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Review Article

Soilless Media Culture-A Propitious Auxiliary for Crop Production

Amjad Farhan Ashraf Farhan, Abd. Jamil Zakaria, Prof Nashriyah Mat and Khamsah Suryati Mohd

Soil-based cultivation is presently confronting dire challenges to the lack of land availability, massive escalation rate of industrialization and intense urbanization. Land-related agriculture is at stake due to irrepressible climate vicissitudes, relentless soil degradation, unbefitting management practices and other adversative effects. The settings are further exacerbated by the increment in population with respect to diminutive land availability to cultivate. Hence, soilless media culture would make ways as an auspicious auxiliary in current pressing scenario. Proper management practices and technological advancements can utterly exploit the soilless substrates effectively and efficiently. Optimization of yield pertaining to incorporation of soilless media can also result in superior quality and growth performance in relevance to less agricultural inputs being consumed.

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Amjad Farhan Ashraf Farhan, Abd. Jamil Zakaria, Prof Nashriyah Mat and Khamsah Suryati Mohd, 2018. Soilless Media Culture-A Propitious Auxiliary for Crop Production. Asian Journal of Crop Science, 10: 1-9.

DOI: 10.3923/ajcs.2018.1.9

Received: October 04, 2017; Accepted: December 01, 2017; Published: December 15, 2017

Copyright: © 2018. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the creative commons attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


Soil formation was influenced from different kinds of parent materials, time, biotic factors, topography and climate in which soil would be made up of approximately 40-50% of minerals, 0-10% of organic matter content, flora and fauna, macroscopic and microscopic organism as well as around 50% of pore space mainly from air and water1. Inside the soil, there are massive colonies of phylogenetic groups of bacteria in a universally scattered manner and somehow ample in existence2. It was comprised of organic matter content, mineral matter, some pore space, water, air, life forms as well as vast presence of micro-organism and macro-organism3. Soil is also the typically most profound growing media being conventionally exploited as planting medium for plants4. Horizons in soil are also presented to segregate the minerals and organic constituents as well as the disparate parent materials in morphology, depth, physical, chemical and biological characteristics5. Other than that, animals and plants are directly or indirectly highly dependent on soil for nutrients and support6. Taxonomically, soil is also renowned to be assortment of natural bodies of the earth’s superficial, whether amended by man or earthly materials, encompassing living matter and supporting plant progression7. The dynamic relationship it possesses would make it central for plant to thrive amicably within its surrounding environment. Healthy soil with sufficient organic matter content, humic acids, humin and fulvic acids can prearrange decent condition to sustain growing plants with advanced yield and superior growth8. It was also made up of around 40-80% of sand, silt and clay which the diverse presence of these components with different extents could result in dissimilar characteristics and textures9. The settings are further exacerbated by the increment in population with respect to diminutive land availability to cultivate. Hence the objective of study was that soilless media culture would make ways as an auspicious auxiliary.

Soil degradation and compaction: Intensive and unrestrained exploitation of soil had been a foremost problem to the proliferation of plants and its environment10. Disturbed lands had been found to inhibit soil microbial functional diversity such as lower metabolic diversity and carbon-mineralization in comparison to undisturbed lands11. Naturally, soils are resilient yet it can be inclined to relentless deterioration through soil formation and unfitting cultural practices12. Degradation of soil can lead to mechanical resistance via its soil matrix to the root in which it can obstruct its progress especially when the root pressure was overwhelmed in a way that it could lead to a decline in root length and root elongation rate13. Other than that, the occurrence of compaction can breed undesirable outcomes such as reduced crop yields, deprived state of plant growth, constrained plant root growth and lesser nutrient uptake14,15. This is why careful forecasting and administration of soil were obligatory in order to avert the possibility of reduced yield and productivity mainly instigated through soil compaction16. Physical properties of soil could also be altered by means of compaction in which it would consequence to the change of soil porosity, soil textures and water holding capacity17-20.

