Robin-Lee

It's up for debate

Weeks 6 & 7 Under the Greenhouse: Soilless Soil & Seeds of all Sizes

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“Soil?” Happy Friendly Mist Guy said (to keep names confidential, we’ll stick to job titles plus personality trait). “Well actually, this is soilless medium. This whole operation we’re running is basically hydroponics — that’s why we have to mist the cuttings so much throughout the day.”

What’s all this? Soilless medium.

The Canna in question

The Canna in question

According to Upstart Farmers Network, soilless medium like ours contains “…no inorganic matter like sand, silt, or clay involved, which means that the mix technically isn’t soil.” The greenhouse’s particular brand states that it contains “long-fiber sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.”

Perlite in particular, with it’s tiny, irregular grooves, has been demonstrated to have excellent water-retaining properties, leaching out the water when needed by the plant. The substance is actually volcanic glass and expands under high heat conditions and is inert, so it has no harmful effects on the plants.

All of which makes me feel very stupid for crushing the white pellets, thinking I was helping the plant take up the nutrients better – although it does feel pleasing to crush those pellets.

The other ingredient in our soilless mix is one of some controversy, being that it is also a nonrenewable source but comes from the bottom of bogs, some the biggest reserves being in Western Siberia and Canada.

While in the early 2000s, many papers came forward dooming the earth’s atmosphere from overharvesting peat bogs (peat bogs are carbon sinks, and it’s been argued that harvesting releases too much of the gas) like the very confident report, The Myth of Permanent Peatlands by Linda Chalker-Scott, there are scant reports of negative impacts of harvesting and instead reports of rehabilitated bogs and sustainable harvesting practices, especially in Canada.

The small, ridged seeds of Daucus carota (either wild or the cultivated form we’re all edibly familiar with), difficult to grasp or suction mechanically

Anyhow, back to our greenhouse medium — while the plants in the greenhouse are routinely misted and kept in high humidity under T5 fluorescent grow lights, the medium is important from the get-go and explains why every mint cutting I’ve taken home has failed to root in the rich, thick potting soil I purchased from Home Depot; the soil tends to become waterlogged, suffocating the roots and allowing fungus to flourish on the leaves. I also need to stop bringing home so many discarded cuttings — I think I’m developing an unhealthy addiction.

Moreso, since this soilless soil is so much more aerated than my store-bought actual soil, cuttings are easier to stick and can grow out their roots, apparently even transplants from starter trays that get smooshed into the the larger tray holes. One of my favorite and easiest to transfer is Canna, a plant that vexed me and my massive Facebook fanbase – my mother and a very correct former (and excellent) high school teacher of mine.

Initially, I had it from one authority at the greenhouse that the blue ball was the Canna seed itself — Happy Friendly Mist Guy, who I now defer to for all my botanical questions, confirmed my teacher’s comment that the blue layer is rather technically a coating, which is applied in a process known as pelleting.

While Canna does, not all seeds come in globular form, a form that so happens to make it easier for both machines (see video below) and people to grip the seed and place into the soil. Some are astoundingly minuscule, for example the seeds of Begonia species, one source measuring each at 1/100th of an inch (the frustration of planting of such seeds just gives me one more reason to hate on Begonias). Other record breakers include Petunias as well as mustard and orchid. Orchid species have claim to the smallest known, while mustard was once thought to be from biblical references.

And while it’s not the case for our Cannas at the greenhouse, some pelleting is applied for pesticidal purposes. Non-pesticide coating binder (holding the coating material together) can consist of “various starches, sugars, gum arabic, clay, cellulose, vinyl polymers, and water” according to the formula listed by one pelleting company.

So there, the mystery solved: no exotic birds with a penchant for 400-nm wavelengths, although we know plants that do use color to attract specific pollinators and vectors such as bees. But I’m all the wiser, and I now have a font of knowledge, Happy Friendly Mist Guy, who’s happy to attempt answering the infinite questions I have at the greenhouse, and an equally wise high school teacher who I’m now worried is shaking his head over my abysmal blog writing and use of “font of knowledge”.

So many cultivars of Canna! Salmon, Burgundy, Tropical Rose, Variegated, Dwarf, and on and on and on.

So many cultivars of Canna! Salmon, Burgundy, Tropical Rose, Variegated, Dwarf, and on and on and on.

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