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Scaling up: looking at a new way to plant miscanthus

The wildflowers our subscribers help to plant every year.
Our young miscanthus in early summer

People are becoming increasingly interested in growing miscanthus to make a difference. Landowners understand its biodiversity value and make good use of it as a heat source and as animal bedding. The government has had a vested interest in miscanthus as a biomass for twenty years, but with increasing pressure to address the climate crisis, and a growing movement to avoid cutting down trees, they’ve got some tough planting targets to meet and need more crops planted, quickly.

However, the current production of miscanthus from rhizomes requires a lot of space and can be limited by the weather – this year we lost a whole month of production due to a very wet spring.

In response to these needs (we pride ourselves on being customer driven), we’ve been testing and trialling a horticultural process: an artificial seed system that will create crops to be planted much more easily and quickly. The varieties of miscanthus we work with here at Carbon Trap are sterile (have no seeds). This means the plant doesn’t waste valuable energy on creating seed heads, and there is no risk of the crop becoming invasive – a turnoff for many landowners.

A rhizome planting process may require 30–50 large sites to meet demand, whereas this new seed system is likely to need ten times less space. There will be 40% less material  planted if this system takes off. 

Coming to your garden in the future?

In the future we hope to bring this seed system to households. You can start sequestering CO2 in your own garden! There’s work to be done to measure how much CO2 one plant removes from the atmosphere – we know this is also something our customers will want to know. We want to make sustainability an option for everyone.

So many of the plants people buy at garden centres die because they’re not watered, so we would look to create something similar to buying a pack of bulbs instead. Rather than paying £10 for one plant, you could buy 10 seed capsules for £10, for instance. It’s more affordable and the plants will be more likely to survive – you know we hate waste at Carbon Trap.

Summer at Carbon Trap

Unlike many other crops at this time of year, miscanthus is not reliant on chemical spraying to grow. Though it’s possible to grow the plant organically (without any chemical input), we choose to spray our plants in their first year only. This is to deter the weeds and give the crop the best chance of survival. Thereafter, the plants produce leaf litter to prevent further weeds growing. The natural beauty of miscanthus is that it will need no more chemical input for twenty years!

So, with the harvesting and planting taken care of (read more about harvesting in our previous blog), the team can focus on speaking to our clients about their plans for next year. Farmers will be finishing their harvesting and thinking about next year’s planting. We like to get orders in by December so we can prepare the harvesting and planting for 2024.

We’re seeing a year-on-year increase in miscanthus sales amongst farmers. People are reading the biomass policy and cottoning on to miscanthus’ myriad benefits. A seed system in response to customer needs will hopefully see another increase this year.

What else are we working on?

We’re propagating some wetland grasses in response to government targets to re-establish wetland areas as a means of carbon via underwater plants. There are currently no commercial systems in the UK to scale these up, so watch this space.

The tropical plant with a difference

Miscanthus is a cold-tolerant type of sugar cane, known as a C4 plant – plants that are usually found in tropical climates. Sugar cane doesn’t respond well to the UK’s climate and is quickly killed by frost. But miscanthus is incredibly hardy and one of the very few tropical plants that can not only survive in the UK but can also out-perform plants native to the UK such as maize. 

The secret to miscanthus’ success? A pump on the underside of its leaves that only pumps in CO2 (as opposed to other plants that also allow oxygen in). This reaction explains its super-efficiency and tolerance of our colder, wetter weather.

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