Wanna Cheat? Use Peat Pellets!

Coco Coir Plugs,

In the simplest of terms, hydroponics is all about using soilless systems to make plants grow.  However, that means you need plants (i.e. not seeds) to put in your systems.  It also ignores the why of hydroponics – for most people, hydroponics is about growing plants fast and well and not an outright hatred for soil.  Giving peat pellets a chance at some point during your production process might give you the edge you desire.


We’ll be taking a look at what peat pellets are, why peat pellets are great for seed starting, a couple of downsides to them, and a great “hydroponics lite” system for utilizing peat pellets to germinate seeds that anybody into wick hydroponics will understand immediately.  There is also a bit of controversy surrounding peat (no, it doesn’t have to do with ‘cheating’ – sorry!) that we will also look into!




What are peat pellets?


If you think about the word ‘peat’ and can only vaguely come up with something about soil, then you aren’t alone (or incorrect).  Peat is a sort of “pre-soil” made of decomposing plant material – if you left it alone under the Earth it would actually eventually make coal!  This peat moss is considered a natural resource, something we will get back to later.  For now, just remember that peat is an energy ripe material that seedlings thrive in.


(It should be mentioned here that many ‘peat’ pellets also contain the hairy fibers of coconut husks, too! which is also known as Coco coir, another great seed starting medium.)


Peat pellets (sometimes referred to by the brand name ‘ ’) are circular discs of compressed peat with a spongy, degradable covering.  When water is added to them, they rise over the course of about ten to fifteen minutes, creating a perfect home for seeds.

Peat Pellets
Expanded Peat Pellets,  Source


In traditional agriculture, once the seeds have grown into seedlings and have hearty leaf and stem structures the peat pellet can be placed directly in the ground.  Again, the covering will degrade naturally to no detrimental effect. 




Why use peat pellets?


For both traditional farmers and hydroponists, peat pellets have the advantage of letting you start seeds easily indoors before the frost – by using peat pellets you are, in effect, lengthening your growing season.


Even greenhouse growers might consider peat pellets due to how simple they are to get started.  As peat moss – a major contributor to the mass of peat pellets – contains no weed seeds you can safely assume whatever is growing in your peat pellets is actually what you wanted to grow in them 99% of the time!


The important thing to remember about peat pellets is that they are designed for seeds and many of them come in packages (see below) that help you grow seedlings easily at any time of year with just seeds, water, and the package.  If you are looking for a way to go from seed to plant this is the easy way for you.




Why avoid peat?


At the most basic level, one disadvantage with peat products is that they do coat seeds in soil which later require work to clean up.  If this cleaning is not done properly, pieces of the soil can clog up your hydroponics systems – especially if your system relies on the usage of sprinklers, misters, or foggers.  There are some soil-free ways to germinate seeds, like the paper towel method, if you want to avoid this, but they do take some extra work and won’t be usable with all plants.

seeds in moist paper towel
Seeds in a moist paper towel, Source


The second big reason to avoid peat is that there are some environmental concerns about it!  Peat is considered by some as a natural resource and using peat for agriculture does not come without a cost.  Everywhere from the Guardian to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) is reporting on this issue and the dynamics at play are quite complex.  To summarize briefly, like all-natural resources, peat and peat moss take time to replenish AND there is some damage done to the environment when peat is used and processed.  Depending on how and how much peat you use, as well as what kind and brand, might make this a different kind of decision for you.  Awareness is key!




The Peat Pellet Kit for Wick System Lovers

Germination dome
Germination dome, Source


Since a lot of what we discussed today wasn’t strictly ‘hydroponics’ (very few people actually use peat in their hydroponics systems themselves) we should end on a note with a more ‘hydroponic feel:  seed starter kits.


These kits are designed around the idea of starting your seeds with little to no interaction from the grower.  An assortment of peat pellets sits in a tray with holes in the bottom.  These holes sit atop a cloth that acts like a really wide wick.  The system works exactly like a wick hydroponics system would and takes just a few minutes to get started – the majority of which is spent on waiting for the peat pellets to expand and be ready to plant into.


Another thing that these kits all have is a plastic germination dome to drive up humidity and keep in water.  The result is a system that rarely needs to be watered and can be left alone for lengths of five or six days with little to no maintenance required.




In Conclusion


So, peat comes with a little bit of controversy but is a very solid way to get your plants started.  It really is worth reading up on the environmental factors in detail before you make a decision on whether or not to use any peat products, but small amounts of anything shouldn’t be too harmful.  If you’re looking for alternatives to peat for seed starting, be sure to check out our guide.


Seeing something about soil might’ve shocked you when browsing a hydroponics site.  This is understandable, considering the emphasis the community puts on the soil-free nature of the trade, but when something works it is always worth considering adding into your production line.  Using a bit of soil to get started isn’t even grounds to remove the ‘purist’ tag out of your operation, as your plants had to come from somewhere.  Best wishes with *whole* production cycle, from seed to produce!






John Alexander is a writer, English language educator, and plant enthusiast. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he began working in labs filled with plants - identifying their seeds, counting their pollen, extracting their DNA, and (of course!) watering them as needed. Nowadays, he is focused more on words and language, whether that be teaching or writing.