Cocogreen's water conservation agent H2CoCo was named Best Professional Product/Service at last month's Grower Awards 2016 (HW, 4 March). "H2CoCo helps soft-fruit businesses improve productivity by improving water, fertiliser and labour efficiency in coir-grown crops," explains commercial director Thomas Ogden. "It not only saves valuable time and water during set up, but makes compressed coir growbags more time-efficient to lay out."
He adds: "If also used during the season, H2CoCo delivers savings in water and fertiliser during cropping while helping to optimise yields. Other benefits include extending the life and performance of coir growing media and helping to improve overall sustainability."
Non-ionic and pH neutral, H2CoCo's InstaWet technology ensures faster decompression of compressed coir compared with standard wetting agents. Its three-in-one action combines wetting and spreading agent, penetrating agent and re-wetting agent.
This ensures that at the start of the crop H2CoCo promotes quick and total wetting of the substrate — up to 50 times faster. Typically rewetting also creates a lot of run-off, but with H2CoCo the volume of water used is significantly reduced, making for more efficient water management.
When used throughout the growing season, H2CoCo bags have shown stable improvements to moisture levels and distribution throughout the whole coir substrate, while overall irrigation and fertiliser use has been reduced, helping to lower production costs and helping growers comply with the EU's Sustainable Use Directive.
Trials in field-grown tomatoes and other crops in the USA, carried out by Freedom Ag Research, showed a comparable yield was obtained using 75 per cent of the normal water when using Cocogreen coir in combination with H2CoCo. "The product also brought on earlier yields, which is important for the UK as the price of fruit is higher earlier in the year," says Ogden.
On the state of the coir market more generally, he adds: "Some UK soft-fruit growers experienced coir substrate supply issues last season and came to us at very short notice. With complete control over our supply chain we have continued to invest in the business and have contingency plans to protect against protracted monsoon conditions and sudden spikes in demand.
"It is worth noting that demand for coir growing media has not only increased dramatically in the UK but also in other global markets, adding to supply challenges. At Cocogreen we view the UK soft-fruit market as very important, therefore ring-fence supplies to ensure our customers are not left high and dry."
Meanwhile, fellow coir-based growing media supplier Botanicoir plans to launch what it calls a fourth-generation buffered coir substrate for the soft-fruit industry that will also greatly speed up rehydration. "We are confident that growers will have the option of further longevity without compromising performance," says managing director Kalum Balasuriya.
"There is no wetting agent required, saving growers time and money, and the fast capillary action ensures consistency in the amount of water and nutrients moving through the slab, giving plants a consistent growing environment. It's incredibly free-draining compared to other available coir substrates, as well as being high in calcium."
On the wider market conditions, Balasuriya says global demand for coir substrates is on the up as more countries and crops move into substrate production. "As an industry the challenge is to manage the peak demand periods," he adds.
In the longer term, the area of coconut production is such that supply should not be a problem, but the worry will be short-term if manufacturing capacity fails to keep up with demand from areas such as the USA, as they enter the arena.
UK growers continue to lead the way in soft-fruit substrate production, says Agrovista commercial head of fruit Mark Davies. "Overseas visitors who see Botanicoir in action here are now taking product in many other countries. It's something that our UK growers and agronomists should be rightly proud of."
Meanwhile, hydroponic and indoor growing specialist supplier Hydrogarden continues to develop a range of products including growing media that straddle the boundary between hobby and commercial growing. It has introduced a 100 per cent coir under its VitaLink brand for drip irrigation and passive hydroponics. It contains fulvic and humic acids that act as chelating agents to aid nutrient uptake.
The range also includes two specialist bio-stimulants to enable plant growth at extreme temperatures. VitaLink Heat helps keep plants growing even at temperatures below 5°C, protecting plants against stress, preventing flower abortion and allowing side shoots and buds to develop. VitaLink Chill achieves the opposite, enabling plants to thrive in temperatures above 30°C, and has already been tested in the glasshouses in the Middle East.
In urban farms in places such as Abu Dhabi, where Hydrogarden distributes, "you convince the plant it's cooler than it is", senior business development executive Stephen Fry explains. "It can have a significant impact on yield. Some of the items are a bit left field for commercial production in large volumes. But taken seriously it can make an impact globally on food security and food provenance, as well as on the grow-your-own market."
Conventional friable growing media have traditionally played little part in hydroponic growing because "you don't want particles blocking your pumps or micro-bore piping", Fry explains. "That's why you have stone wool substrates."
As an alternative to this, HydroGarden supplies Natural Rooting Sponge plugs under its "ROOT!T" brand made of 60 per cent peat, 40 per cent bark, held together with a polymer. "The beauty is they stay together — the particles don't break off," says Fry. "They were developed for growing in space and in fact we supply them to the European Space Agency."
Back on earth, the firm is also supplying trays of the plugs to the Wellcome Trust as part of an initiative to promote growing in schools. "They will get much better results than with conventional growing media," Fry believes.
HydroGarden is also developing matting for a "flood and drain" format of hydroponic growing, for growers in Singapore and Australia supplying herbs to the catering and wholesale sectors. "We are down to a choice of three," says Fry. "I want a fully biodegradable and compostable product that can also be fed into anaerobic digestion systems, rather than put to landfill."
Stone wool supplier Grodan has begun supplying larger-volume blocks for glasshouse salad crops that it says allow larger growth volumes and reduced watering intervals. In a trial using larger blocks for sweet peppers, this increased the plant volume, propagation specialist Hans van Herk told the company's International Propagation Seminar last autumn.
The slightly drier block also gives an improved water-to-air ratio, reducing the risk of Fusarium while giving a 24 per cent yield increase, he explained. Meanwhile, improved rootstocks allow smaller planting holes, enabling the roots to grow more quickly into the blocks, giving a three-to-four day advantage and more uniform batches.
Last year Grodan joined international non-profit organisation the Association for Vertical Farming. Sustainability manager Stuart Lambie explains: "We see a role in bringing more than 45 years of knowledge and experience in soil-less cultivation, together with other forces in the field of vertical farming from research, business and policy, to create opportunities for the sustainable growth of this young industry."
Grodan will soon feature in Discovery Channel television show Innovations, in which it explains how its "Precision Growing" approach gives maximum crop production while minimising inputs of water and nutrients. Series producer Robert Sikich says: "We look forward to enlightening audiences on these amazing technologies."