Coco coir is a good growing medium element for plants if used with others. Coco coir starting to replace peat moss in many growing mediums. What is it, why is it getting so established, and why should you use it?
Coco coir is obtained by processing the coconut husk’s inner layer, a mass of thin fibers and small dust-like pieces of material. This coconut byproduct, viewed mainly as waste material not long ago, gained popularity as a “clean” alternative to peat in the gardening world and for its versality.
Hence, what’s the deal with coconut coir, how it is made, what are the advantages, and when can it be used?
Coconut coir is obtained by processing the internal hairy layer of the coconut husk. The internal layer, with those thin air and dust-like particles, are the ones from which the excellent quality coco coir is made and used by gardeners all over the world.
In comparison, the outer part of coconut husks are too rough. As such, they are usually used to create brushes, nets, mats, soil covers, or just as a burning material to produce energy in a power plant.
Interesting enough, coconuts are fruit like the apples rather than nuts despite their name.
The coconut shell, that smooth woody clean one you may see in supermarkets or home decor stores, has already been cleaned by its outer layer called the husk. Its husk is made of rough brown fiber-like material.
Each small thread of it measures around 0.04 inches (1.02 mm) long made of a substance that is a mix between wood and a leaf.
One of the best coco coir commercially available is the Plantonix from Amazon shown below. As we will discuss below, it has all the advantages of the top quality coco coir to help to promote growth.
But keep in mind that you can’t use coco coir on its own to grow big healthy plants. (I’ll talk more about this later!)
The creation of coconut coir involves 6 main processes 1) extraction, 2) soaking, 3) cleaning, 4) drying, 5) shipment, and 6) compression.
Although many plant enthusiasts hype up the eco-friendliness of coconut coir. It’s not actually completely good for our environment—or at least, the existing processes involved in their manufacturing is not.
During extraction, the husk of coconuts are separated from their nuts. This can be done through machines. However, it is often, is done manually—which require more time and effort to complete.
The long process of soaking can lasts up to a year to get rid of the salt in the raw materials for making the loose and compacted coco coir we are more familiar with.
You see, because coconuts are grown are typically grown near the sea and beachsides in their native habitats, they can get really salty form the sea’s salt sprays.
As such, this soaking process allows bacteria in the water to make inner coconut fibers even easier to process.
Once the coconut fibers are extracted by hand they are then washed and dried.
Typically this is done manually, to further agitate the individual fibers and loosen them up, making them much easier to separate form each other.
In the drying stage, the coconut fibers are not merely left to dry in the open air. This is because, the main coco coir producers in the world—namely, Indonesia and the Philippines—are also countries that get most torrential tropical rains and high humidity.
Hence, no surprise that drum drying is used for better, more efficient drying. This is essentially a hot drum that rotates in which the pit is placed in.
One of the most underrated points of the coco coir production is shipment. The top two countries producing the raw material for coco coir are both in Southeat Asia.
As a result, shipping coconut coir to western countries such as America and England takes a very long time. Furthermore, they traditionally travel on cargo ships to arrive in the EU or even further in the USA.
To make the most out of available space needed for their storage and sale, coconut coir comes in convenient blocks or bricks.
Such coco coir bricks are produced using compressing machines and, often, assembled by the manufacturer locally.
Just keep in mind that the steps I discussed above are not the only ways to produce coconut coir. It’s merely a quick summary of the most adopted processes.
Coco Coir Controversy?
Due to the processes involved in manufacturing coco coir, it is obvious that it is not the perfect environmentally friendly product many people belive it to be. More specifically, making coco coir 1) is highly labor intensive, 2) exposes workers to dangerously high dust concentrations, and 3) involves major and large-scale transport systems.
Most important processes in creating coconut coir requires intense manual labor undertaken mainly by women in underdeveloped countries, who may or not be paid poorly.
What makes matters worse is that workers of coco coir factories are exposed to high concentrations of dust on a daily basis.
Even though research has not yet found a correlation between this type of work and the workers’ respiratory issues, breathing inert dust for hours—even if not immediately harmful—is not one of the best working conditions. Some reports even reveals that workers commonly don’t wear masks.
