With consumers and retailers pushing a “green” initiative, there is an interest in using environmentally friendly products in plant production. Instead of plastic, some growers are now using pots manufactured with alternative materials that can be placed into the soil and will degrade over time, thus eliminating the waste of throwing the pot into the trash. Examples of degradable pots include:
- Coir pots
- Cow manure pots
- Grass pots
- Jiffy pots
- Peat pots
- Rice pots
- Straw pots
Many of these pots already have been incorporated into product lines. For example, “EasyScape” and “Circle of Life” from the Ball Horticulture Co. (www.balllandscape.com ) and the “Classic Selections” and “SausEdge” (www.sausedge.com ) programs created by Riverview Flower Farm in Florida use some types of degradable pots.
Initially, degradable pots are often looked at as just another item that needs to be produced and shipped. However, as you begin to use degradable pots, you should consider the question, “What do they offer your company?” What if you could integrate the degradable pot into several areas of production, thus making it more useful and cost effective than if it were just another SKU?
There are three main segments where degradable pots can play a role: jumbo liners, landscape and retail.
Research by Dr. Paul Fisher at the University of Florida has demonstrated that the use of large or jumbo liners (2½- to 4-inch) can significantly reduce the amount of production time required to finish large pots or baskets. With traditional propagation methods, a liner is produced in five weeks, transplanted into a basket or pot and grown on for 10-12 weeks to be ready for sale. With jumbo liners, more time is spent in the propagation tray, so less time is required after transplanting to finish the pot.
Growers have used the reduction in the time to finish in two ways. First, growers can start their baskets or large pots later in the spring (because the baskets finish faster from a jumbo liner), which can save them money on heating costs. Second, growers can use the faster finish time of the jumbo liner to grow a second crop in the same space.
Jumbo liners can be produced in pots or bedding flats. However, degradable pots offer the same benefits to the greenhouse grower as the landscaper — faster planting with less cleanup. In addition, the biodegradable pot stabilizes the media, decreasing its loss during transplant.
The retail segment is one of the biggest driving forces behind biodegradable, nonplastic pots. Consumers have said they want to reduce or eliminate plastic, and with degradable pots, packaging is reduced because the entire pot can be planted and will degrade over time. Pots can be sold individually or in 4-, 6-, 9- or 18-count carrying trays.
The biggest-selling SKU in the retail area is 4- or 4½-inch pots. When you are in a store checking out your products, do you spend a lot of time handling these pots so the sales tables look presentable? If you do, why not try to use these products to push a new SKU of six, nine or even 18 plants? If you were able to get through that with just a few product lines you could spend less time in the stores rearranging the sales tables. The Classic selections, SausEdge and EasyScape programs are all pushing the idea of selling more plants per SKU.
The landscape sector also wants “green” products for the same reason as retailers: customers are asking for it. One primary issue with the landscape industry is the lack of low-cost labor. With traditional plant material, plants are pulled out of the pot to be planted (which takes time), and the pot itself is thrown into a pile to be cleaned up later (which also takes time). In comparison, degradable pots are planted directly in the soil, limiting cleanup to the carrying tray.
In side-by-side trials around the country, landscapers were able to plant and clean up a given area twice as fast as the same number of people using plant material from traditional 4-inch plastic pots.
If you are going to offer these types of pots to your landscape customers, make sure you choose one that will break down in the soil relatively quickly.
The switch from plastic to biodegradable pots can have some initial costs, but it may save you in the long run. For example, a large perennial propagator who spoke with us originally looked at degradable pots (Ellepots) as being too expensive. As we got to know the company better, we learned the grower shipped out millions of pre-finished perennials in plastic pots — pots that cost the company 4-7 cents each and would be thrown out after customers received the plants. So we decided to test the jumbo Ellepot. It grew a fine plant and even saved some time on the bench compared to the plastic pot.
His next question was, “Can I save labor with this system?” Well, I would not be able to write this if he couldn’t. Today the flat filling of propagation trays and finished trays are all done on Ellepot machines. The operation was run with only 3-4 workers — keep in mind this was the first season they used it.
Today that same grower owns two fully automated lines, manufacturing and transplanting degradable liners. Because of the automation, labor savings and reduced use of plastic, the grower estimated a savings of more than $500,000 per year, all because he implemented a product that at one time had been deemed too expensive for his production.
My point is that the answer is never right in front of you. The “green” initiative by retailers and biodegradable pots is here to stay. See if you can use the degradable pot as a building block for a variety of products, not just an individual product line. You may be able to incorporate the products elsewhere in your production. Make sure to look at all the products available out there. Don’t just assume that one degradable pot is better than another. You need to test them in your operation to see which one works best for you.