Is peat moss necessary 2nd time around?

purple1701(5B Chicago)March 20, 2014

So I'll begin this post/inquiry with the obligatory "yes I've searched but I didn't find an answer to this specifically"

My question is: do I need to till peat moss in again this year?

The garden area is about 4'x24'. Last year, we did the following prep work: in the fall (of '12 that is) we tilled in about 6 large garbage bags of leaves. In the spring (of '13) we bought 7.6 cb ft of peat moss, and tilled that in. My hubby went pretty deep with the rototiller both times, about 4-5' I think. There were some fireplace ashes, and a bit of organic matter thrown in as well as well. The soil was a bit clay-ish to begin, but after those amendments it seemed pretty good. I did some ph testing and that seemed okay as well.

My tomatoes did extremely well, peas, green beans and lettuce all thrived too. Kohlrabi, beets and potatoes languished and basically I got nothing from any of them, although I think this was due to a combination of design error, poor planning and a lack of expertise on my part more than the soil quality.

I have read that peat moss takes years to decompose, so this would seem to indicate that I won't need it this year, is that accurate?

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purple1701(5B Chicago)

If this makes a difference, I'll be growing tomatoes again, strawberries, maybe peas and beans, but not likely much else and definitely not potatoes.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 5:05PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

IMO, peat moss is not necessary in the garden beds. Any compost and organic amendments (composted manure, leaf mold ..)will do and can be better than peat moss. Peat does not have any nutrients. It is just a filler.

Perhaps, peat moss is a fast cure and amendment when you start a garden bed. I did use some last year , as I was just establishing my raised beds. But this past fall I added a lot of home made compost, tree leaves and I might add some more manure. NO MORE PEAT.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 5:35PM
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purple1701(5B Chicago)

That's an interesting viewpoint. I was told that I needed the peat moss to help aerate the soil because (here in IL) the soil has a very high clay component. I think it definitely helped last year. If I hadn't used it, I don't think my plants would have survived.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 5:41PM
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purple1701(5B Chicago)

that being said, I'm happy to NOT use it this year if I don't have to lol

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 6:02PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Agree that one never "needs" to use peat in an in-ground garden and I would honestly be surprised if many do unless they are adding it to adjust their soil pH.

If heavy clay soil is the problem then compost is far better at loosening up clay soils and if your soil is acidic to begin with then adding compost is much better than adding acidic peat.

Dave

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 6:25PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I have a local availability of sphagnum peat moss from a bog. I have found it an ideal amendment to immediately loosen clay dominated soil. A great thing about the peat is that it conditions the soil for years.

Sure, I also like to add plenty of the more ordinary organic additions also. I don't see it as an either/or situation, but for me a win, win one.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2014 at 9:33PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

Actually, I think, peat moss makes the soil a bit soggy. I have a better option: mix in pine/fir bark mulch, THE same kind used in 5-1-1 potting mix. OR if you want to spend more money, mix in perlite (about 10 to 15% the of volume of soil). This (pine bark) may lower your pH. In that case add some dolomitic lime. That is what I am going to add to my new raised bed this year, along with compost, manure and topsoil. Pine fines and small nuggets (Smaller than 1/2") is best aerator and drainage for clay, and they will eventually become composted making a rich soil amendment.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 12:45AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I used sand also with most of my amending. I believe they [peat moss and sand] make the perfect counterbalance for each other on clayish soils and they are long lasting conditioners. I love the results.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 9:19AM
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purple1701(5B Chicago)

Well I *wanted* to make our own compost last year but landlord who also happens to be in-laws totally forbade it. We were then and still are on a somewhat limited budget, and the peat was recommended by father-in-law who has a degree in horticulture. (not to justify anything, just saying that's a factor in why we did it)

Seems like the consensus is I don't need to this year, so that's good. We did pile a bunch of leaves on the bed last year and although we didn't get to till them in like we did last year, now that the snow has finally all melted it looks like most of it got compressed down into the soil pretty well.

There were no problems with acidity that I'm aware of. If, once we do the first till the soil seems too dense, I'll try adding some sand and/or the pine mulch, that is something I know we can get easily through a family friend.

