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Finnish innovation makes veggie growth greener

The Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE) tested Mosswool for cucumber growing and concluded it can yield about a seven per cent larger crop per plant than stonewool. Novarbo

Air, light, nutrients and water are the typical ingredients for growing happy vegetables. Soon living moss could be part of the mix, thanks to a new sustainable and resource-saving growing media developed in Finland.

Vegetable farming conjures an image of vast fields of plum tomatoes and green cucumbers. In reality, a lot of our vegetables today are grown in greenhouses using hydroponic (soil free) farming. This often means using a stone-based material, known as stonewool, as the growing media (the industry term for plant growth materials). While good for growth, stonewool can be water-thirsty and difficult to recycle.

Now, established Finnish substrate manufacturer Novarbo (part of Biolan Group) has turned to living sphagnum moss to give farmers a more sustainable alternative, which it calls Mosswool.

“You can water our Mosswool slabs less because moss retains water very efficiently,” explains Petri Konttinen, technology expert at Novarbo. “This saves water and means fewer costs for the farmer. After use, stonewool should be taken to a recycling plant where the stones and organic material are mechanically separated. However, Mosswool can be put directly into the farmer’s own compost with other crop residues.”

Novarbo’s Mosswool slab provides an efficient and sustainable substrate for various vegetables. The slabs are made of sphagnum moss, are fully recyclable by composting and need less frequent watering than currently commonly used growing media. Image: Novarbo

Decades in the making

Mosswool hasn’t blossomed overnight. Novarbo started researching sustainable, moss-based growing media already 10 years ago, but couldn’t find an ecological method for collecting moss from bogs.

This was changed by EcoMoss, a Finnish company founded in 2013 and now also part of Biolan Group, a few years ago. Its patented technique harvests only a part of the living moss and leaves enough pores for the moss to regrow entirely within a few years.

“Sphagnum moss is a rapidly renewable raw material,” Konttinen says. “EcoMoss has built the machinery for collecting the moss and simultaneously we have developed the method for transforming it into slab form.

Now Mosswool is approaching commercial launch. Novarbo has already delivered small quantities of Mosswool to selected pilot customers and aims to have the first production plant up and running by the end of 2018.

“We already have a long queue of customers wanting to try the product,” Konttinen enthuses. “Our first aim is to bring Mosswool slabs to the market as soon as possible, so all our interested customers can move some of their crops to this new growing medium.”

Global growth

Biolan Group has the experience to follow up its ambitious expansion plans. It has developed substrates, organic fertilisers and greenhouse technology for professional farmers since the 1970s, first within the Finnish gardening and farming company Biolan Group and after 2010 also at its subsidiary Novarbo. Today Biolan Group has two factories, in Finland and Estonia, and exports 80 per cent of its products overseas to over 60 countries.

“The growing media market is rapidly expanding globally,” Konttinen says. “The main market obviously will be in Europe at the beginning, but obviously market and demand is high in the heavilly populated Asia.”

“Mosswool has been developed as sustainable alternative for vegetable cultivation,” says Novarbo’s Petri Konttinen. Image: Novarbo
By: Eeva Haaramo