Prominent challenges and confrontational effects in soil management had arisen due to modernization of civilization, which direct to diminishing scale of land availability for cultivation, apart from rapid industrialization and colossal urbanization projects worldwide4. The effects are going to get worse as soil was also prone to degeneration in its quality particularly under climatic circumstances and irrepressible manner of conventional farming in which it could further interrupt plant growth performance21-23. Although, it was assumed to be a rather intricate interaction, there was actually a threshold of soil bulk density in which it could resist root penetration to the point that it could be utterly immobilized24. Penetration resistance given by the soil would surely impact root zone and water movement mainly during primary growth25. There are few primary soil physical properties that could affect the blossoming of plants which would include heat capacity, soil strength, water holding capacity, soil texture, hydraulic conductivity and soil structure26. This can be further seen through its texture that could somehow define the bulkiness, pore size and mechanical resistance that the soil could offer27. The mechanical resistance from the soil was also found out to be highly interrelated to the root elongation and crop yield28. The hydrostatic pressure (turgor) of the seedlings must also be ensured to be appropriate in order to overwhelm internal restraints imposed by the surrounding media29. Several studies had also indicated detrimental outcomes due to soil compaction pertaining to the growth of plants30-32. Unhealthy and unreserved practices of utilizing available land may lead to infertile and less productive land such as highly degraded soil and BRIS soil. These soils have high temperature and dry condition contributed to its excessively low water holding capacity and low organic matter content which would make it suitable only to few crops and has higher overall costs for cultivation33,34. Hence, the application of soilless media culture in crop cultivation would greatly benefit the farmers and consumers alike as well as providing an alternative to the usage of problematic soils and its additional cost of inputs.

Soilless media: Soilless media can be in the form of substrates originated from peat moss, bark, coir, compost, rice hulls, vermiculite and perlite35. This soilless culture is a mainstream practice in developing countries as normal ground soils are typically discontented in usage for crop production12. Hence, the rudimentary characteristics of good soilless media would be easy to acquire, economical, abundant in nature, light weight, possess upright chemical properties and has a satisfactory water retention capabilities36. The quality of the growing media must also be greatly maintained to ensure good growth of seedlings37. This was because sustainable production of ornamental flower and other crops would need to compensate decent growing media with sufficient water holding capacity and aeration38,39. The most common incorporated soilless media are coir-dust based substrates and sphagnum peat in which it is among the most preferred and commercialized primary media40. This was because it is occasionally acknowledged as substrates or growth media with the most prominent crop production mechanisms for containerized or raised beds with restricted volumes and was appropriate for continuous supply of nutrients through fertilization41-43. Plants cultivated in soilless culture naturally tend to have smaller root-system volume than those in soil culture yet the root density of soilless grown plants was more complex44. This technique of cultivation has also no need to adhere itself to traditional technique of using soil in crop production which may cut some of the input costs45. Current trends of growing seedlings, plant proliferation and production of ornamental plants are also immensely dependent on soilless substrates especially in containerized planting as it would ensure overall good plant proliferation and growth performance46-48.

Coir dust: Coir dust also acknowledged as cocopeat, is customarily extracted from coconut husk in the form of fiber as an agricultural by-product49. This coir dust was usually made into potting mix, yet careful attention was required to ensure the porosity of media was not compromised due to deprived state of aeration as well as lower metabolic energy required for seed germination12,50. This is because the interrelation in between air and water within the context of media porosity was very precarious to plant growth51,52. On the other hand, optimum water retention is compulsory as water discrepancy would momentously inflicts substantial reductions in crop yield as it was greatly inclined to the abridged leaf carbon fixation and general growth inhibition53.

Coconut coir dust has also adequate physical and chemical properties, making it an apt soilless media for growing plants54. Coir products usually obligate to extraordinary K contents yet low in calcium, hence it necessitates incorporation of calcium in order to improve the media55. It was also further elaborated that coir-based products has pH value of approximately six, making liming practices a bit improper due to the probabilities of pH exceeding optimum level yet gypsum might be a salvation to both lack of calcium and sulfur. It was also stated that this byproduct of coconut industry would also embrace prodigious significance as an alternative to peat moss pertaining to soilless media application56. However, coconut coir is also known to express complications regarding its high salinity yet its mixtures are noteworthy as an environment friendly substitute for peat substances in containerized planting57,58.

