Using Peat Pellets for Seed Starting

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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.

My own second peat compressor was constructed from a
plastic container — which had held frozen orange
juice — measuring 2-1/2 inch in diameter. I set aside its
lid and cut around the container about an inch (you can
choose any height you want the pellets to be) above the
bottom. Next, I made a hole in the closed end of the can,
large enough to accommodate a piece of 1/2-inch dowel about 4 inch
long. Then I cut around the outside edge of the lid,
trimming it until it could slide down inside the container,
and punched a hole in its center. Finally, I drilled a
small pilot hole in the end of the dowel and screwed the
lid to the rod. (If the top isn’t stiff enough, put two
lids together for double thickness — or use a circle of
wood or rigid metal.) I was then able to slide the free end
of the dowel down through the 1/2-inch opening in the
container’s bottom. The result: an effective, easily made
pellet producer!

Using Peat for Gardening

In most areas a 2-cubic-foot bale of peat moss shouldn’t
cost more than $5.00 or so. Once you have it, moisten the
moss with water and let it sit overnight (it should develop
the consistency of a moist bread dough). One gallon of the
mixture will be enough to make several hundred peat pots,
so a bale should be good for thousands of plant
starters.

Now, following the procedure I used, just pack your
press — firmly — with the damp moss, make a seed
hole with a stick, and push on the plunger until your disk
clears the barrel of the press. Use a spatula to slide the
pellet off the plunger, and place the little peat cakes on
a board to dry if you intend to store them. On the other
hand, should you be ready to start some seedlings, put the
still-damp pellets in your flats and plant the seeds at
once. Pretty soon they’ll be sprouting leaves, standing up,
and just begging to be set out in the ground. And before
you know it, you’ll be harvesting tasty vegetables . . .
from dang near every seed you planted!