MUNSTER — Peat bogs that formed over thousands of years are being stripped away to harvest peat moss for horticulture use. Unfortunately, this practice of draining bogs has become an environmental crisis with many nations including the United Kingdom setting dates to ban peat moss.
Mont Handley, of Crown Point, and the entrepreneur who invented PittMoss ® as a soil alternative, delivered that message to the Munster Garden Club during the group’s monthly meeting recently at the Munster Public Library.
Made of recycled paper with organic additives, PittMoss ® won the attention of "Shark Tank" self-made tycoons in 2014. Handley, a veteran who graduated from Purdue University Northwest on a Veterans Administration grant, built a small factory in a Pittsburgh greenhouse to prove his concept that the product could replace peat moss.
“I had two people hand-feeding paper to produce a 50-foot bale,” Handley explained. “It needed automation.”
Handley’s appearance on TV's "Shark Tank" netted him $600,000 for a 35 percent share of his business and sent interest in PittMoss ® into the stratosphere.
“Before the broadcast, we had 13 people checking out our website. On the night of the broadcast, we had 70,000 people an hour getting on the website,” Handley told the audience.
Growing up in Crown Point, Handley said he was his grandmother’s helper in the garden.
“She laid down newspapers before planting her tomatoes,” he recalled.
“I’ve been interested in greenhouses since I was a kid. When I was 12 years old, I bought my first greenhouse. Right out of college, I had five locations of retail nurseries,” Handley said.
Moving to Pittsburgh, Handley worked in the tourism industry, but gave that up to pursue his interest in developing his alternative to peat moss.
Peat bogs supply the planet’s major source of carbon, he told garden club members. The bogs, which are highly acidic, are also wetland habitats.
Peat moss carries insect eggs, mold spores and other pathogens, Handley said, adding that indoor plants put into peat moss often are covered with flies as the eggs hatch into larvae.
The benefits of PittMoss ® include better moisture retention with plants needing to be watered every other day rather than daily. In addition, PittMoss ® is uniform with no sticks or twigs present as with peat moss. It’s a sterile product, but can pick up mold spores in retail stores, he noted.
“We are now distributing in 20 states,” said Handley, who serves on the company’s board of directors and is associate director of Purdue University Northwest’s Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center in Hammond.
PittMoss ® will be used for community edible gardens being developed at Munster Town Hall by Planting Possibilities and the Munster Garden Club, according to Brad Hemingway, of the not-for-profit organization that provides job and volunteer opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Town Manager Dustin Anderson gave his approval for Planting Possibilities to develop the two triangular raised beds in front of town hall, said Barbara Whitaker, garden club member.
Hemingway said the edible garden will include such crops as Swiss chard, Indian corn, cucumbers, cayenne peppers, squash, zucchini and basil.