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Soil Conditioners: Peat and Peat Moss

The first step in all gardening is proper soil preparation. No matter what else is used, a garden needs a good soil conditioner consisting of decayed organic matter. Organic matter will improve many problem soils. It will loosen clay soils to improve drainage and airflow. It will hold moisture and nutrients close to roots in sandy soils.

Two products are especially useful in filling this need - sphagnum peat moss and reed-sedge peat (Michigan-type peat). Both products are high in the organic matter needed by soil to hold moisture and store plant food for gradual root feeding.

Sphagnum peat moss is the remains of a spongy type of northern moss called sphagnum. It is available in compressed bales from 6 cubic feet down to 1 cubic foot. Also available are small case-goods for use in flower pots and planter boxes. It must be soaked before using. Reed-sedge peat is the remains of a variety of swamp plants such as sedge grasses, reeds, etc. It is a velvety dark-brown product, which does not need extensive soaking. Reed-sedge peat comes in 25 and 50lb. bags as well as smaller quantities for use in flower pots and planters.


Mulch is a ground cover that protects ground temperature, reduces evaporation, prevents erosion, controls weeds and enriches the soil. Several kinds of mulch are available, each with different characteristics that must be suited to the particular application.

Among the general types of mulch are:

  1. Organic (such as peat) - keeps soil surface as much as 10 degrees cooler than exposed soil. A thick application will halt weeds, but it needs to be refreshed each year.
  2. Clear Plastic - heat to the soil; keeps moisture from evaporating; stimulates early plant growth but may also stimulate weed growth.
  3. Black Plastic - warms the soil; protects fruit of vines from rot; can increase yield of many vegetable crops.
  4. Brown Paper - lowers ground temperature; discourages weeds and is biodegradable.
  5. Aluminum-coated plastic and aluminum foils - soil temperature and repel aphids.

If you are interested in plastic mulch, there are a few more facts you should know. First, soil must be damp when plastic is applied and it will require subsequent waterings. Further, plastics may concentrate enough heat during a sudden hot day that plantings underneath will die.

One major advantage of all commercial mulches, regardless of composition, is their ability to keep weed seeds away from desirable plants.

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