Horticultural coir

Following the Annual General Meeting of the Horticulture Group on 25 September 2009 at SCI Headquarters in London, Tom de Vesci, MD of Horticultural Coir Ltd gave an invited talk on the current uses of coir.

Coir is derived from the outer husk of the coconut fruit. The longer fibres of the husk have long been used as a coarse material for the manufacture of coconut matting etc. However, the finer pith was a waste product of little value and was burned with difficulty until its potential value as a substitute for peat in horticultural composts was recognised.

Tom de Vesci grew up in Ireland surrounded by raised peat bogs and saw first hand the damage to the landscape caused by large scale peat extraction and thought there must be a better way. Seeing the large quantities of waste pith smoldering beside the roads of India led him to develop a business based around the marketing of high quality coir.

Today coir has become a valuable by-product of coconut production. As many coconut plantations are on or near the coast it can contain high levels of salt. Therefore it is washed until the electrical conductivity has been reduced to acceptable levels before being sun-dried. It then goes through sieving and winnowing machines to separate the different particle sizes. Finally it is compressed into 5kg bricks. Transported by sea in this dry compressed form, coir is not only 'sustainable' but it also has very low carbon footprint.

Coir now comes in a variety of grades from the finest particles up to husk 'chips'. These can be mixed to provide a variety of composts suitable for plants from fine compost for seedlings to husk chips for orchids. The use of pre-fertilised bricks to plant crops can also save growers considerable time in setting out a new crop. One raspberry grower reduced his set–up time down to two days when previously it had taken eight, and then achieved the best crop he had ever had.

Coir is also more re-useable than peat with growers typically getting one more year than they can from peat. Thus, although it is still a more expensive product than peat significant saving can be made in the overall growing cycle.

Unfortunately not all coir supplies are as rigorously tested as the best and Tom’s business today is based very much on ensuring that the coir he supplies is properly tested not only at source but checked in the UK as well. The problems he faces range from ensuring that farmers do not allow their cows to wander over the coir heaps to checking that their EC meter has been calibrated within living memory.

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