Using Peat Pellets for Seed Starting

Try this method if your thick spring sewings yield sparse rows, including trial, error and victory, making it easy, pressing onward.

| March/April 1982


Green beans just two hours after transplanting. No trace of wilting!


Last spring I decided to do something about the poor germination rate caused by our family garden's heavy clay soil. Double-seeding — the method we'd tried the previous year — had resulted in nothing better than small, tangled clumps of green alternating with long bare spots. I'd tried pre-planting in flats, too, but had lost almost as many seedlings to transplant shock as I had to germination failure. And the tiny sprouts that did survive grew very slowly.
Of course, I'd heard about peat "starter pots" and decided to give them a try. My first thought was to simply go out and buy the things, but when it turned out that I'd need $24 worth to handle just one season's planting, I changed my mind in a hurry. Instead, I bought a single compressed peat pellet (for 8¢) and took it home for careful examination.

How to Use Peat Pellets

After studying the commercially prepared seed-starter, I decided to try making my own. I had a good supply of loose peat moss, and simply mixed a bit of it in water until I'd produced a mash with the consistency of thick porridge. Then I shaped the material into pellets, making fat ones, thin ones, round ones and square ones. After letting the little prototypes dry in the sun, I attempted to reconstitute them with water. However, the result was peat soup. Obviously it was back to-the-shed to try again.

Before I could make another mistake, however, I remembered having once read an article that described a proven method of making compressed pellets. This method seemed to produce professional-looking peat pots, all right, but it involved using an automobile jack and cheesecloth. I didn't want to go to the trouble of bagging and jack-pressing the moss (but I did like his idea for using recycled cans as compression cylinders or molds).

I had determined that our pots would need to be big enough to allow for at least two weeks' root growth, in order for the cold-framed plants to get off to a good start. Because there didn't seem to be any appropriately sized cans handy, I went to my shop, selected a block of oak and turned a cylinder (with a 1-1/2-inch bore) on the lathe and a solid piston to match. Next, I stuffed the cylinder full of wet peat with my fingers, packed each load as tight as possible by hand, then pushed on the piston to eject the pellet. I soon found I could thrust a pencil into the center of the exposed peat while it was still in the press, thus making a hole for the seed.

Later, in the trial by immersion, the tiny receptacles held together well, so I went to work in earnest, and was soon able to produce about four pellets per minute. In less than two hours I'd made enough of the little peat pots to plant all our seeds. I didn't even bother to dry them out, but immediately planted one seed per pot. Then I put the pellets in a flat pan, covered each seed hole with loose dry peat, moistened its surface, and placed the pan in my cold frame.

Well, within three weeks, I was astonished to see that every seed had not only germinated, but also put out a strong root system. Better yet, not a single one wilted—even briefly—after being picked up and moved (pellet and all) to the vegetable patch, and none of the relocated seedlings succumbed to transplant shock.

Making Working With Peat Easy

As I said, I created my first press from a piece of oak, using a lathe. But there are other — and easier — ways to make similar devices. Before you build one, though, you'll have to decide how big your mold should be. My cylinder was 1 inch deep and 1-1/2 inches in diameter, but you might find that a different size will better suit the seeds you'll be planting. Once you've determined the dimensions, you can simply select a container or cylinder of the correct diameter. For example, a good press could consist of a piece of pipe, a small metal screw-top jar lid that fits inside and a plunger made from a section of broomstick.

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