Lastly, the coco coir industry involve an important transport system because coconut production is not typical of the USA or the EU. As you could imagine, shipping is neither the most cost-efficient nor the most eco-friendly way to transport it throughout the globe.
Coco coir is often more environmentally friendly than peat moss. However, coco coir price and carbon emissions in transport are often higher. Also, coco coir has anti-fungal properties which is missing in peat moss. Good quality coco coir is also neutral, unlike peat moss which is slightly acidic. However, coco coir degrades faster than peat moss.
Coco coir became extremely popular last year, becoming the stronger contender of peat moss and, in general, as a growing medium (even for more advanced applications as hydroponic). Hence, what are these advantages compared to peat?
Home gardeners can use coco coir to take advantage of the following factors: 1) environmental impact, 2) transport, 3) price, 4) anti-fingal properties, and 5) neutral pH level.
Read on to learn more!
1. Environmental Impact
The main reason people justify using coco coir is because it is a much more environmentally friendly replacement for peat moss.
Remember, peat moss is the result of an extremely long decomposition process of a special type of plant, called sphagnum moss, found in wet areas known as bogs.
In many countries around the world, the rate of extraction is much higher than that by which peat moss is naturally created. Simply put, in such areas, peat is going to exhaust very soon.
LEarn more abou this material in our article on peat moss and humus!
Moreover, the presence of peatlands (bogs) is important as a natural carbon capture system and their water filtration and regulation capability. Extracting peat moss is likely to reduce or remove such peatlands and all the benefits mentioned above.
Coco coir, on the other hand, is a byproduct of the coconut industry that does not affect the environment as peat moss has been shown to.
To be more specific, coconuts are produced mainly for food consumption and oil production. Their husks, from which the coco coir is produced, would otherwise be wasted if not turned into coco coir.
However, as discussed above, coconut coir has an impact on the environment and the working conditions of the people who produce it in third-world countries.
Is the Production of Coco Coir Worse Than Peat Moss?
Frankly, it is extremely hard to tell. I mean, sure—peat moss is a finite and slow-producing resource whereas coco coir is a waste product that, despite being abundant and, ideally limitless, requires more processing, human labor than peat.
So here is my personal view on the topic.
In areas of the world where peat is limited (like in the UK, for instance), coco coir is a better option over peat moss. In those (few) areas with a large peatland where the rate of extraction is lower than the rate by which peat gets regenerated, peat moss is recommended over coco coir.
Look at the case of Canada, for instance. The main concern about the finite amount of peat does not apply as only 0.03% of Canadian peatland has been used for peat production. Hence, here, peat might be a better option as it also avoids the massive transport required for coco coir.
Coco coir is compressed in dry rectangular bricks. This presents 3 important advantages over peat moss in terms of 1) volume, 2) shape, and 3) weight.
Due to its compactness, large amounts of coco coir can be easily transported even in a small space. As such, more of the product can be shipped in the same space that it would take peat moss to fill. This will directly result in less carbon emission.
Oncecompacted into rectangularly bricks, coco coir is very easy to transport effectively because they can be piled up on top of each other. This saves space, again, reduces the carbon emitted during transport.
Nowadays, coco coir’s price per pound (kg) is comparable, if not cheaper, than peat moss.
Price is a controversial argument against the coco coir. You will meet gardeners who would claim that coconut coir is more expensive than peat moss.
A few years back, this was definitely true. During those times, coco coir was still something new and largely unfamiliar so its market was still at its infancy. But these days, this simply isn’t true anymore.
Check it yourself!
Below, you have high-quality coco coir while here is an equally good peat moss on Amazon. At the time of writing, the first is cheaper than peat moss (based on their weight).
Moreover, don’t forget that coco coir bricks are normally dry. Once hydrated, they’ll expanding several times their original size. So, coconut coir is really a lot more cost-efficient than peat moss.
Unlike peat moss, coco coir is known for its antifungal properties which helps suppress the development of harmful microorganisms that would otherwise kill plants that come into contact with it.
This has already been confirmed by a few studies where soil pathogens where effectively repressed from developing in coco coir.
