Coco or Peat?

Remember to use a good potting soil.  But what constitutes a good potting soil?  Then the other questions arise. Coco or peat? What about cinders or expanded clay?  How do you choose the correct potting medium?

Many of these factors are determined by the plant. Research the optimal soil conditions that a selected cultivar thrives in, such as density and acidity. For instance, you wouldn’t be successful putting an orchid in a large container of dense clay soil because orchids prefer cinders for extra aeration.  On the other hand, Water Lilies thrive in a dense clay loam that should almost encapsulate the rhizomes.

It also depends on the environment. Using a very porous medium can mean having to water more regularly in an arid climate.  However, in environments with excessive rainfall, using a very porous medium can provide essential adequate drainage.

Another important factor to consider is the type of container that you will be using.  For instance a terra cotta or fiber pot is hydrophilic in that they will absorb water and slowly rehydrate the soil it is holding.  Plastic containers are hydrophobic. They will not absorb water and with very porous media can lead to water infiltrating too quickly and draining out before it can properly be absorbed by the root zone.

Last but not least, though possibly the most determining factor, there is cost and availability to consider.  You may have to forgo the $25 bag of potting mix with its long list of ingredients for the $7 mix with just a few ingredients which much of the time may contain “sludge.”  The difference in quality amongst the potting mixes on the market can be vastly different. However, depending on your level of care and the inputs you apply (fertilizers and stimulants), resulting plant vitality can be similar.

Whether you’re dealing with old-fashioned soil or a modern soilless hydroponic medium, the key things both should provide are:

  1. Good drainage
  2. Aeration for root growth
  3. Adequate water retention
  4. Nutrients, unless an inert material is preferred
  5. Support for vertical plant growth

Typically, many bagged premixed potting soils will consist of organic materials such as peat moss, shredded bark and inorganic materials like sand, perlite or vermiculite which act as aerators.  There are fine-textured soils higher in clay and coarse-textured soil consisting of more loam.  And then there are the more expensive offerings that will have a coco coir base and include everything from worm castings, root inoculants, crushed oyster shell to possibly forest floor material hailing from a distant Boreal forest.  Based on the needs of a particular varietal, the extra cost can be completely justified and sometimes considered necessary.

There is also a category of lesser known and often less understood type of growing media such as those used in hydroponics. This includes an assortment of heat expanded mineral materials like expanded clay pellets and GrowStones made from recycled glass.  There are also those composed of leftovers from nut processors like shells from pecans, pistachios and peanuts (unsalted of course.)  Less readily available are those made from cacao and coffee bean shells.  These forms of media show that whether they’re being used for large scale agriculture or for planting in decorative pots, that soil isn’t always necessary.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two more types of growing media.  The first is wood chips and compost turned by fowl claws (definitely look this up), said to be the ultimate in growing media. The second is baling straw another example of a completely soilless sub-straight.  Both can easily be employed effectively in larger container gardens.

While there are endless means in which to cultivate in small confined spaces, it all boils down to the aforementioned four factors: plant varietal, environment, container type and cost/availability.  However, the vast complexities and variations of growing media go out the window when it comes to aeroponics.  Stay tuned – more on that later.

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