Thanks all!

    Bookmark   March 21, 2014 at 10:46AM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

" I used sand also with most of my amending."

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

From what I have heard (some university studies) sand is not effective UNLESS it makes up 45 to 50% of the mix. In other words, isolated sand particles will not provide any extra drainage, unless the grains are in contact, like a chain.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 5:06AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

We did pile a bunch of leaves on the bed last year and although we didn't get to till them in like we did last year, now that the snow has finally all melted it looks like most of it got compressed down into the soil pretty well.

There were no problems with acidity that I'm aware of.

That is a whole other issue so I think you will want to do some reading/research over on the Soil & Compost forum here where questions like this are normally discussed.

Leaves, until they are fully decomposed and turned into leaf mold, are acidic so yes you could very easily have a pH problem. Add peat to that and you could have a very real pH problem.

Plus if they are tilled in before they decompose (and if matted they aren't decomposed) they bind up the soil nitrogen to aid in their decomposition. So leaf mold = good. Leaves tilled in = potential problems.

Rake them off into a pile before tilling the bed and save them. Then after planting and the soil warms use them to mulch the rows of plants and let them continue to decompose on the surface.

Dave

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 9:59AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I agree with digdirt on the leaf thing. The peat moss thing can vary but I think it would not be a concern unless soil was already highly acidic.

I guess seysonn and I may continue to go around some more. Soil, even clayey soils, likely have a bit of sand in them. I have found that THE COMBINATION of peat and sand does drain well and absorbs water like a sponge and has good tilth and works like a dream. I am speaking from a good bit of experience over several years and about 5,000 sq. ft. of amending. My amending with several inches of material brought in raises the beds several inches. My very first concern in gardening is good drainage.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 10:35AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

A point that is often made over on the Soil Forum, where there are many discussions about this, is that there are many different types of clay soil. So blanket statements like "sand is not effective UNLESS it makes up 45 to 50% of the mix" are too broad and misleading

Sand works poorly in some types of soil but works exceptionally well in other types of clay soil, especially coarse sand (sharp sand) and when mixed with other organic matter.

But this discussion is about peat moss, not sand. The OP is in northern Illinois, Chicago. Unfortunately the native healthy soils of that area have long ago been buried under decades of abuse, razing of forests, construction damage, hauling off and dumping elsewhere, etc.:

Most of Chicago was built on the lakebed soils, which were too wet for the construction of a city, so the land surface was raised by repeated filling (including debris from the Great Fire of 1871). The deep canals dug for navigation, along with the sewers, helped to rid the city of water as more soil was covered.

Encyclopedia of Chicago History: Soils

So one guess as what remains all they want but without an actual professional soil test done - at least for the soil pH - it is just that - guessing.

One can speculate that given all the decades of abuse the remaining soil is likely alkaline and so peat additions may be beneficial. But it is just as likely that the soil may have gone very acidic in which case adding peat makes it worse. All speculation.

So given all the unknowns, if having an actual soil test done is out for some reason, why not stick with additions of lots of finished, pH neutral, compost only and reap all the benefits from both sides of the coin?

Dave

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 12:35PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Digdirt, That is a very good post.

In my own experience with good clay loam topsoil that is mostly slightly lower and heavier ground it has been that the soil was slow to warm up in the early spring [April] unless it was plowed. I don't want to plow anymore. Oh, a few feet in the middle of a very gentle slope of 50-70 feet might be mealy and nice, but the slightly higher ground and the darker and lower ground were harder to deal with until the soil dried out more.