More precisely, mycelial growth—well-known fungi that create spider-like white webs on top of the soil—was greatly reduced.
Coco coir inhibited mycelial growth of various soilborne pathogens by up to 75%!
On top of such properties, the process of turning coconut husks into coco coir through soaking and cleaning can dramatically reduce the chances of fungal and bacterial issues compared to peat.
This is extremely important when growing indoor plants, where usually more damp conditions, attract a large variety of pests and moisture-loving pathogens.
Mold can develop on pure coco coir medium when kept excessively wet and not allowed to completely dry from time to time. Nevertheless, this happens less frequently in coco coir than other growing mediums.
After chatting with a few gardeners that experienced the problem, in their case, the reason was a mainly due to very poor airflow.
When growing seedlings in coco coir, airflow is important for two reasons:
- Makes the stem stronger and less floppy
- Improves aeration which prevents mold and fungi formation
In case the mold on the coco coir is white, often close to the edges where its more moist, it is very likely to be a Saprophytic fungus. This is not harmful so its nothing to be worried about.
Just let the coir dry and rub it off with your hands or any tool if you want to get rid of it.
Good quality coco coir is generally pH neutral, with values between 5.9 and 6.5. Conversely, peat moss is most commonly acidic unless amended or mixed with other materials like lime.
When you get high quality coco coir (as this one on Amazon), it’ll likely have a neutral pH. However, be careful as this is not always the case. If you buy cheap coco coir, chances are that it will be acidic.
Remember, coco coir comes from the husk of coconuts that are often grown close to the coast/beach where the salinity level can get quite high. This, in turn, makes the husk of the coconut naturally acidic. That’s one reason why coco coir manufacturers need to soak and clean the husks.
If this process is skipped or done with cheap salt water rather than fresh water, the coco coir can be way cheaper but also much more acidic than what many plants would require.
As such the neutral pH of coco coir is a great advantage as it is more compatible with many more plants, especially herbs, thrive in neutral soil rather than acidic.
Check out our article on easy-to-grow perennial herbs!
Conversely, peat moss, if added to any potting mix, usually needs lime to counteract its natural acidity which is caused by the its advanced break down.
Compared to peat moss, coco coir 1) is less effective in retaining moisture and 2) has very little nutrient content, if any at all.
Coco coir is a great material that I do use often. However, it is important to know that it comes with some drawbacks as well—although nothing major.
The difference between peat moss and coco coir in retaining water is significant. Peat moss is almost 3 times more effective at retaining water than coco coir.
Peat moss can retain up to 30 times its weight in water while coconut coir “only” around 8 times which is why many gardeners need to take extra care with extra watering if they replace one for the other.
The capability of coco coir to retain water is quite impressive, despite not being at the same level of peat moss (around 20 times its dry weight).
This is one of the main features that made coco coir an attractive replacement of peat moss after also considering it environmental impact.
Among the materials used to make a great potting soil or starter mix, it is important to have at least one of them able to effectively retain water.
That’s also why it is very hard to grow anything in the sand (due to its high drainage). But I’m not sayingit’s impossible!
Discover what plants can survive this in our article on growing plants in sand!
Coco coir is classified as an inert material so it has virtually no nutrients in it necessary for plant growth. The same is true for peat moss in terms of nutrient content.
It’s no surprise that many gardeners dislike coco coir for its low nutrient content. However, this is not a disadvantage compared to peat moss, as shown in the table below.
|Major Nutrients Plants Need
Nutrition-wise coco coir is famous for being more abundant in potassium (6 times more than nitrogen). However, this is not as good as it might sound.
Coco coir is a chemical magnet that attracts calcium and magnesium very strongly. So those micronutrients may not be properly absorbed by plants, causing potassium and magnesium deficiencies.
In other words, ccoco coir can’t be used as fertilizer. Moreover, coco coir manufacturers do not specify its nutrient content (NPK) as it is not meant to be used as fertilizer.
Just to remind you. a fertilizer is a chemical that’s either organically or artificially produced to provide a high concentration of nutrients in a low volume to feed plants.