Diverse coir dust origins would also obligate significantly unalike physical and chemical properties59. However, this growing media was promising as a replacement for the diminishing scale of sphagnum peat60. Both coir and peat based substrate would have different water retention especially if it was mingled with other media yet coir dust is acknowledged as a prominent growing media with relation to decent pH, electrical conductivity and other chemical characteristics making it being incorporated widely in crop cultivation48,61-63. Its good characteristics would somehow contribute to a greater employment of cocopeat especially in growing crops with satisfactory value in the tropics64,65.

Burnt rice husk: Biochar has a remarkable potential to act as a substitute for the incorporation of manure and compost as it could preserve the carbon’s stability inside the soil66. It had also been found that there was a microbial immobilization in biochar which may contribute in retaining nitrogen inside soil from being leached67. This may be due to the higher availability of carbon that had led to the stimulation of microbial activity which resulted in greater nitrogen demand, higher immobilization rate and the recycling of NO3. The example can be seen from the incorporated charcoal which was done by the natives in Amazonia which had facilitated to the formation of a rich dark soil called Terra Preta or Dark Earth68. In several researches, it was found that nitrogen content inside the charcoal was determined at 0.67 and 1.09%, respectively69. The persistency of the charcoal had also contributed to the stability of the Terra Preta in which the land can still be intensively cultivated until now due to its high fertility. The application of fly ash and rice husk ash had also elevated the soil properties via plummeting the soil bulk density, enriched organic carbon content, nutrients, soil pH as well as rice yield70.

Additionally, it was found that the cation exchange capacity (CEC) can be further improved by 50% by the incorporation of charcoal71. Other than that, it had also been demonstrated that rice husk and rice husk ash had the capabilities in eradicating heavy metals72. Biochar incorporation as soil amendment is utterly favorable in diminishing the bulk density, soil strength, exchangeable Al and soluble Fe, escalating the soil water content, porosity, soil pH, cation exchange capacity (CEC) as well as exchangeable K and Ca73. Rice husks were considered as one of the agricultural waste products in which its existence was somehow abundant in the tropical countries comprising of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia74. In fact, the existence of Terra Preta had proven that even the unfertile soil could also be converted into fertile soil with the aid of the charcoal75. Hence, it is wise to fully utilize the abundance availability of rice husk charcoal as it is also a by-product that exists in enormous extents that could lead to environmental pollution76.

Peat moss: In recent decades, peat substrates had accomplished itself as the foremost components with well-known characteristics of retaining water in greater capacity than most of other soilless potting media77,78. This naturally existing and organic soil conditioner can also regulate air and moisture for area neighboring the plant roots, making it a superlative and prized constituents for both horticulture and floriculture industry79. Soil amendments and top dressing from peat was also a common practice in gardens and nurseries, particularly contributed by its characteristics to embrace water like a sponge and deliberately emancipating it to the environment when the adjoining soil dries80.

Sphagnum peat moss had remained a typical growing media for many years, hence there was some expressed distress on this non-renewable resource56,81. Peat moss is the most mainstream constituent in nursery and greenhouse mixes for containerized planting media whereby it was usually incorporated to amplify water retention and plummeting the media total weight82,83. In the environments, materialization and buildup of carbon-rich peat deposits can be perceived up to ten meters thick due to its net primary production that exceeded decomposition84. Upright characteristics of peat moss such as low bulk density, structural stability, low pH, little nutrient and nitrogen immobilization as well as structural stability had given it special attention as apposite horticultural growing medium85. However, care should be taken in its over-utilization as peat mosses are very indispensable to the ecosystems where they usually thrive particularly at wetlands.

