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Save wetlands, use soilless potting mixtures

LEWISTOWN, Ill. - Peat wetlands are delicate ecosystems that take thousands of years to form. Peat accumulates at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year. When the peat moss industry harvests 22 centimeters per year, it is easy to see why there is a concern for its sustainability. 

Many rare plants and animals can only survive in peat wetlands. These wetlands purify water and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To harvest peat moss, ditches are constructed to drain water from the area. Large vacuums remove the peat.

“The peat industry is required to reclaim the harvested peat wetland,” says Nicole Flowers-Kimmerle, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, “but it can take up to 20 years for the wetland to return to pre-harvest functions.”

Whether potting plants or starting seeds, a good quality soilless potting mixture makes a difference, Flowers-Kimmerle says. 

Alternatives to peat moss

While it seems impossible to think of potting mixes without peat moss, there are viable alternatives.

  • Coconut coir: Coir is a byproduct of the coconut industry. It holds water and nutrient content similar to peat moss. The salt content can be high due to the processing, but low salt varieties are available.
  • Composted wood fiber and biochar: Research on these materials show promise as components of soilless potting medium.It adds nutrients and structure to the potting mix and keeps it out of landfills.
  • Compost: Composted garden and yard waste is another alternative. Find out more about at the Illinois Extension website or contact your local Extension office for more information.

Mix potting medium for vegetables by using two parts compost, two parts coconut coir, and one-part sharp builder’s sand or perlite, Flowers-Kimmerle says. "Making your own potting mix is an economical and environmentally friendly way to make a peat moss free soilless medium."   

University of Illinois Extension is the flagship outreach effort of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offering educational programs to residents of all of Illinois' 102 counties and far beyond. Illinois Extension provides practical education you can trust to help people, businesses, and communities solve problems, develop skills, and build a better future. Through our Agriculture and Natural Resources programs, Illinois Extension supports the economic viability and environmental sustainability of natural and managed landscapes and productive lands in Illinois. Horticulture program educators provide research-based information and training about gardening, fruits and vegetables, flowers, insects and diseases, composting, landscaping, and more.

News source/writerNicole Flowers-Kimmerle, Horticulture Educator, Illinois Extension