Fertilizers have a precise NPK value calculated and reported by the manufacturer and reported in the packaging or label. This is not the case for coco coir.
Coco coir can be used as a 1) potting mix component, 2) seed starting medium, 3) mulching material in hydroponic, and 4) addition to the compost pile.
Using coco coir as part of a balanced potting mix is by far the most common application for this material.
I recommend not using more than a third of the potting mix weight in coco coir as it can become a medium that easily gets soggy for a long time which could lead to root rot.
One of my favorite recipes to create good quality potting soil with coco coir is to mix 30% perlite, 30% coco coir (wet), 30% compost (by weight), and 10% worm casting.
This will provide water retention (coco coir), nutrients (casting), healthy bacteria (compost), and drainage (perlite) in which the majority of houseplants and herbs can thrive.
Coco coir is a great medium for seed starting.
As discussed in the detailed seedling start guide, a good seed starting medium should be:
- Sterile: To reduce fungi formationdespite the high moisture level and temperature required by seedlings.
- Retain water: This is important because seedlings require a consistent moist medium to emerge.
Moreover, if the medium is used only for seed starter, nutrients are not necessary as the seeds contain everything it needs to develop the first roots, stems, and pair of fake leaves.
Coco coir ticks all the boxes to be an ideal seed starter mix. I use it often to grow microgreens (chia is among my favorite).
Research also demonstrates the ability of a pure coco coir mixture to promote seed germination.
Coco coir is widely used as a hydroponic medium due to its ability to hold water.
However, despite not being an expert in hydroponic, I would use nutrients specifically designed for coco coir medium. Why?
As discussed above, the potassium content in coco coir makes it a chemical magnet for calcium. Hence, the nutrient you need to add must have an extra boost of calcium, so that there is something left to the plant.
This means that, due to the potassium presence in coco coir, the hydroponic liquid nutrient should have a higher concentration of calcium. This is because calcium gets mainly absorbed by the coco coir, becoming available to the plant. Here is a good one on Amazon.
Coco coir is compostable. Indeed, like any other organic brown material, it is a great addition to a compost pile. Many gardeners use their leftover coco coir (for instance, after using it as a seedling mix) and throw it (still wet) in the compost pile. It absorbs pockets of water that prevent oxygen exchange (essential to maintain a healthy compost and avoiding anaerobic bacteria to take over) without letting the mixture dry (as it holds it). It helps suppress odor and does not attract pests, as many other materials do.
If you use packaged coco coir, take the time to soak it in water, and, only once fully expand, you can place it in the compost pile.
What is the Coco Coir to Water Ratio?
When you buy coco coir, as discussed above, it comes in a brick form. However, coco coir cannot be used straight away in this brick form. You need to water it. How much? Well, given that it absorbs around 8 times its volume in water, you need an 8:1 water to coco coir ratio.
How to Water the Coco Coir Brick?
Place the brick inside a large bucket. Pour a large amount of water (but way less than 8 times the volume of your brick) on top of the brick and let it sit until the water is absorbed. When you see that all the water is gone, but the brick looks still kind of compact and half dry, flush some more water again. Repeat until you have a fluffy and broken-down medium.
That’s what I do, so you avoid overwatering the coco coir as it might get difficult to get the excess water out if you pour a massive amount from the beginning.
Trick: after the first watering tries to break down the brick with your hand or a tool. This will accelerate the absorption of water. For more, check the video below (starting from minute 3 as the guy talks a lot).
Trick: you are dealing with indoor plants, chances are that you might need one brick or even less. In this case, do not soak the whole brick. Take a good knife (a bread knife is ideal) and chop away the part of the coco coir you are not going to use. This will avoid wasting.
Coco fiber is the fiber that makes most of the coconut husk from which, by mechanical action, the coco pith, peat, or coir is extracted.
Such terminology is widely used in gardening, and to be honest, I was quite confused for a while. Here then the difference;
The pith, peat, and coir of coconut refer to the same thing, however, their usage varies across the world.
All three terms point to the dusty inner part of the coconut husk obtained by rubbing the husk fibers.
