Innovative solution to hort’s dirty problem

by | Aug 2, 2022 | News

A new wood fibre technology is poised to solve a gnarly issue for local growers, foresters and gardeners.

When you purchase locally grown fruit, vegetables, or plants from your favourite retailer they will have been grown in compost or potting mix which usually contains a highly sought-after ingredient called peat which boosts production, retains nutrients, and holds water.

An estimated 60,000 cubic metres of growing media (compost, garden/potting mixes etc) is used each year within the horticultural and agricultural industries in New Zealand and much of it contains peat. We use a lot of peat. Factor in our goal of having one billion trees planted (triple current numbers) by 2035 and you get an idea of the scale of the problem – as well as our urgent need to find a viable, locally sourced peat alternative.

There is a small amount of peat extracted here in New Zealand but as peat bogs are regulated in the same way as the likes of coal mines their days are numbered. Most of the peat contained in compost and other growing media used by New Zealand growers is imported from Canada or Eastern Europe. Ireland has recently banned peat extraction because of the high levels of carbon emitted when it is intensively harvested.

Mining peat has been described as a “lose, lose, lose” proposition. After mining, the remaining peat continues to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. When spread on a field or garden, the carbon in peat quickly turns into carbon dioxide, adding to greenhouse gas levels. Another problem with peat mining is habitat destruction for rare birds, butterflies and plants.

Factor in New Zealand’s goal of having one billion trees planted (triple current numbers) by 2035 and you get an idea of the scale of our problem – as well as our urgent need to find a viable, locally sourced peat alternative.

A global expert in horticultural substrates, Dr Brian Jackson from North Carolina State University, has been researching alternatives to peat and educating horticulturalists and others worldwide for close to two decades. He is currently in New Zealand for a short visit to educate and share his environmental passion with growers and talk specifically about the potential for using processed wood fibre products in lieu of peat.

Processed wood fibre products are not new but up until now there has been no technology here to manufacture a product suitable for local horticultural use.

The Chief Executive of the NZPPI, (New Zealand Plant Producers Incorporated), Matthew Dolan is hailing 2022 as the start of a new, exciting era of innovation for horticulture. He says that Dr Jackson’s visit could not be better timed for the industry as it coincides with the arrival of new wood fibre processing technology which Dolan cites as a crucial part of the puzzle towards futureproofing the industry.

Being able to access locally produced wood fibre products means that New Zealand growers will reduce their reliance on imported material which cuts down freight costs and makes for a gentler environmental footprint.

Dr Jackson says; “This is a really exciting time for New Zealand’s horticultural industry. Because of the high quality of the Pinus radiata wood chips being used in New Zealand, there’s huge potential to export processed wood fibre overseas to meet global demand.”

Left: A UK peat bog, Right: Dr Brian Jackson. The development of wood chips has huge potential as a local and export alternative.

 

Daltons, a family-owned Kiwi business in Matamata has been supplying growing media (potting mix etc) to both home gardeners and commercial growers of plants and food for 75 years. About 20 years ago they started substituting bark fibre and coco fibre for peat in some of their compost mixes but that is not suitable for all applications. Because of the acidity levels required for growing some crops it is not currently possible to totally replace peat, but it is certainly possible to immediately, significantly reduce our reliance on peat.

Daltons General Manager, Colin Parker said of Dr Jackson’s visit; “We identified Dr Jackson as being the leading global expert in wood fibre processing and connected with him about three years ago. His knowledge, experience and guidance have been invaluable to us over the last few years as we researched numerous options before purchasing the industry’s first wood fibre processing machine. We are thrilled that the machine has finally arrived here, and that Dr Jackson has agreed to come to New Zealand to share his knowledge and passion for sustainability with others in our industry.”

Daltons will use wood chips from Pinus radiata trees (many of which will then be replanted using growing media with the processed wood fibre as an ingredient), making the process both sustainable and renewable.

NZPPI

New Zealand Plant Producers is the industry body for plant nurseries and related businesses. Members produce the plants growing the food that Kiwis eat and export, regenerating New Zealand’s forests, beautifying our urban  landscapes and being planted by millions of Kiwis in their backyards. NZPPI’s vision is for a vibrant plant production industry that is widely respected for its professionalism, innovation and major contribution to New Zealand.

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