No Soil, No Problem

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No Soil, No Problem

Plastic pop bottles, for many of us, are another way of referring to polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This thermoplastic polymer is most commonly used to create the containers we use for foods and beverages. It’s also one of the most commonly recycled materials in the world.

But did you know that PET is now making a push into the arena of growing media? You read correctly, growing media. So the next time you polish off a bottle of your favorite soda over lunch, make sure to toss it into the correct recycling bin. After all, it may revisit you down the road during your next production run.

Fighter Jets To Begonias

It takes a special person to make the connection between the aerospace industry and the horticulture industry. In this particular case, that special person is Joe Byles, president of Freedom Garden Products. 

Byles first began working with PET in the aerospace industry, trying to remedy fuel sloshing in the tanks of aircraft. In doing so, one problem came up. He couldn’t get a desired amount of air to escape the material no matter what kind of drainage or pressure was being used. But he did notice in using PET, he could control the pore size of the matter.

As a Master Gardener, Byles thought, “I wonder if I made this the pore size of a sandy loam soil, could I grow plants in an undrained state?” Growing vegetables in two inches of this spongy material, Byles ran successful trials, undrained in the back of his pickup truck. Something he calls the “microclimate from hell,” these plants were exposed to hot Texas sun and 70 mph trips up and down the freeway.

From his pickup, Byles began growing plants on solid concrete in the Texas summer. He quickly realized his recycled bottles could impact the growing world.

“No drainage means we can use a very small irrigation source and fill it up at a very slow rate because we are filling up a non-drained panel,” he says. “Also, more water held in the volume means less watering.” Working with Costa Farms has confirmed all of Byles’ hypotheses.

To Market

Presently, Byles has teamed with Costa Farms located in Miami, Florida, calling this new technology Aqualok. Ideal applications for Aqualok are hanging baskets, potted plants, green roofs and no-dig landscaping.

“We are currently ramping up things right now and sending out samples to growers,” says Costa’s Andrew Britten. “We’re trying to put this into a much larger production scale this spring.” Britten is the grower in charge of the Aqualok trials. 

In The Dust

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is also making headway in the world of hydroponic growing. Sure To Grow, a hydroponic supplier for indoor gardening, is taking advantage of PET. Unlike other growing media options, Sure To Grow’s Grow Cubes are pH neutral, sterile and inert. Created from a Dupont technology that was patented in the 1990s, these cubes are basically pillow stuffing, says the company’s managing partner Cary Senders.

Senders says these non-wicking cubes do not require any presoaking or preconditioning.

“Many other media in this category act like sponges that suck water up to the top of it, which can lead to algae and insects,” he says. “There is no benefit to having the top of the media wet. A non-wicking technology like our Grow Cubes will wet instantaneously, however the water will then drain down and only hold at the root level where the plant actually needs it.”

He explains there are two different sides to Aqualok, with the biggest benefits coming in post harvest. For starters, the consumer will not be able to overwater plants grown in the Aqualok foam, because the foam traps the appropriate amount of air, which helps avoid root rot.

With Aqualok, Costa Farms is also seeing the typical dry-down period of straight soil-filled pots extended by up to two times (sometimes more) with the incorporation of Aqualok. Britten says that he’s using the Aqualok with his Boston ferns.

“I’d typically water them once a week or once every two weeks,” he says. “Now I’m going a month inside my house without having to water. People can go away for the weekend, even the week and not have to worry about their plants drying out. It really adds to the consumer’s benefit.”

Fits Right In

The grower has a new experience in store, too. “We’re basically growing in 50 percent soil and 50 percent foam, which gives us a significant reduction in fertilizer requirements,” Britten says.
“We first tried growing exclusively in the foam. But we couldn’t get stability to those young plants and we couldn’t get fertilizer to them, either.” And when it came to controlled-release fertilizer, it would just roll off the top of the foam. “To offset those problems, we decided to go half foam, half soil.”

The Aqualok foam was created with a skin on it, which aids in slowing water penetration through the foam. Britten says it mimics soil, and with the addition of a drainage hole, Costa Farms can grow side by side with a straight-soil counterpart using the same irrigation cycles.

“We want this to be as seamless as possible for the people using it,” Britten says.

Deeply Rooted

Root development is another interesting facet to the Aqualok technology. “We are seeing that the roots are more fibrous and thicker in the foam than in the soil,” Britten says. During one trial, Britten thoroughly saturated an Aqualok pot for a 10-week period. “We didn’t see any root rot, which is very impressive, because we’d get rotting in straight soil if we did the same thing,” he says.

“We’ve found in growing with a 50/50 (soil/foam) mix, the roots in the soil actually slowed down and stopped developing, and all the development was in the foam itself.”

Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.

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    16 comments on “No Soil, No Problem

    1. Anonymous

      Interesting product but how about the issue of removing plastic from the recycling “cycle” and putting into our yards?

    2. Anonymous

      The whole point of recycling plastic is to take waste and make it into something better. What could be better than taking waste plastic and making water conserving flower beds that are re-usable? There is no issue but one of the best “recycling” stories ever!

    3. Anonymous

      I build geodesic domes and have been looking for a substrate to grow vegetation on the tops of my domes. I will keep in touch with this product if I can find it locally.

    4. Anonymous

      Interesting product but how about the issue of removing plastic from the recycling “cycle” and putting into our yards?

    5. Anonymous

      The whole point of recycling plastic is to take waste and make it into something better. What could be better than taking waste plastic and making water conserving flower beds that are re-usable? There is no issue but one of the best “recycling” stories ever!

    6. Anonymous

      I build geodesic domes and have been looking for a substrate to grow vegetation on the tops of my domes. I will keep in touch with this product if I can find it locally.