Sand: Sand is one of the mainstream soilless media incorporated in agriculture despite its infertility and incompatibility for cultivation86. It was usually mixed with different kinds of soil and media to a befitting ratio whereby it could offer decent quality of growing media without the need to compromise drainage as well as water and nutrient retention capabilities87. Gas diffusion, water retention and air within pore space are reliant on particle size and pores of the media52,88. The colonization of G. intraradices and infectious propagules was also found to be 40-50% higher in sand than those plants grown in other media89. Other than that, majority of standard mixed medium would feature fine sand or concrete sand with sphagnum peat or coconut coir to uplift its properties90. Sand is also particularly convenient for plants that necessitate growing media with loose soil and dry environment due to its competencies in not retaining much moisture as well as alleviating the porosity of planting medium4,91. It was usually emanates in the form of silica which is the heaviest material for growth media, inert, incompressible and assuring less exchange capacity and water retention92. It was also found that sandy soil also had the greatest pH and lowest exchangeable acidity and Al among other type of soils93.

Perlite: Perlite is typically combined with other soilless media in order to attain promising results in crop germination94. This gleaming-like volcanic rock will expand itself under rapid controlled heating in which it would retain its lightweight aggregation, low bulk density, chemically inert in many environment, exceptional as filter aids and fillers for numerous as well as expansive in its used mainly in plant cultivation95,96. In terms of input costs, perlite is also cheaper than the rockwool and has been incorporated around the world for agricultural productions97. The comparisons in between rockwool and perlite pertaining to the cultivation of soilless melon (Cucumismelo reticulatus) had also been found to be indifferent98. Other than that, perlite is widely known originated from mined mineral that was crushed and then expanded under high temperature99. It was also able to simulate decent properties similar to rockwool especially in tomato (Lypersicon esculentum) cultivation100.

Additionally, this siliceous material has closed-cell structure so that water would only adhere to its surface, without absorbing it making perlite well drained and lightweight101. It also encompasses decent porosity due to its foam-like cellular structure, good thermal capabilities, low density and quite cheap in its production cost102. This soilless media had also demonstrated itself to be superior to polystyrene bead as an additive in growing media due to its elevated moisture retention capabilities103,6. The presence of water in perlite will be released gradually at relatively low tension, which would make it to possess good drainage and aeration at the rhizosphere104. The incorporation of perlite is rather a mainstream practice in nursery propagation and greenhouse growing media83. It was also established that the practice of coarse-grade perlite and pine bark in the production of beit alpha cucumber had shown to lead to a greater degree of leachate in comparison to the medium-grade perlite105.

Vermiculite: Vermiculite is preferable due to its low moisture retention yet it could still uphold greater amount of water than perlite which can lead to the optimization of plant germination106. It was found that vermiculite had slightly better effective cation exchange capacity (ECEC) and exchangeable calcium than peat107. Vermiculite is typically neutral in pH, possess decent water holding capacity as well as containing little amounts of magnesium and potassium101. This soilless media was also known to be porous due to its foam-like cellular structure, with decent characteristics such as upright thermal stability, low moisture retention, low density and relatively cheap in cost102. The heating process had contributed to its sterilization, nimble in weight, decent buffering capacities, good water retention as well as having relatively good cation exchange capacity108. Vermiculite is quite related to perlite from the point that both originate as mined minerals that were heated to a finished product, yet perlite was incorporated to increase drainage whereas vermiculite was used to retain water and positive-charged nutrients such as potassium, calcium and magnesium83.


Crop production by means of soilless culture is promptly successfully in both momentum and acceptance in agricultural sectors. The amassed popularity and positive trends across the globe can be especially grasped in commercial crop productions contributed from the dearth of arable land and population increment. Demand on horticultural products is certainly on a rise and the technology of exploiting soilless substrate and its management practices is currently being refined to its fullest extent. Conversely, the bottleneck to proper practice and culture is being thwarted by the lack of knowledge and awareness of public pertaining to soilless crop production. Access to state-of-the-art technology and precision farming is still rather reserved for developing countries and the startup expenditure would somehow be enormous and extravagant. Hence, appropriate employment of soilless media in agriculture is mandatory specifically to its availability, suitability and expenditure in order to make it efficacious and feasible.


This study addressed the issues of current diminishing trends of available soil fits for cultivation. Thus, this study will aid in determining the benefits and suitability of soilless media culture as an alternative to soil-based cultivation.

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