Monday, July 8, 2013

Horticultural Vermiculite: For iris gardens from clay to sandy soil

It's almost time to dig and divide your irises... so now is the perfect time to take a look at soil amendments for better plant health. One of my favorite amendments is horticultural vermiculite. My southern bearded iris garden would not be possible without it, but even my moisture-loving Louisiana irises are happiest when this beneficial amendment is included in the soil blend. No matter what your climate or soil type, the addition of horticultural vermiculite can have a positive effect in your garden. 

'Flying Down to Rio' (Moores 2005) planted in vermiculite-amended soil

Vermiculite is a naturally-occurring geological material, more specifically a group of aluminum-iron magnesium silicates that closely resemble mica. When processed for horticultural use, vermiculite is introduced to intense heat, causing it to expand into multiple layers of very thin plates. The end result is accordion-shaped granules of sterile, disease-free planting medium. Vermiculite has been used by nurserymen and gardeners for decades, in potting soils and outdoor mixes, in turfgrass and outdoor plantings, for 100% vermiculite growing applications, and for hydroponic growing. Horticultural vermiculite improves soil aeration, assists in temperature regulation, and retains moisture and nutrients necessary to feed rhizome roots for superior growth.

Close view of coarse-grade horticultural vermiculite

Consider the following reasons for using horticultural vermiculite in your iris garden:
  • Soils amended with horticultural vermiculite are better able to retain air, nutrients, and moisture, and release them to the plant as needed. Therefore, a planting medium mixed with vermiculite promotes faster root growth for quick anchorage of newly planted rhizomes.
  • Because vermiculite has cation exchange properties, it holds ammonium, potassium, calcium and magnesium and makes these trace minerals available to the roots as needed.
  • Horticultural vermiculite is a perfect growing culture for irises. The pH of vermiculite is neutral to slightly alkaline (7.0-8.0). It will not deteriorate quickly like most planting materials, and it will not turn moldy or promote rot.

Coarse grade vermiculite is preferred for outdoor horticultural uses, though medium grade may also be used. With heavy soil, the addition of vermiculite creates much-needed air channels to greatly improve soil aeration. When soil is sandy, the addition of vermiculite helps the soil retain much-needed moisture. Soils may be amended up to a rate of two parts soil to one part vermiculite.

With a large garden area, you may choose to condition only the planting rows. If this procedure is continued for three to four digging cycles, the entire garden area will eventually be conditioned. Because horticultural vermiculite is inorganic, it will continue to function for many years.

Medium grade vermiculite is preferred for potting applications. When used in potting new rhizomes, vermiculite improves soil aeration and diminishes the risk of tender roots breaking as the irises are transferred to the garden. If starting with commercial potting soil, check the label before adding vermiculite, as it may already be present. If making your own potting mix, vermiculite may be added up to a ratio of one part compost material or soil to one part vermiculite.

Planting mix of two parts soil and one part horticultural vermiculite

If you live in an area that has little to no summer wind, you can use vermiculite to mulch around the rhizomes in the hottest summer months. Vermiculite acts as a constant reservoir of moisture without promoting rhizome rot, protecting your irises from dehydration and scorching during dry spells. This can be especially helpful immediately after digging time, when replanted rhizomes are settling in. After the intense heat passes and winds return, you can remove the vermiculite mulch and save it for use in potting or amending the following year. Or, you can mix it into the soil in other areas of your garden. Used as a mulch, vermiculite may be applied up to 3 inches thick.

After your irises begin blooming, you will want to bring some of those lovely blooms inside to enjoy. Fill a vase with vermiculite, saturate with tap water, and allow the vase to sit for a few minutes. Repeat this process until the vermiculite is no longer absorbing and water is visible on top. Then, pour off the excess water. Arrange your flowers as you would normally. Your flowers will remain fresh for many days without refilling, and the stems won't develop that unattractive slime that normally occurs when a stem sits in water. When placing flowers in vermiculite, be sure to cut the stems at a slight angle to facilitate wicking.

