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Soilless Substrates Grow Plants and Global Influence

substrates laboratory

There is an unprecedented growing global demand for soilless substrates in horticulture due to the increased production of ornamental, vegetable, soft fruit and Cannabis crops in soilless growing systems. 

While many may be familiar with hydroponic and aquaponic systems, most crops in soilless growing systems require materials (substrates) to be produced. Traditionally Sphagnum peat moss, aged pine bark, coconut coir, perlite, rockwool—among many other components — have been used predominantly to grow crops in container systems. The interest and demand for alternative and novel substrates have paved the way for wood substrate components to become more than a trend. 

With few soilless substrate scientists in North America, Brian Jackson’s horticultural science substrates program plays a vital role in the research, development and engineering of traditional and novel materials that will be used in the formulation of substrates for the future of horticultural crop production. With his academic and industry colleagues, they are addressing the current and future challenges of the growing media industry. 

Brian Jackson, Professor in the Department of Horticultural Science, standing in front of the NC State University entrance.

Several factors are contributing to the acceptance and industry growth in the use of new soilless substrates, particularly engineered wood fiber. These factors include:

  • Public and consumer demand for “local and organic” products which include soilless substrates, 
  • The occasional wet summer in Canada which creates peat shortages due to decreased peat harvesting, 
  • An economical benefit of using wood fiber compared to other materials 
  • A decade-plus of intense research on the use of wood substrates in cropping systems
  • Broad grower acceptance of wood as a perlite replacement;
  • Numerous reports of advantageous root growth and shorted production times for many crops 
  • Eager and proactive substrate manufacturer marketing, promotion, and education about the use of wood fiber materials. 

The full potential of using these materials in our current and future cropping systems has yet to be fully understood.

Would you give an explanation of your soilless substrates research? Do you research other substrates?

I was trained in both of my graduate degrees (MS in 2005 from Auburn University and Ph.D. in 2008 from Virginia Tech) in soilless substrates and their role in growing horticultural crops in various soilless growing systems. My Ph.D. work focused on the “idea” of processing freshly harvested pine trees into materials suitable for use as components in soilless substrates. The focus of my research program here at NC State has been in this area. 

Unlike any other “alternative or new” organic substrate material to our traditional peat, bark and coconut products, wood is now viewed globally as THE most important raw material resource that has the potential, economics, distribution and sustainability to help extend, build and sustain the demands for increased volumes of soilless substrates that will be needed in the future. The global demand for soilless substrates is projected to increase nearly 400% by the year 2050, and wood is the primary material aimed to support that demand. It is my goal for the NC State horticultural substrates laboratory to be a global leader in the development, commercialization and utilization of these engineered wood materials.  

While focusing on the engineering of wood and bark materials, I have also done a lot of collaborative work on other traditional (peat, bark, compost, coconut, perlite, rock/stone wools, etc.) and alternative materials such as agronomic biomass’, bamboos and grasses, palm oil fiber, dairy digestates, anaerobically digested materials and their suitability for use in container substrates. 

How has your program developed internationally?

Beginning with my first international conference as a graduate student in 2007, I have always tried to engage with the global community in any and every way I could. My desire to interact with others around the world has been based on my belief that others can teach me a lot and other cultures, peoples and traditions can provide ideas and inspirations that cannot be found here at home. 

I have prioritized global engagement as one of the key pillars in my research and teaching programs since 2009. My area of research and specific areas of expertise are also in high demand and interest, so the opportunities to expand my reach and influence across the globe have been heavily influenced by this demand, not to mention that there are not a lot of soilless substrate scientist’s around! Some of the programmatic activities have included leading student trips and study-abroad opportunities, traveling with graduate students to attend research meetings, visiting academic colleagues around the world to study and learn in their labs, participation in numerous International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS) symposia and congress’ and professional consulting opportunities with growing media (substrate) companies. In 2017, I took a six-month scholarly leave and devoted this time to traveling all over the world to teach, learn, investigate and experience as much as I could relating to my research and teaching program. Since 2010, I have visited 57 countries on six continents. 

What benefits are there between international collaborators and NC State stakeholders?

The world knows NC State, particularly the plant science arenas of the world. I have found that not only are international stakeholders happy to work with us, but they also give us so much in the way of ideas, opportunities, information sharing, resource allocation and funding potential. I truly feel that my local, regional and national stakeholders (growing media manufacturers, greenhouse and nursery crop growers, vegetable and fruit growers, etc.) benefit immensely from what we are able to share with them about what others are doing, seeing, experiencing and researching in other parts of the world.  Similarly, others around the world learn so much from what we do and how we do it. The Plant Sciences Initiative (PSI) will further enhance the value and scope of international collaborations that will undoubtedly serve us well here at home, while also improving the livelihoods of people around the world. 

What is next for your program’s international endeavors?

I am currently engaged in several international collaborative projects and initiatives on various aspects of soilless culture. Partnerships with colleagues in Canada and Mexico, throughout Europe and one in New Zealand. I do travel a lot to various substrate manufacturers as we work together to solve problems and create new products, solutions and opportunities to meet the ever-increasing demand for soilless substrates and soilless cultivation around the globe. One of the other major potential projects on the horizon that is being discussed is to collaboratively host a North American Growing Media Summit, a forum comprised of substrate manufacturers and researchers with the goal being to further build relationships and consolidate ideas and resources to collectively approach the grand challenges that our industry and plant producers will face in the coming decades. This will be in partnership with the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association. 

Any suggestions for others looking to establish international collaborations?

There are expectations that we, as university faculty, build our teaching, research, and extension programs to include some aspect of international activity, collaboration and presence. Most faculty,in my opinion, already have the interest and desire to reach across our borders and engage the international community. Fortunately, horticulture is a discipline that easily affords many opportunities to connect in some way with others in various parts of the world. One way to do this is to build your professional brand so that it encompasses international activities and opportunities. LinkedIn is a great way to build global connections and share with the world what we are doing here at NC State. Another great platform is to actively participate in one or several of the working groups of the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS). I first attended ISHS in 2007 and have been heavily engaged in this society ever since. 

Would you tell us about the classes you teach?

My appointment is 85% teaching and15% research With that, I teach 4-5 courses each year. Three of those classes are ornamental plant identification courses, two in the four-year bachelors program (HS 303 & 304) and one in the two-year Associate’s degree (Ag Institute) program (HS 111). These three courses teach students the fundamentals and processes of learning to identify plants, emphasize the importance and value of ornamental landscape plants, and focus on the proper selection, function and use of ornamental plants in a landscape environment. 

The fourth course I teach is HS 201:World of Horticulture, a course that is primarily taken by non-science majors across campus as a science elective. This is a survey course that encompasses the breadth and depth of Horticultural Science and the value, role and necessity of plants in the daily lives of all people. 

See yourself as a horticulture soilless substrate scientist

Learn about our graduate programs and begin your future with food or plant production, working with soilless substrates, making a local and global impact,