I do add organic matter regularily and this helps and is necessary for fertility,BUT to get things INSTANTLY into a dream condition, I added the soil conditioners [sand and local peat moss]. See.....I am retired and have more time now ...and I don't golf, I like to garden.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 1:50PM
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veggievicki(7b)

In my experience, peat is great in pots, but not necessary in the garden. I think you have to view soil as a long term project. Just keep adding compost every year and you'll get better and better soil. Truth be told, my elders in my family gardened southern red clay dirt all their lives using primarily fertilizer. They didn't do a lot of amending. And they had fantastic gardens. They fed their families off their gardens. It's kind of blasphemous on garden blogs to say stuff like that. People sort obsess over soil. But the thing is, I think, when people first start gardening, it's probably a good idea to use something like a 10 10 10 mild commercial fertilizer and have a long term goal of getting a good soil. It seems practical. The way most books tell you to do it would cost you a fortune your first year if you go out and buy all that stuff. It's just hard to get a good productive garden the first year or too by relying totally on soil ammendment.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 5:50PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

veggievicki, That is an interesting post. Yes, a lot of good gardens can be raised with fertilizers. Also, if you have good soil to begin with like me, you can raise great gardens without adding peat moss or sand or such. I have done it for decades myself.

With retirement I wanted to raise my gardens to a new level and have made them SO much easier to work with amendments and much more enjoyable....see? I may not have 30 years left...in this life, so I have pulled out the plugs!

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 9:12PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

But this discussion is about peat moss, not sand. The OP is in northern Illinois, (dave)
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
OK, fine, Dave. Then why are you talking about the geology and history of the city of Chicago ?!!

SAND was brought up by "Wayne_5" as an amendment, like peat moss is added as amendments. And when it is said "Clay Soil" it has a conventional meaning vs. Loamy , Sandy etc. And my response was inline with the discussion.

AND when we say "sand" it is understood what sand is. More coarse is preferred for amending soil. For example, a desert or river sand is not a good choice.

WHERE DOES THE CLAY COME FROM?

It is obvious that all the inorganic soil comes from various rocks. In "Clay", the particles are so very fine that do not have a good property to aerate and drain. For this reason, any addition of sand up to a minimum percentage is not going to be effective, as those isolated sand grains will be just buried in the clay.
Some sources recommend ONE cubic yard of sand for 100 sq-ft., tilled into top 6" ; That is like 30%, in addition to adding organic matter.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 4:57AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

OK, fine, Dave. Then why are you talking about the geology and history of the city of Chicago ?!!

Because that is where the OP and her soil are located.

As for why northern Illinois - because accurate soil repairs are based on first understanding the native soil types in the area.

The native soil type of northern Illinois is moraines with deep layers of healthy top soil from the glacial scrub, not any type of clay.

But the Chicago area soil is an exception to the northern IL regional soil because of its long history of wall-to-wall construction, deep re-construction, and heavy industrialization.

So what they are left to work with is an unknown without proper testing first. Without that testing amending the soil with anything (including peat or sand) other than large particle, neutral organic matter can often make the soil worse instead of better.

Dave

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 10:41AM
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purple1701(5B Chicago)

Thanks for all the great info! Dave is absolutely correct about my soil and location for the record.
We did not add any peat moss. The ground was tilled up pretty good a couple weekends ago, and now with all the rain we have gotten, I feel pretty confident. The soil looks good, I can't wait to start planting!

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 11:00AM
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jonfrum(6)

Fact of nature - every growing season, the organic matter in your garden soil breaks down - it goes away.

Implication - every year (or every other year), you need to add organic matter to your soil. Organic matter holds water, holds nutrients until plant roots access them, and allow roots to work down through the soil.

That said, peat moss is a great source of organic matter. If you have tons of compost, good for you. If you're starting a new garden, or working tired soil, peat moss is a great way to give your soil a boost. And it's difficult to add too much. Unless you have a very small plot, you'll get tired of spending money before you max out on peat.

If you live near a dairy farm or horse stable, God bless you. For the rest of us, peat can't be beat.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 3:48PM
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gardenper(8)

Just for humor, I did see a product the other day called "BeatsPeat" and it was a packing of coconut coir.

Like johfrum said, the organic matter will help retain soil. Some people do that with compost, but I also think peat can be used. There is the issue with peat making the soil acidic. I don't know any time frame on it but I think it would be longer than 1 or 2 seasons to see a noticeable effect. If that is a concern to you, then coir or compost could be used in subsequent years.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 5:50PM
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lilydude

I use sand. Been using it for over 40 years. East coast, west coast. Coarse sand, river sand. For heavy clay loam, add about 1.5 inches of sand on top and till it in as deep as possible. Remember, all loam soils already have some sand in them. So you might not need to add as much as you think. Once you've amended your soil with sand, it's permanent. You can add some humus by top-dressing or mulching every year, but you will need a lot less compost for that than if you were amending the top 8 inches of soil every year. So the sand is a lot of work at the front end, but it saves you a lot of work every year thereafter.