Flowers being arranged in a vase filled with water-saturated horticultural vermiculite

Vermiculite can also be used at digging time. After you have provided a bleach bath for your newly dug rhizomes, allow them to air dry in the sun. Be careful not to let them bake; the idea is to let the exterior dry without dehydrating the interior. After the rhizomes are fully dry, place them in a storage container and pour vermiculite around them. The vermiculite will prevent moisture fluctuation during the storage period and will provide protection against temperature changes. Though iris rhizomes should never be stored long-term like a bulb, use of vermiculite allows your rhizomes to stay fresh many days longer before replanting. An exact length of time cannot be predicted here, as the timing is dependent on the hydration level of the rhizome (internally) prior to placement in the vermiculite. Vermiculite can also be used when shipping rhizomes to friends.

Rhizomes being placed into a shipping box filled with horticultural vermiculite

In the past, you may have heard about a link between vermiculite and trace amounts of asbestos. For almost seventy years, vermiculite was used safely and effectively for many purposes, including construction and industrial applications. Then, in 1990, asbestos particles were discovered in vermiculite originating from a mine in Libby, Montana. This mine was primarily used to produce vermiculite for industrial, not horticultural, applications, under the tradename Zonolite. The discovery brought worldwide production of vermiculite to a screeching halt as scientists and regulators worked to determine if any other mines were contaminated. Since that time, strict inspection and safety procedures have been put in place. Though a warning label may still appear on the bag due to past Libby-related incidents, vermiculite is not listed on the OSHA List of Hazardous and Toxic Substances. Gardeners can feel confident that the horticultural vermiculite found in stores today is non-toxic and safe for use in their garden. Just remember, it is wise to use caution when working with dusty garden amendments of any type, including use of a dust mask and watering the garden area prior to application. 

What amendments have been useful in your garden? Post your comments below!

Learn more about horticultural vermiculite with these resources:
Material Safety Data Sheet for Vermiculite, SunGro Horticulture, issued March 1, 2008. This publication details the chemical and physical properties of vermiculite, verifies that vermiculite is not considered a hazardous or  toxic substance by OSHA, and provides useful supplemental information.
EPA Sampling and Analysis of Consumer Garden Products That Contain Vermiculite, August 2000. This report details the results of the first large-scale study of consumer garden products that contained vermiculite. Since the publication of this report, significant advances have been made in the processing and inspection of horticultural vermiculite sold to consumers.


  1. With all the rain in Iowa plus my vary composted soil, I've been having problems with rotting. Will adding vermiculite help? I've used sand mix to raise up them up but worry about compacting the roots too much.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Mindy, YES, adding vermiculite will help immensely. The vermiculite will improve the aeration of the soil, which will help excess moisture travel away from your rhizomes. The vermiculite will not cause your rhizomes to dry out, but instead will hold that moisture and trace minerals in the soil, available for when the roots need them. In my experience, using sand under the rhizome makes the roots work harder to find nutrients. The sand can also harden over time (i.e, bricks in Egypt...!), creating an inhospitable environment for your plants. The vermiculite will also provide much better insulation for your plants during winter, so you should experience less heaving.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Apologies about the deleted comments. I'm new to this blogging thing! I accidentally posted the reply as a "comment" and wanted to change it to a "reply"... Then I tried to fix a typo. Apparently, blogspot automatically created a removal message for both of those activities! Oops! =)

    1. You can go in and delete your comment entirely, check it out!!

    2. Actually, I did, but automatically inserts "This comment has been removed by the author." I can't find a way to omit that.

  4. dear sir,
    I need horiticulturl vermiculite making know-how can you provide.

  5. Keep up the good work , I read few posts on this web site and I conceive that your blog is very interesting and has sets of fantastic information If you are also Know for amended soil mix related to this then visit my website.


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