Reporter 458, 6 November 2000

Shredded wheat can spare the peat

Gardeners and commercial plant producers will soon have an environmentally friendly alternative to peat in compost – and a more efficient way of using wheat straw as mulch, spread around growing plants to enrich the soil or protect against weeds.

Wet straw tends to rot down before the end of the growing season, taking nutrients from the soil. If rotting occurs when the plants are young, it can result in severe nitrogen immobilisation, causing reduced growth.

For peat's sake: Geoff Whitely shows his eco-friendly mineralised straw

Geoff Whiteley in the School of Biology has developed a new technique to address this problem, using naturally occurring soil minerals to stabilise and condition the straw in a way that makes it last up to four years, perform better in weed control and provide an effective deterrent against slugs and snails.

The process uses soluble forms of iron and aluminium, precipitated in hydroxides which deposit on the surface of the plant cell wall.

A finely shredded form of the mineralised straw has proved an ideal substitute for the fibrous component of peat. Mixed at up to 50 percent with materials like bark chippings, the treated straw matched the performance of the best professional composts in pot plant growth trials.

The material is easily produced, even from poor-quality straw, with consistently uniform chemical and physical properties. It can be made locally, saving freight costs. And there is a real prospect of environmentalist consumer pressure leading to the phasing out of peat altogether – which would greatly boost the market for comparable alternatives.

Dr Whiteley’s work is being supported by technology transfer company Leeds Innovations, which is actively seeking prospective investors and commercial partners to bring it to market.

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