few days, the sphagnum peat dries in the sun and wind. It is then harvested, baled and shipped to nurseries around the world.


Sphagnum moss has no roots and produces no flowers. Instead, it absorbs nutrients through cell walls in the stems and leaves. The dead cells hold up to 20 times their own dry weight in rainwater. Sphagnum peat moss produces spore-filled capsules that burst in dry conditions. The spores spread and grow into new plants. Also, new plants form from broken sections of older plants. Because parts of a peat moss plant are underwater and hidden from light, it is actually dead and alive at the same time.


The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association says that in 1999 around $170 million worth of peat was shipped out of that country. The industry employed up to 4,500 seasonal workers that year. Some 85 percent of the peat shipped out of Canada is destined for the U.S. Canada also continues to produce more peat for horticultural use than any other country. In 1999, Germany ran a close second. The U.S. and Canada combined at that time produced some 22 percent of the world's peat products.

Gardening Uses

One cubic foot of compressed sphagnum peat moss will cover a little more than 12 square feet of garden space. Spread the peat out over an area about 2 inches thick, and work it into the top 6 inches of topsoil. Use a rototiller or shovel to do this, while adding additional organic nutrients to the soil. Dried peat moss can be difficult to moisten when first applied. Before planting seeds or plants, consider sprinkling the dried peat with a garden hose. After planting, water the bed thoroughly to ensure ultimate water retention.

Interesting Facts

Without sphagnum moss, we would not have coal. Peat is actually a very young form of coal. Over time, sediment covering peat moss squeezes out its characteristic moisture. If undisturbed for about 400 million years, the sphagnum moss will turn into a soft form of coal called lignite. Give it another 100 million years, and you'll have bituminous coal. This is the most common type of black coal found in North America.

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About this Author

Aaron Painter began as a garden writer in 1999, publishing in "Louisiana Gardener" and "Baton Rouge House and Home" magazines. He has more than 10 years of professional experience in landscaping and horticulture and six years in broadcast journalism. Painter holds a B.A. in mass communication and horticulture from LSU, and now lives in Nashville, Tenn.