We are excited to launch Mont's Corner- a blog to share insights and inspiration from Mont Handley, the inventor and founder of PittMoss. To kick-off the first blog post, we wanted to catch up with Mont and learn about the history and mission of PittMoss.
PittMoss (PM): Tell us a little bit about yourself? What got you interested in gardening and horticulture?
Mont Handley (MH): My grandmother always had a big garden. One of my earliest memories was laying out old newspaper on the soil surface around all of the tomato and pepper plants to keep the weeds down. I always liked growing plants and saved money at my first job at the family ice-cream stand and bought a greenhouse at the age of twelve.
PM: What inspired you to create PittMoss?
MH: While working at a nursery in the Chicago suburbs, I became aware of the environmental issues associated with peat moss production in wetlands. I initially had the thought that someone should come up with an alternative to the truckloads of peat moss we sold every year. Once the thought struck that I could potentially use recycled newspaper as that alternative I began my experiments in an old hand-me-down food processor. I think that machine sits on a shelf in the PittMoss board room.
Update- it still does!
PM: What do you feel is the company's most important mission?
MH: Providing the very best, sustainable growing medium that we can to commercial growers and home gardeners.
PM: Average consumers do not think much about what is in a typical bag of soil. Can you share some insight about why your gardening medium matters?
MH: There are very few products that are beneficial to the health of the planet and PittMoss is beneficial in multiple ways. It replaces a product removed from wetlands, is made from cast off resources that would end up in a landfill, allows growers and home gardeners to use less resources and water, while reducing the need for chemical controls due to it's sterile nature.
PM: PittMoss is a manufactured product, can you explain why this is a benefit to the planet and gardeners?
MH: Since peat moss is a product taken from wetlands it will contain weed seeds, mold spores and insect larva, which will need to be controlled, often times with chemicals. As a manufactured product, PittMoss is sterile and free of these pathogens so there is no need for the use of chemical agents. Also, those peatlands are drained to prepare for harvesting so the plants and animals in those habitats are displaced while the peat bog, which is a natural carbon sink, becomes a source of major carbon pollution.
PM: PittMoss is made from recycled newspapers, why did you choose this resource? Is it harmful at all? We get this question a lot so I want to address it.
MH: Newspaper is a relatively clean source of cellulose and it is not harmful. Most people are concerned about the inks, but most heavy metal inks were eliminated decades ago and replaced with soy based inks, which are safe. The earliest independent research focused on the effects of newsprint on the plant matter. After putting the plant matter through a mass spectrometer no concerns were found.
PM: What properties make PittMoss so powerful?
MH: The dynamic growth plants experience growing in PittMoss is the result of the exceptional porosity, water and nutrient holding capacity of the medium. Cellulose looks like straws or penne pasta under a microscope. Those hollow tubules act like reservoirs for those resources that the plants use as needed for extended periods, while protecting the roots from excess moisture. Too much moisture on roots can cause root rot, while too little will cause plants to wilt. PittMoss is much more forgiving than other growing media as it allows gardeners or growers a few extra hours before wilt sets in if they forget to water.
PM: One of the biggest benefits of PittMoss is it's ability to increase biological activity- can you elaborate on this?
MH: Cellulose is either like protein shakes or candy for the microbes found in the soil. It feeds their reproduction and activity, which leads to exchanges of gases and all sorts of good things happening at the roots of plants.
PM: What is the one thing that surprised you about the product?
MH: I'll admit to being surprised by a grower, who hosted one of our earliest demonstration days after we built the proof of concept plant and were able to distribute more trial PittMoss. He'd been growing a very large crop in PittMoss and reported to the other commercial growers who had been invited that they were using 50% less water in their operations. He said if his employees once watered twice a day they were only watering once a day. Even though I knew the water retention was better, it was a great surprise to hear another, independent voice, highlight that benefit of the product.
MH: I'd like to see PittMoss take a significant share of the commercial horticulture market and see a majority of landscape plants being grown in it. If one of the major big box retailers takes a stand to protect peatlands, then PittMoss is one of the few alternatives that can scale to meet that resulting need.
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