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Peat Pots - good choice for starting tomatoes, not as good for potatoes

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Peat pots are a good option for growing many types of seeds. The materials in the planter break down into the soil, adding peat to the heavy clay of our area. However, for plants that require less water and more root space to grow vegetables, peat pots may not be the best choice.

In my garden, I plant seed potatoes as soon as they arrive in late winter to prevent any from going bad on the shelf. In prior years, I planted the seed potatoes in plastic planters filled with soil from last year’s annuals along with a small amount of root crop fertilizer. (Root crop fertilizers have a lower percentage of nitrogen. High levels of nitrogen can encourage root rot in potatoes and other root crops.) The potatoes grew quickly and transplanted well.

This year, I planted the seed potatoes in peat pots and planted them into the garden. When I saw some of the potatoes struggling this summer, I dug up two plants to determine what was wrong. I was surprised to find out that the peat pots had not deteriorated. The plants had become root bound and were struggling to produce within the tight environment.

After some research, I realized that the key component that the peat pots needed to break down was missing. Peat pots work well when used for a plant that needs a lot of water. The peat pot will start deteriorate and break down due to the moisture. I’ve often purchased tomato plants in peat pots that were already breaking down, and quickly deteriorated in the moist soil. The peat pots containing the potatoes were not watered as often because potatoes will rot if they are watered too much. As a result, the peat pots were still in good shape when they were planted in the soil, and did not break down like the peat pots containing the tomatoes.

Lesson Learned

If the plant that you are growing requires a lot of water, such as a tomato or squash, the peat pots are probably a great choice as they may receive enough water to start breaking down before they are transplanted. For plants such as potatoes or okra that do not require as much water, the peat may not get moist enough to break down in time for the roots to grow well.

If you decide to use peat pots, one option is to prepare the pot before you place your plant in the ground. Remove the top edges and base of the pot to encourage the roots of the plant to grow into the soil. Any extra peat pieces can be place in your compost bin. You can also use a knife to slice down the side of the peat pot to encourage root growth. Be careful to cut only the peat pot, not deeply into the plant’s roots.

For plants that require less watering, there are alternatives to peat pots.

1. Make paper pots using newspaper: Paper pots can be created from newspaper and will deteriorate in the soil. Here are several options, including some do-it-yourself instructions.

2. Use terra cotta planters: Terra cotta planters can be either inexpensive or costly, plain or decorative, depending on what you prefer. Locally made pottery is usually available in garden centers as well as almost every craft show, spring and garden show, home show and Christmas show in Charlotte. Thanks to the Seabrook community and other local potters, there is a lovely array of choices.

If after use the terra cotta planter is broken, you have a lot of choices on what to do with the broken planter. You can place the broken planter upside down on small stones in your garden and create a home for toads, or you can partially plant broken side of the container in the ground to create an accent in your garden with flowers or herbs growing from the broken planter. You can even use the broken chips to provide drainage in your planters.

3. Recycle plastic pots: Some nurseries will allow customers to take their extra used plastic containers. Clean off thoroughly with soap and water before planting with your seeds or cuttings. The plastic pots can be used for years if you take care of them, and are recyclable when they can no longer be used.

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