Pre-formulated Growing Media: A Trend To Watch
Developments in growing media may not be as exciting as, say, those in technology, but growing media plays a significant role in crop production. It is an important purchase for greenhouse operators, and as a result of changing market demands, there are some significant trends for growing media that you should know. Here are the most important ones:
One of the most important trends has been the change to larger-format packaging. Many large and medium-sized growers see the need for labor-saving machinery, reduced worker injuries and faster processing methods. Large, mega-bale packaging reduces handling of materials, storage requirements, labor and plastic waste, which translates to an overall reduction of costs. Whether it is a loose-fill package or compressed bales, growers are moving to larger-size packaging.
For loose fill needs, 60 to 80 cu. ft. bulk bags have replaced the majority of the 2.8 cu. ft. loose-fill bags, except for germination mixes, where growers apply a smaller volume of growing medium. For general-purpose mixes, requests for large 110 to 135 cu. ft. mega bales are on the rise. While there is an investment required for machinery to process and break mega bales, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Small packaging requires workers to pick up, move, handle and clean-up the media. There are more labor costs and a greater potential for lifting injuries.
With a mega-bale breaker, one forklift operator can load the equipment, process the mega bale and clean-up. There is less plastic waste with a mega-bale than with the equivalent volume of smaller, 3.8 cu. ft. bales. Another bonus is that most mega-bale breakers process and fluff growing media faster and more uniformly. Uniform fluffing of growing medium results in consistent yields, consistent filling of pots and trays and uniform physical properties in the media from one container to the next.
Holds The Sticks, Please
The introduction of automated equipment for potting and transplanting has presented the need for cleaner growing media. The majority of growing media is made with a base of sphagnum peat moss, which contains sticks in its natural state. These sticks are actually the roots of plants that were once present in the peat bog.
The challenge for peat producers is to screen and remove these roots while maintaining the integrity of the fiber in the sphagnum peat moss.
Automated transplant and tray/pot filling machinery today are less tolerant of sticks. Recent advancements have allowed growing media manufacturers to produce cleaner fibrous growing media for automated machines and other equipment such as Ellepots.
New Menu Items
With new plant varieties and changing growing techniques, growers are looking for ways to improve crop production and reduce costs. This may mean a modification to growing medium formulation in order to meet a specific growing need or reducing certain ingredients to lessen costs. Most growing media manufacturers offer custom-blended growing media to address these special requests.
Keep in mind that reducing ingredients changes the physical characteristics of the growing media and often produces different results. Making custom-blended mixes can be more expensive since special ingredients may need to be sourced. Blending may also require additional labor.
Before considering a custom blend, consult with your growing media representative, as manufacturers have introduced enhanced growing media formulations with ingredients to improve plant production, save labor and make the grower’s job easier. Providing new solutions for specific growing situations is one of the more popular trends.
The Main Course
Sphagnum peat moss and peat/bark have been the mainstays as base components for all commercial growing media in the U.S. and Canada since their introduction over 40 years ago. In the last few years, we have seen the introduction of coconut coir, rice hulls, whole tree, wood fiber … the list goes on. Most recent trends have involved refining of some of these ingredients to produce desired results.
For example, at Premier Tech Horticulture, we recently introduced a high-porosity mix that contains a specific type of chunk coir that provides better air porosity and improves water mobility of the growing medium. This is important for long-term potted crops, such as poinsettia, phalaenopsis orchid, tuberous begonia, etc. Chunk coir also resists settling and compaction and does not fracture like perlite in potting machines. For this application, chunk coir enhances and improves the physical properties of the growing medium. Wood fiber is another material that shows promise. It is hydrophilic (quickly takes water), readily available, can be easily compressed and decompressed and is lightweight and fibrous in structure. To be sure of all the benefits, however, more research is needed.
There are many proven bioadditives on the market today that can be incorporated into growing media. Bioadditives fall into two general categories: biofungicides and biostimulants. Biofungicides are preventative tools that suppress root disease and reduce the use of chemical fungicide drenches. Biostimulants enhance plant growth and help the plant tolerate nutritional and water stress (i.e. mycorrhizal fungi).
Biological additives are useful additions to growing media that work well with integrated pest management programs and are acknowledged by growers to improve plant production. With many different types of bioadditives available, it is important to know a specific bioadditive’s intended use to be sure it meets your needs. While there is additional cost associated with incorporating bioadditives, the benefits of healthier plants, decreased mortality and improved plant quality and crop uniformity far outweigh the costs.
With fewer flowering plants grown on speculation, growers are looking for new markets to maximize the space in their greenhouses and improve the bottom line. In the last few years we have seen an increased demand for organic fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. Because of this, some traditional growers have switched hats to produce organic greens, herbs, greenhouse vegetables and transplants.
This switch presented challenges for growing media manufacturers because ingredients like chemical wetting agents and water-soluble fertilizers offer proven performance and superior results compared to their organic counterparts. The challenge for media manufacturers has been to develop organic growing media products that work as well as or better than traditional growing media. Growing media manufacturers have responded and now offer organic certified or OMRI-listed growing media products that provide good results for professionals and consumers.
In the past, it may have made dollars and sense to blend your own growing media. In the last year or so, though, the trend has been for medium- and large-sized greenhouse operations to move towards pre-formulated packaged media. When you calculate the costs of the equipment, raw materials, labor, depreciation costs, product consistency, risk factor for errors and other costs, buying a pre-formulated growing media is often a better choice.
Market demands for large-format packaging, improved flexibility from manufacturers and enhanced technical support has driven this change to pre-formulated media. This transition affords greenhouse operators more time to concentrate on priorities other than blending growing media.