What Is Growing Medium?
The term ‘growing medium’ is used to describe the material used in a container to grow a plant.
The term ‘substrate’ is also used and means the same thing. In the UK some people still use the term ‘compost’ in the same context, however a compost is technically the product of a composting operation (eg the compost heap at the bottom of the garden) and can therefore be a misleading word to use. A composted material may be a component of a growing medium but peat is not a product of composting and nor are many other ingredients we use. In Holland the term ‘potting soil’ is often used instead of ‘growing medium’
There are many different ingredients that can be used to make a growing medium; different parts of the world have developed media based on local availability of various raw materials. Such materials can be inorganic (eg rockwool, perlite) or organic (such as peat, bark). Growing media are often formulated from a blend of different raw materials in order to achieve the correct balance of air and water holding capacity for the plants to be grown.
Requirements of a growing medium:
To provide anchorage for the plant
To provide adequate air spaces for root respiration
To hold sufficient available water
To hold sufficient available nutrients
To be free of plant pathogens, pests and weeds
To be safe when handled by people
Manufacturers also need growing media to be physically and chemically stable from the time of production until the time of use (this can be many months for retail products). The bulk density (weight) of the ingredients used is also important because this affects transport costs, a major part of the total cost of production and delivery to the end customer.
What Is A Soil Improver?
Soil improvers are materials added to soil to improve its physical and/or chemical characteristics.
Another word for this is ‘soil conditioner'. The term ‘soil improver' in the UK also includes materials used as surface mulches such as bark, used to prevent weed growth and to conserve soil moisture.
Soil improvers are generally used to improve the soil fertility by increasing the soil organic matter level. They improve the workability of the soil over time, for example making heavy clay soils more manageable and they can be used to improve the water holding capacity of light soils. This is becoming increasingly important in many parts of the country with recent dry years and restrictions on water use. Some soil improvers, such as manure or spent mushroom compost-based products, also contain significant amounts of plant nutrients.
You can easily make your own compost to use as a soil improver or mulch in the garden.
Making a compost to use as part of a home-made growing medium to use for raising plants in pots requires a bit more skill. For this you will have to be more careful choosing what you compost (avoid any diseased plants and weeds with seeds), compost it for longer and the compost may need sieving before use. It will be too heavy and have too many nutrients to use on its own in a pot so will have to be diluted with coir fibre, fine bark or peat (use compost as a third to a half of the mix). It is often better to use a home-produced growing medium containing compost for older plants (ideal for tubs/patio planters) than for raising seeds/cuttings.
- Practical tips for making good home compost:
- Site your bin/heap in a place where it gets at least some sun.
- DO compost a mixture of woody and soft material.
- Vegetable peelings, fruit waste, grass clippings, shrub prunings, annual weeds, tea bags, leaf litter and cardboard are all fine to compost.
- DO NOT add cooked food, meat, dairy products, diseased plants, perennial weeds (eg thistles), plastic, glass.
- The more often you mix/turn the compost the faster it will mature.
- It usually takes 6-12 months, depending on how often you mix it.
- The compost is ready when it is dark brown and soil-like.