Question of the Week
I am looking to start a nursery business and market directly to homeowners in my community. Can you tell me more about sustainable nursery production of evergreens?
Answer: One of the first choices you will need to make is whether to focus on "field-grown bare-root" or "containerized" (potted plant) production. In general, bare-root production is considered more sustainable because it does not rely so much on off-farm purchased inputs like potting soil and plastic pots. Also, because of the restricted root zone in the pots, more water is usually required for container production (in field-grown crops, the roots can rely somewhat on reserve water in the soil).
Weed control in field-grown crops can be more problematic depending largely on the farmer's skill, especially regarding pre-plant weed control. But even when growing in pots, weed control cannot be discounted — most large-scale container nurseries have their pots sitting on ground that has been treated with pre-emergent herbicides and covered with black plastic sheeting. The reason is that, without such weed control, weeds will come up between the pots and weed seed will be disseminated into the pots.
Another factor to consider is marketing the plants. Many consumers today are unfamiliar with bare-root plants; they prefer, or are at least more familiar with, potted plants (even though many of the potted plants they might buy at are not actually grown in pots, but rather, are grown in the field and "potted up" before being sold to the end user). It is easy to get around this minor problem by including simply-worded planting instructions with the plant. And, if you were to ever branch out from local sales into mail-order sales, the bare-root plants are cheaper to ship because of their reduced weight. Also related to marketing, it costs less to produce the bare-root plants, so you can sell them for less. You might have to point this out to your customers with a comparison chart showing your price and another store's price for a similar product.
With all of this said, it is not absolutely necessary to choose between these two means of production, but because of efficiency and the economies of scale, most nurseries end up choosing one or the other.
As a last marketing consideration, if your community is relatively small, you might quickly meet homeowners' needs for evergreens. If that were to happen, you would probably want to: a) expand your offerings—branch out into other types of plants; b) extend your reach into other, nearby geographical areas; or c) a combination of both.
For more information on how sustainable nursery practices can increase plant marketability and reduce a nursery's impact on the environment, see the ATTRA publication Sustainable Small-Scale Nursery Production at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=60. It covers sustainable production techniques, including pest management, weed control, and alternative fertilizers.
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