The Use of Coir for Compost

Ray Creek

Ray is now probably the last local (to Sheffield) grower left, and has been to talk to us several times before. Composts have long been of considerable importance to growers and anything that reports better growth is usually trialled and then either adopted or discarded. Ray has tied himself to a relatively new compost, and this lecture was an unashamed sales pitch for the product.

Often composts for orchids come as a spin off from other horticultural products where there is serious funding available for increased productivity. The Dutch have now been using coir/coconut either alone or in a mix for the last 10-12 years. Better plants seem to be produced over other growing media. Issues with peat have helped to refine and improve the medium. Coconut husk is a waste product from the coconut industry, and the husk is about the same volume as the coconut itself, so there is a huge amount created, and generally left to rot on tropical beaches. Its first use was as bedding for horses where straw wasn’t preferred. Animal bedding is a huge industry in itself, and there are plenty of horses in the Netherlands. Once used, it was likely to have been used as mulch, and is now widely available in garden centres for this purpose as well as play areas. After some trials, the better husks were used in horticulture, where eventually they became available to the orchid industry.

Ray first came across husk at a trade fair on the continent. The vendors were looking to sell by the wagonload – which is a tad too much for a trial. He was able to get a bale to try out which came back to the UK. The husk had been washed, and in theory was ready for use. This was tested for salts, and appeared clear, so a trial was carried out with lettuce seeds – which are a good benchmark for compost trials. They germinated and grew OK, so some orchids were tried out. This was successful, and so in due course a pallet was purchased, and sold to the public as well as being used in the nursery. The general public seemed to like it, and came back for more. Another pallet full was purchased, and all looked rosy. It seems to work well on most plant groups, although some plant groups haven’t yet been tested.

Unfortunately the suppliers went out of business, so an alternate supplier was sought. Sadly the product was of a poorer constitution – probably having been left on the beach for years prior to use, rather than fresh from the coconut mills. Customer dissatisfaction soon grew and Ray’s reputation went down just as quickly. It just shows that you can’t always trust your suppliers, and that there can be variation in the product.

His belief in the product remained intact, and a decent source was required. At another trade fair, he came across a new supplier called Botanicoir. This is a family run business with their roots in Sri Lanka, and sales in the UK. Their main UK sales area is in cucumbers and carnations, both of which are fussy growers, so the product has to be perfect to avoid hefty lawsuits. The husk is sourced directly from the mill in Sri Lanka, so isn’t dumped anywhere to pickup salts, pests or other contaminants. The husk is chipped, and put into huge vats of soft water for 2 days, followed by rinsing, then 2 more washings. The PH is checked to be between 5.4 and 6.8. If it isn’t then it is either washed again or discarded. The main purpose of this is to wash out the tannins. When clean and relatively dry it gets a further soaking in a balanced fertiliser. The final treatment is to super heat the husk to kill any bugs. Once processed it is dried and compressed, packed into small bales and exported on a slow boat to Europe.

Husk is very absorbent and more than doubles in size when wet. Alternative growing media like bark can only absorb a small amount, so husk acts much more like a buffer – both for water and for fertiliser. The first time that fertiliser gets used on husk it would all simply be absorbed and not used on the roots – hence the preloading.

Lignin is present in the husk, which is a natural fungicide. This slows down rot (by fungus) and decomposition. Unlike bark and moss that rots and goes sour within a couple of years, husk will remain in good condition for at least 4 years – thus generally halving the amount of repotting required each year.

Other benefits are that being absorbent both air and water are refreshed and made available. The odd shaped pieces keep the air around the roots rather than eventually becoming a sodden mass. The nutrient buffering tends to avoid root burn. The EC is .7ms.

The husk needs wetting well prior to use otherwise the swelling will kill the plant and burst the pots. 1 days soaking should suffice followed by a good draining. Don’t overpot, and firm lightly. Watering may need to be modified as with any other changes to conditions, and can generally be at further intervals. No crocking is needed as the relatively coarse material will cover the holes in the pot, and nothing will turn to dust. Generally the husk should be used on its own. Unlike bark or moss, nothing else is required to keep the mix open such as perlite or sponge rock.

Several Society members have already tried husk successfully, and some others were tempted to obtain a small amount for trial purposes. We wish them all success.