Sphagnum moss, also referred to as peat moss, is one of the most common soil amendments for gardeners. This versatile material is cheap and can be used in garden beds, pots, terrariums, and even hanging baskets. In this article, I’ll show you how to grow sphagnum moss at home so you’ll always have some at hand.
The versatility and affordability of sphagnum moss have become a curse driving unsustainable harvesting practices. Around the world, peatlands are being drained to facilitate sphagnum moss collection. Sustainable suppliers exist but can be difficult to find.
The best way to source sphagnum moss for your garden is actually to grow it yourself. Sphagnum moss is super easy to grow and you don’t need a fancy setup. In this article, I’ll guide you through the ins and outs of sphagnum moss and how to grow it yourself.
What is sphagnum moss?
Sphagnum moss is a plant that typically grows in northern wetlands. There are over 350 varieties of moss that fall into the sphagnum family. You can find sphagnum moss growing naturally in wet regions, particularly around swamps.
Sphagnum moss is used to refer to two different products of the same origin: sphagnum peat moss and sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is the green and fluffy material you’ll see in terrariums and hanging baskets. It comes from the living moss that you find on the surface of wetlands. Sphagnum moss can be harvested sustainably in cycles, leaving enough time for the plant to regenerate.
Sphagnum peat moss was once living sphagnum moss, which then decays and sinks to the bottom of swamps. It is sold as a brown dried-up and compressed material. Peat moss forms the foundation of wetlands and takes thousands of years to accumulate and form. In order to harvest peat moss, swamps are drained and heavy machinery drags out the base material.
This incredible material can hold up to 26 times its weight in water, making it a winner for the garden. With enough sphagnum moss, you’ll be able to turn sandy soil into a humid swamp if you wanted!
Are there different types of sphagnum moss?
There are over 8,000 types of moss but only 380 of these species belong to the genus Sphagnum. Within sphagnum moss varieties, they are each ideally suited to different growing conditions and different uses.
Most sphagnum moss varieties are identified by where they grow. For example, you can have New Zealand, Chilean, or Wisconsin sphagnum moss. Each type of sphagnum moss will have its own properties to consider when choosing which to grow.
New Zealand and Chilean sphagnum moss are gardener favorites because they retain lots of water and break down slowly. Wisconsin moss, on the other hand, breaks apart easily and doesn’t hold much water.
One of the great things about growing your own sphagnum moss is that you can choose what varieties are best for you.
How to grow sphagnum moss
Sphagnum moss is a versatile material that works wonders in the garden and for houseplants. Ethically sourced sphagnum moss can be quite expensive, so it’s best to grow it yourself. Grow sphagnum moss easily by keeping it humid conditions and fertilizing monthly.
You can grow sphagnum boss either inside or outside depending on your circumstances. For both processes, start with the same material. Then modify your container, medium, and location depending on where you’re growing the sphagnum.
Source live sphagnum moss
So first things first, you need to source live sphagnum moss. Mosses spread through spores instead of seeds. These spores are most easily propagated from samples of living sphagnum moss. So you must collect sphagnum moss samples locally or purchase them from a supplier. In either case, the live moss will serve as the basis for your sphagnum operation.
Choose the type of sphagnum moss you grow based on the specific properties I mentioned above, or just because it’s locally available. With time, you can grow your collection and propagate different sphagnums for different purposes. If you’re foraging your starter moss, make sure to grab it from a place where it grows abundantly. You wouldn’t want to take the first piece of moss establishing itself.
If you can’t get your hands on fresh moss, you can use the dry stuff too. To regrow dry sphagnum moss, completely wet out a large handful of dried moss with rainwater or distilled water. Then place it in a plastic bag for a few weeks, until you notice new green growth. The new, green growth will serve as your starter.
Chop into small chunks
Once you have your initial sphagnum moss sample, chop it up into 2 cm chunks. Ideally, these chunks should be taken from the new growth on the top few inches.
Now that your mother sphagnum moss is chopped up, it’s time to place it in its growing location. Depending on if you’re inside or out, you can dig a hole or use a container. Don’t worry about this now, I’ll cover it more in the next section.
Calculate amount required
Whatever growing area you choose, make sure you calculate the right size. Multiply your amount of starter sphagnum by 10 to figure out how much new moss you’ll grow. Use this number to figure out how much space you need.
Moss doesn’t have roots and can therefore be grown on almost any surface. Rocks, plastic, concrete, and soil mixes are all acceptable growing surfaces. However, I recommend beginners to start by filling the container halfway with one part compost to one part perlite. Alternatively, start growing your sphagnum moss by lining the container with a medium such as clay pebbles or vermiculite. This base will hold onto moisture and keep the necessary high humidity, making it easier to control the environment.
Place onto growing medium
Then lay down your pieces of sphagnum moss on top of the growing medium. Finish off by pouring water into the tray to keep the medium hydrated. How much water you need will depend on temperatures, but you want to keep the environment consistently humid.
There are several watering strategies you can use, but I like to combine misting and flooding. That means I like to mist the top every day and then pour an inch or two of water every week to two weeks. I adjust this schedule depending on how fast the growing medium dries out.
