I handed the nursery store salesman $11.59 and received only a small box, light enough to carry under one arm, in return. That little box, he assured me, contained all the supplies I needed to start 250 garden plants indoors.
It was difficult to believe. I had gone to town that cold, late winter morning intending to spend twenty dollars or more on a long list of fertilizers, potting soil, peat moss, sand, pots, trowels and other planting needs. I had pictured myself carrying heavy bags to the basement, mixing soil, filling containers, trying to keep track of numerous accessories and doing extensive clean up after each planting session.
Now, I felt cheated. All I had was this little box of pellets, tiny discs of compressed peat held together with plastic net stockings. No pots needed, no mixing, no messes to clean up; just add water for—presto—a ready-to-plant, complete indoor growing environment. Well, I'd see!
At home I went straight to the dining room table (instead of the basement) and measured the peat pellets: A mere one and three-quarters inches in diameter by about five-sixteenths of an inch thick. Eight of the discs fit perfectly into trays made by cutting half-gallon milk cartons in two, lengthwise.
Planting Peat Pellets
I added warm water to the pellets and, in about three minutes, they had risen to a height of approximately two inches. Well, what do you know. Convenience does have its interesting moments even for gardeners who, like myself, normally prefer the old-fashioned ways of doing things!
The blunt end of a ballpoint pen proved an excellent instrument for pushing seed holes into the wet nutrient-enriched peat. I easily placed tiny seeds into the indentations—singly—by letting them adhere to the wet end of a toothpick and brushing them off against the peat. The wet peat was then pushed over each seed and firmed down with the convex side of a dinner spoon.
In less than an hour, I had planted lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, celery and Alexandria strawberry seeds. Once again, I felt cheated. Here it was still morning and I was finished. There wasn't even a mess to clean up! Then, I remembered. I had always wanted to keep a detailed gardening journal, but could never seem to find the time. Now, thanks to peat pellet planting, I had the time.
I got out some labels (the kind you can stick on a surface and, later remove easily without tearing). On each label I listed the plants in a tray, the name of the seed company, planting season for which the seeds were packed, the date planted and the normal germination and maturity times. I even looked up the most desirable germinating temperatures and wrote them on the labels. Attached to the trays, these tags provided instant identification and helpful information. Later they were transferred to the pages of a composition notebook, one to a page. Under each, I listed more data: Transplanting date, size of plants when transplanted, watering and fertilizing data, insects or diseases encountered and how handled, actual date of maturity, and so on.
This journal has already proven priceless. It helps me in realistic planning and aids in anticipating problems which are incidental to my particular growing area and methods. It provides specific and down-to-earth information instead of hazy remembrances, jumbled guesses and over-broad generalizations.
Fortunately, I was able to record that peat pellets are great for starting plants indoors. My fifteen heads of Tenderleaf lettuce were table-ready in early May and twelve heads of Buttercrunch came on slightly later. Attributable to perfect weather? No. Our area was close to two inches below normal on rainfall and May brought more dry weather and temperatures above ninety degrees!
My lettuce grew larger than I have ever grown it, too. At full maturity, Tenderleaf (a fairly tight-bunch leaf lettuce) spread to over fifteen inches and the Buttercrunch showed a diameter of close to fourteen inches when standing in the rows.
Such early (for this area) lettuce and good size can be attributed—in part, at least—to the healthy start given the plants by the peat pellets. Also, the lettuce—again, thanks to the pellets—suffered absolutely no setback at transplanting. The plants, peat pellets and all, were simply slipped into prepared soil where they continued to grow. By mid-May, my pellet-started cabbage plants were also well along in heading and we had already enjoyed fresh-cut Early Spartan broccoli.
That's just a sampling of the fun I had with peat pellets. For later plantings I sowed tomatoes, squash, melons, cucumbers, ground cherries and similar warm weather crops and the benefits really started to add up.
Types of Plants
Our hybrid Rushmore and Roma tomato plants blossomed in mid-May and Pretty Patio tomato vines—not yet in blossom—were of good size. These had been planted in peat pellets on March 18 (it snowed that day) and transplanted to open ground on May 2nd. They were protected from frost once with large cans open at both ends, the tops covered with plastic food bags and perforated( slightly for ventilation.
Summer crookneck squash, planted in peat pellets on April 12 and transplanted into open ground on April 29, were over a foot high by May 24. At this time the larger leaves measured 9-inches plus and the total spread of individual plants was well over 27 inches. These were protected. in the same manner as the tomatoes, from late frost.
Even after cold weather (all during the summer in fact) I continued using peat pellets. Hot and dry conditions that summer made direct sowings of even larger seeds somewhat of a problem. So, for late plantings of squash. cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and the like, I planted seeds in peat pellets and transplanted the sprouts to the hill without setback. Since the peat pellets absorb water like a blotter and since the medium is ideal for fast root growth, my moisture problems were solved. As an added bonus, only two or three seeds were required per hill, instead of the six to eight normally sown in open ground planting.
Sometimes I'd place seeds in soaked peat pellets and set them in the ground immediately, just covering the tops of the pellets slightly with soil. The plants popped up in a few days, robust and healthy, despite surrounding earth that was merely dry-moist. Even if your ground cakes hard, you can be assured of perfect emergence using this technique.
When I knew a crop would be through in a week or two, I used peat pellets to give new plantings a headstart. If rains or dry weather delayed outdoor plantings, I —again—started seeds in peat pellets. As a result, the chance of insufficient growing period before first frost was reduced.
Yes, I still believe that old-fashioned ways generally work best but I don't object to space age techniques either. Especially since peat pellets cut my planting costs, were convenient, labor-saving . . . and helped assure an earlier, healthier, more productive garden.
From an ecological point of view, peat pellets have one obvious drawback—the plastic net stockings surrounding the pressed peat. Surely, this netting could be made of material that is easily dissolved through contact with earth, air and moisture over a period of several months.
There are two ways in which the ecologically-minded can promote the use of materials which readily return to nature through rapid breakdown: (1) They can ignore or boycott products that contain ecologically unrealistic materials or (2) They can attempt to salvage an otherwise useful product by urging manufacturers to substitute ecologically-sound materials for those which do not break down within a reasonable period.
In the author's opinion, the peat pellet is a product which deserves salvaging. Organic gardeners everywhere should keep manufacturers informed of their interest in this item while, at the same time, recommending ecologically-sound improvements.
About the Author
Jack Roland Coggins is a regular contributor of organic gardening and ecology articles to national magazines. A piece entitled "Our Family Fights Pollution" (written by Jack and his wife, Dessie-Ellen) is in the March 1971 issue of PARENTS' Magazine.
The Coggins family lives in Raymond, Nebraska where, in addition to a backyard garden, they "farm"—with emphasis on organic methods—an acre of borrowed land. Jack says, "with the help of two large home freezers, we enjoy healthful, homegrown food all year."