Stuck in the 1950s

Today I’m going to throw up a post that’s a little link-heavy, but I encourage you to follow these links because they show how prevalent the technology is that I discuss.  And a trip to the garden center will quickly show how infrequently this technology is used.

It’s frustrating.

Why the heck do we still buy plants grown in containers using 1950s technology?  I was reading Bert’s post this week about how to treat container grown trees before planting and also considering a somewhat similar experiment which I conducted about a year ago (stats are in and support my points in that article), and I couldn’t help asking, why do we put ourselves through it? 

The technology is out there for us to produce great root systems by using new types of pots that have become available over the last few years. Look up High Caliper Growing System, Rootmakers (which also includes RootTrappers — we’ve been using these for years), Smart Pots, Superoots, — and there are other systems out there too – all of these systems greatly reduce circling roots and are relatively easy to use.

Do we ask for record players or black and white TVs when we go to the electronics store?  No!  We want MP3 players and big flat screens.  So why are we content with plants grown in containers that come straight from 1954 in our garden centers? 

If we would just start to demand that garden centers and nurseries provide container grown plants with better root systems we’d get them – because they are out there.  But we need to be proactive or we’ll be stuck in the past forever.

12 thoughts on “Stuck in the 1950s”

  1. The answer is cost. They want to keep costs per pot down. I have to imagine that its hard for any of these specialized companies who charge at least 2x more than a simple black pot to compete in the retail nursery business.

  2. Many garden centers prefer plastic containers rather than soft sided tree containers that are less attractive than stiffer plastic pots. And, the pots keep trees standing straight more easily. The plastic containers are considerably less expensive, and garden centers and tree growing nurseries have not experienced significant losses of trees due to circling roots. There must be a recognizable cost benefit to effect change, in particular when advising to change to a more expensive product.

  3. I think the main hurdle is retail customer acceptance, not growers or garden centers. I trialed the fabric grow bags for a crop of #5 & 15 Ceiba speciosa – Silk Floss Tree or Kapok (Chorisia)as well as tried them for Agave and a few Opuntia (not good for Agave the pups puncture the fabric). The filling and stability issues when fresh planted aside, the real issue they just wouldn’t sell at retail, our customers didn’t want plants in the bags, it was very frustrating that they rejected them even with all the education we tried to impart why they were better plants than ones grown in plastic.

  4. Customers don’t buy roots. They want a nicely formed young tree with leaves. That’s about as far as they go. I’ve been selling fruit trees bare-
    root for a number of years, in the early spring. “Why isn’t it in a pot?” they ask. I pot them up, jack the price $20, and sell out… Sheesh. However, poor root systems are most definitely a grower problem that garden centers are (or should be) forced to acknowledge and deal with. When I sell spring container stock, I always talk to the customer about corrective root pruning – or I’ll do it myself at the point of sale. And now that the spring rush is over, we will go thru the entire nursery inventory and start shifting all pot-bound woodies. That’s a lot of work, and material cost, I’d just as soon not do, but my personal and professional ethics mandate it. It’s way past time for growers to change their growing systems to provide the consumer with a quality product instead of the junk that I have to fix.

  5. I second Brian’s comment that customers don’t buy roots.
    Sometimes people choose plants on an impulse. They see a peach tree (or lilac, or forsythia) in bloom and say “I want that!”
    My neighbors do this every single year.
    I personally think that transplanting a plant in bloom is a really bad idea because of an added stress. But who can resist?

  6. I think it comes down to a combination of factors: cost for producer, consumer acceptance, and perceived benefit. I took Arboriculture from Dr. Carl Whitcomb at Oklahoma State and he was working on alternative containers to prevent root circling 25 years ago – so this is not new. So why haven’t they caught on? Back to Jeff’s TV analogy – anyone can see the improvement from Black & White to color to HD. @% years ago 19″ color TV cost $329; today you can buy a 40″ HD for about the same price (which would be $155 in 1987 dollars). So we’re getting a much better product for less than half the price. I don’t deny that these containers can produce better roots, but the difference would have to be too dramatic to ignore if we’re to overcome the cost increase and the iniertia of changing standard nursery practices.

  7. Bert — sure — but the difference IS dramatic. The problem is just that you can’t see it. Out of sight out of mind I guess. In terms of cost — it does cost more labor (tougher to use these containers), but the containers themselves are actually pretty comparable in terms of price.

  8. Hate to come across as defender of the status quo, Jeff, but I see lots of photos and testimonials on those links but not much data that shows long-term benefit. Gilman et al (JoA 23(4): 231-236) looked at effect of various containers -including some mentioned – on caliper growth 5 years after transplanting and found no improvement over standard containers. If you look at the classic photos of circling roots from standard containers is the problem the container or that the tree was left in the container too long?

  9. Hi Bert — I’m not worried about caliper growth after 5 yrs — I’m worried about stem girdling roots after 15. And of course the problem is that the plant was left in the container too long…so, when you go to the garden center, what percent of the trees which you find were left in the container for an appropriate amount of time? Also, look at Mike Arnold and Gary McDonald’s 2006 paper — Shrub Rose Responses to production in smart pots and conventional containers using two contrasting substrates — Subtropical Plant Sciences Journal of the Rio Grande Vally Horticultural Society vol. 58.

  10. Jeff, I would argue the lack of a demonstrable growth benefit is relevant to the extent that these containers are marketed as improving plant vigor and transplantability – which they are. I agree the larger potential benefit is reducing girdling roots in the long run, but do we have data to support this? Arnold and McDonald showed fewer circling roots after a 6 mo. production cycle. Is that enough to conclude a significant benefit 14 1/2 years later?

    I don’t have experience with all the alternative container types but know growers that have been less that satisfied with air-slit (roots still circle around the container ribs) and air-pot (difficult to extract plants up up-potting or transplanting).

    Again, it’s a hard to argue for the status quo when you know the status quo often sucks. In my mind planting too deep and leaving trees in containers too long are the bigger underlying problem. However, you are welcome to bring a PowerPoint of your 15-year root data and gloat at my retirement party.

  11. Plastic containers (pots & trays) are recycable and are used to make new pots & trays. Millions of pounds or horticultural waste is recycled each year.

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