Growing Things Indoors: Plant media

Growing Things Indoors: Plant media

Author of the article:

Jenny Feniak

Lace and Leaves co-owners Kai So and Mei Tam with a platter of different growing media including, from the white material going clockwise, perlite, coco coir, worm castings, coarse sand, fir bark, charcoal and all-purpose indoor potting mix.
Lace and Leaves co-owners Kai So and Mei Tam with a platter of different growing media including, from the white material going clockwise, perlite, coco coir, worm castings, coarse sand, fir bark, charcoal and all-purpose indoor potting mix. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

This column puts plants in the media, but it is not plant media.

Substrates and growing mediums are the final of the three basic elements of plant care.

Outdoors, particularly in temperate regions, soil is the main growing medium for the flora world. But indoor plants are often arriving from all corners of the earth and their needs are much more specific when we consider what substance they’ll thrive in.

Collector plants are more sensitive than common houseplants, and are often grown in hydrated sphagnum moss, which is also a great media for propagation. Leca (lightweight expanded clay aggregate) is another popular choice, and both these mediums combat the danger of overwatering, as discussed in the last column.

These speciality growing mediums will be explored in detail down the road, but all that’s needed for most houseplants is a good, soilless potting mix. Once the ingredients of the mix are understood, you can experiment and fine tune it to accommodate specific plants and their preferences.

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Lace and Leaves is a lovely little plant shop on the city’s east side run by Kai So and Mei Tam. They’ve been operating as a business for the last few years, but I first met them shortly after they opened their brick-and-mortar store in 2019.  It was here I first found a custom-made potting mix, something Tam had come up with as an ideal balance for most plants.

“We actually recommend starting off with a standard premixed indoor potting mix, so something like a ProMix all-purpose, for example, and the reason for this is, those are readily available in most stores that sell indoor potting mixes,” So explains, and from there, a number of different ingredients can be added in different quantities depending on the specific plant’s needs.

Experimentation

Tam is self-taught and her knowledge comes from a lifetime of trial-and-error growing endeavours.

“She’s always, constantly learning and experimenting with different ways of growing plants, or different media, different ways of propagating and so on. So everything has been this life-long journey of learning and working with plants,” he says of his wife and business partner.

To be clear, there is a distinct difference between potting soil, and a soilless potting mix and it is critical to plant health.

“It’s the actual black dirt of the soil that’s not in the potting mix,” So explains. “A potting mix uses peat moss, which replaces all the dirt components of the indoor soil, and as such, it provides the necessary nutrients and structure for the roots to develop but it doesn’t retain and clump and become this heavy, water-retaining sponge that house plants hate.”

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Remember the wet-feet? A deadly condition in the indoor plant world.

This is why a well-draining soil — make sure your pot has holes so that water can drain all the way out — is so important.

Controversy

Peat moss, for good reason, has become a controversial element, with the U.K. going as far as banning it as a soil amendment. It’s found in peatlands and bogs, and is an essential part of a healthy ecology that takes centuries to form. Coco peat and the more fibrous coco coir, made from prevalent coconut husks, is an excellent and sustainable alternative.

Peat and perlite — a mined, volcanic rock heated to an expanded state — are the primary ingredients of any potting mix, and the remainder can be experimented with, depending on the plant and its preferences. But most of these elements are there to ensure the medium isn’t so heavy and compacted as to eliminate the room needed for roots to breath and allow for beneficial microbes.

“Similarly, there is bark, and it’s usually fir bark that we use and recommend,” says So about the media often sold as orchid bark. “Charcoal is often used to add a filtering mechanism to the potting mix. The charcoal allows the water in the potting mix to be filtered a little bit. It also gets rid of smell if there’s any kind of lingering, undesired smell in the plants.”

Heavy feeders may like a few more worm castings, while other plants like cacti and succulents will appreciate coarse sand, a media that won’t absorb water at all and provides some of the best drainage for the arid-loving species.

Different growing media to add to potting mixes include, from the white material going clockwise, perlite, coco coir, worm castings, coarse sand, fir bark, charcoal and all-purpose indoor potting mix.
Different growing media to add to potting mixes include, from the white material going clockwise, perlite, coco coir, worm castings, coarse sand, fir bark, charcoal and all-purpose indoor potting mix. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

Either way, without the soil element, you’ll have a hard time overwatering and healthier, happier indoor plants.

I’ve been documenting my plant journey as Jenny Eff on Instagram, feel free to follow along @effin_plants.

[email protected]

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