Coco coir is a term widely used in the USA, while coco peat is more common in other areas of the world such as India. Coco pith is a more specific name for it.
Coco coir is reusable in the garden. Oftentimes, especially if relatively new, no other process is required for home gardeners to be able to safely reuse it for cultivating plants in various stages of development.
If the coco coir is old (a few months to a year) and got totally dry, you just need to place it on a rinse with large holes if possible, and then you water it (tap water is fine). The rinse is a good idea to let the coco coir dust (coming from the breaking down of the larger fiber) flow away. Once, the water coming out from the rinse is decently clean, just place the coco coir in a buck and repeat until all your old coco is clean. If possible, also remove any large branches that might still be there.
This process is not necessary if you just used your coco for microgreens, and, after a week or so, you want to use it again for a new batch of microgreens. Just water it again, remove some small chunks of plants that might be left and repeat.
Another, even easier way to deal with coco coir, as discussed above, is to throw it in the compost pile as it does improve the composting process, especially if the compost pile has an excess of water.
Can You Use Coco Coir Instead of Soil?
Coco peat should not be used to completely replace soil to grow plants such as herbs and vegetables because of its low nutrient content and high water-retaining capability.
Indeed, if not for a few exceptions, coco coir cannot naturally provide the number of nitrogen that plants need to thrive. It can get too soggy if not watered with extreme care and, over time, it will decay.
Although I do not recommend growing a plant entirely in coco peat, especially if you are a beginner, it is still possible to do so. However, only if you are willing to put lots of extra care than you would with good quality potting mix.
To grow a plant entirely in coco coir, you need to compensate for what is missing in a good and balanced potting mix, mainly nutrients, and drainage.
Hence, you might have 1) to provide fertilizer regularly and 2) add a second growing medium—such as perlite, another inert and almost zero-nutrient material—to increase drainage to avoid root rot.
However, even if you follow the above instructions, your plant growth will be stunted, developing fewer smaller leaves that are mostly yellow.
Does coco coir decompose?
Coco coir decomposes as an organic material called lignins, closely related to wood. However, it is worth noting that due to its high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and cellulose content, it tends to degrade very slowly.
Can you find fungus gnats in coco coir?
Fungus gnats can develop in coco coir as well. Many gardeners experienced such problems, especially using coco coir as a starter mix where temperature and moisture need to be kept high. For more information, check the guide on how to remove fungus gnats.
Both loose and compacted coco coir are made by processing the internal hairy layer of coconut husks. Manufacturers generally extract, soak, clean, dry, ship, and compression inner husks to produce the final product, which is generally coco coir bricks in the West.
As growing medium component, coco coir has gained massive popularity as a better alternative for peat moss materials. It’s also recognized for being more environmentally friendly to use. In terms of transport, price, pH, antifungal properties, and flexibility in use, coco coir is also seen as more beneficial.
However, coco coir is not a perfect product. Using it comes with disadvantages such as having little to no nutrient content that is essential for good plant growth, except for potassium. This can be a problem for the absorption of calcium. Hence, a liquid solution designed for coco coir should be chosen for hydroponics.
- “Coir fiber process and opportunities – 2” by Akhila Rajan and Tanya Abraham in ResearchGate
- “Coco Coir/Fiber Production” by n/a in Philippine Coconut Authority, Department of Agriculture
- “Coir Fibre Processing” by n/a in Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- “In Vitro Suppression of Soilborne Plant Pathogens by Coir” by Naveen Hyder, James J. Sims, and Stephen N. Wegulo in ResearchGate
- “Description And Uses Of Peat Moss” by R. S. Farnham in NC Cooperative Extension Horticulture Document Library
- “An alternative artificial soil ingredient for the earthworm toxicity testing” by R Shanmugasundaram, Jeyalakshmi Thothathiri, Sweatha S Mohan, and Saravanan M. in ResearchGate
- “Coconut coir as a potting media for organic lettuce transplant production” by Giuseppe Colla, Youssef Rouphael, G. Possanzini, and Mariateresa Cardarelli in ResearchGate
- “A clinical and radiographic study of coir workers” by C. G. Uragoda in the National Library of Medicine
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