Once a month, spray the moss with a liquid foliage fertilizer spray to keep it fed. Your sphagnum moss tray should grow quickly. Depending on how much moss you need, you can have several trays going to rotate your harvests.
Sphagnum moss and sphagnum peat moss are extremely useful in the garden. Unfortunately, harvesting sphagnum moss is destroying peatlands, which hold a lot of carbon. The good news is that it’s possible to grow your own sphagnum moss by following the directions above!
Where is suited for growing sphagnum moss?
Sphagnum moss requires humid conditions to grow. Both outdoors and indoors are suitable, depending on your space, climate, and conditions.
You can grow sphagnum moss outdoors as long as the temperatures stay warm and the tray isn’t in direct sun. A shady corner of a greenhouse, under a bench, or in an area shaded by plants are all good places for growing sphagnum moss.
If growing sphagnum moss outside you can also avoid using a container altogether. Instead, dig a hole in the ground of an appropriate size and treat that as your container. Growing your sphagnum moss below ground level also helps keep it cool. Just make sure you do your homework on the location since you won’t be able to move it!
Ideally, the temperature should stay between 50 and 70 F. Coincidentally, this tends to be the average temperature of people’s homes, making it easy to grow sphagnum moss indoors. Choose a room that stays cool through the day but still gets some light. The growing medium should retain enough humidity, but you might need a humidifier in the winter.
Sphagnum moss can be grown anywhere as long as temperatures are between 50 and 70 F and high in humidity. Choose the best area and start with a portable container that can be moved to adjust to changing seasons.
Challenges to growing sphagnum moss
The biggest challenge to sphagnum moss growers is Sporotrichosis, a soil-borne disease. Prevent disease from spreading by disinfecting all your materials including your hands whenever you touch the soil or the moss.
A more common challenge is keeping the moss consistently humid. Your choice of medium and watering frequency has a lot to do with this. But if you’re still having trouble, you might need to mulch your moss. Mulch will keep temperatures cool, shade your moss, and help retain water. A leaf mulch works particularly well because it lets light filter through.
Sometimes growers have trouble with the pH. Sphagnum moss likes slightly acidic environments, so if the soil is alkaline you might have some trouble. Do a quick pH test if you suspect this issue and then replace your growing medium.
The last common mistake when growing sphagnum moss is using tap water. Municipal water systems go through purifying treatments meant to clean the water. These additives include chlorine and other components whose job is to kill bacteria, mosses, and fungi in the water – including your sphagnum moss.
Instead of tap water, always make sure to use rainwater or distilled water with your sphagnum moss. From hydrating the dry stuff to watering your clump, hard water will ruin your efforts.
Uses for sphagnum moss
Sphagnum moss is most commonly used as peat moss soil amendment. Peat moss is versatile, lightweight, and cheap, making it a favorite amongst gardeners. There are two different grades of sphagnum moss that are used for different purposes.
The dried and shredded moss that you find in garden centers is a useful soil amendment. The dry material breaks down slowly making it effective for several seasons before decomposing. Sphagnum peat moss is incredibly versatile and can be used to increase drainage in clay soils and increase water retention in sandy soils. It can also be used to make seed-starting and houseplant soil mixes. As well as being an excellent mulch.
You can also find sphagnum moss in its green hydrated state as craft stores. This fluffy, feathery material will remind you of the moss you see growing on rocks near river beds. The fresh stuff is more expensive and is used for displays. Most often, fresh sphagnum moss is used to line hanging baskets or in terrariums.
If you grow your own sphagnum moss, you can take advantage of the material in both fresh and dry states. Use the moss fresh as needed and harvest the rest to dry and store for soil amendment.
Is sphagnum moss sustainable?
There has been growing concern over whether sphagnum moss is sustainable, and for good reason. While fresh sphagnum moss can be harvested sustainably, allowing the moss to regenerate between harvests. Sphagnum peat moss takes thousands of years to decompose, saturate with water, and sink to the bottom.
Due to its versatility in the garden and affordable price, there is a high demand for sphagnum peat moss. Unfortunately, high demand for this cheap product is driving unsustainable harvesting practices. Suppliers will drain entire peatlands to facilitate collecting the moss.
Besides the obvious problems of destroying sensitive ecosystems, peatlands actually act as carbon sinks. This means that they hold onto a large amount of carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. Restoring these complex and essential environmental regulators will take thousands of years. This graphic by the Board of Water and Soil Resources helps explain the role of peatlands as carbon sinks.
The good news is that growing your own sphagnum moss is entirely sustainable. You can grow, harvest, use and repeat as much as you want. If you must get sphagnum moss, make sure to get the fresh stuff from New Zealand that is sustainably harvested from the surface.
As a gardener, there is no denying that sphagnum moss is an incredible material. It’s the solution to countless problems in the garden and is super affordable. Unfortunately, there is a hidden environmental cost to using sphagnum peat moss. Enjoy guilt-free and money-free sphagnum moss by growing your own! Growing your own sphagnum moss is easy and will provide you an endless supply of fresh moss for all your garden needs. All you need is some starter sphagnum moss, a container to grow it in, a growing medium such as compost or clay pebbles, and a cool area. In a few months, you’ll be able to enjoy as much sphagnum as you need