Then I rake the soil up into raised beds. I don't use any retaining structure. By the time I'm done, I've got at least 10-12 inches of well-aerated loam soil. Everything grows like mad in this stuff.

Once the winter rains hit the soil, and then it dries the next summer, you might decide that it's still a little too stiff. Add some more sand. Or mulch with sand; that works really well. On heavily leached acidic soils, it's also a good idea to add lime. I prefer dolomite lime, because it has Magnesium as well as Calcium.

If you have pure, impenetrable clay (which I call subsoil clay) , you're done for. Often this stuff will smell like methane when you disturb it. I recommend that you replace it with good topsoil, or pile good topsoil on top of it. If your native soil will grow healthy weeds and grass, you should be able to amend it with sand. If not, you need to truck in some soil.

All of my experience is in areas with high rainfall and heavily leached acid soils on the east and west coasts of the US. So I don't know if sand will work in other situations. I do know that rock gardeners and rare bulb growers use sand extensively for growing beds in the entire northern tier of the USA. My experience is with very rare, difficult plants. They will thrive in prepared soil with added sand; most will do very poorly in heavy clay loam. Believe me, if this didn't work, I would have given it up a long time ago.

If you have a big area, you will probably need to buy a dumptruck load of sand, and rent a little tractor with a bucket and tiller. Otherwise you are going to get the workout of your life.

For the science behind this, google "soil triangle". It's pretty simple, really. Add some sand, get loam. Add more sand, get sandy loam. In my opinion, sandy loam is garden heaven for a wide range of plants. A few plants prefer a heavier soil, but most gardeners grow a lot of different things. Sandy loam warms up earlier, is easier to weed (they pull right out), doesn't stick to your shoes, doesn't compact, is well aerated, and gives amazing seed germination. My rare plants reseed themselves all over the place. I never saw that with clay loam.

I like a humusy organic soil as much as anybody. But I don't have time to amend my soil with humus every year for the rest of my life. What are you going to do when you get old (like me)? Just add the sand now and enjoy. Skeptical? Worried? Buy a bag or two of sand at Home Depot. Dig it into a small area and see if it works for you. But make sure that your clay loam is in a tillable condition, or you are going to end up with an awful mess. It can't be too wet or too dry.

I've never used peat moss to improve garden soil. Too expensive, too temporary, no nutrients. I use it in potting mixes.

This post was edited by lilydude on Tue, Apr 22, 14 at 21:55

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 9:53PM
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terry_neoh(5b)

Since it hasn't been mentioned yet, I'll note that peat does not break down very quickly compared to other organic amendments. That is why it is literally mined or quarried at its source. The peat you are using may already be hundreds or even thousands of years old.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 11:51PM
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theforgottenone1013(MI zone 5b/6a)

Peat bogs are water saturated (obviously), no/low oxygen, nutrient poor, and have a low pH. That's why peat moss (which is partially decomposed sphagnum peat) doesn't decompose fully in the bog. You mix it in with garden soil, use it as a component in potting mix, and/or add nutrients to it and it will decompose just like anything else.

Rodney

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 5:22PM
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terry_neoh(5b)

Rodney: By that that reasoning, a lowland virgin forest would have infinite leaves on the forest floor. That doesn't happen. If anything, it turns into a muck pit (which, when drained, makes the best garden soil.

"Sphagnum and the peat formed from it do not decay readily because of the phenolic compounds embedded in the moss's cell walls."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphagnum

Here is a link that might be useful: Celeryville, OH

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 7:11PM
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terry_neoh(5b)

Sorry for the double post. Can't see how to delete it completely.

Here is a link that might be useful: Celeryville, OH

This post was edited by terry_neoh on Wed, Apr 23, 14 at 21:40

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 9:32PM
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