Saturday, August 17, 2013

Behind the Bushes

When you are out plant shopping at one of the big box stores or even your local favorite nursery, have you ever stopped to think about how much work went into that plant? Why it might cost as much as it does? Or why the plant next to it, even though it is the same size, costs way more?
I was at one of those big box stores not too long ago and heard somebody asking some of those very questions. I also heard, "it is just a plant, WHY is it so expensive?!"

Working in the nursery trade now for almost 10 years, I have learned a LOT!
So, I thought today I would help explain, Why that plant is so expensive and what all goes into one.
I will start at the very beginning with propagation.
At the nursery I work at, this is the time of year that we send a bunch of the girls out into the field to take cuttings. As you can imagine, this is very time consuming. You don't want to take too many from one individual plant and ruin the look of that particular plant. So each plant might have two or three cuttings taken from it. They will probably take anywhere from 5000 cuttings on up, depending on what type of plant we need more of. They then have to sit there and prep the cutting. Length, amount of leaves still on it, angle of cut on the bottom, etc. If you have ever done any propagating, you know the routine. Now multiply that by thousands. They then dip it in a rooting hormone and stick it in pots filled with the soil medium.
Sounds pretty labor intensive doesn't it?
That cutting that they just stuck?
It will be ready to sell in the size pot shown above, in about 2 years. That is an average, there are some species of plants that root and grow quicker. Something like, Ligustrum will root and grow MUCH quicker then say, a Camellia.
In that two years a few other things happen that will add to the cost.
Things such as fertilizer. It will get fed 2 or 3 times, depending on the species.
It will be repotted a couple of times. It starts out in a rooting tray. Then gets put into a one gallon pot. Finally a three gallon pot. There is also the labor involved in repotting it. Every time a plant gets touched there is labor involved. Even at minimum wage, that can get expensive. You don't work for free, right?

Speaking of labor, there is the process of spacing them out. When the plants are little they can be kept "can tight". The edges of the pots put up right next to each other. As the plants get bigger they need to be spread out so they have room to grow, allow air space to help prevent disease, and allow the water to get down into them better. I mentioned that these plants will be at the nursery for a couple of years, in that time frame Winter will rear its ugly head. While the plants that we grow are adapted to our Zone 8 growing area, that is when they are in the ground. They are a little more cold sensitive up in the air, as it where, in those pots. So, those plants need to be moved to a cold frame. More labor used. They will still get chilled, but not frozen should we have a bad Winter. My boss was telling me he learned a valuable lesson one year. An entire bed of Society Garlic froze to death because they were not protected. We are talking thousands of plants here. That's a bunch of money lost. I know what you are asking, why not keep them in the cold frame all the time?
Answer: The cold frame is covered with plastic. In the Winter, while dormant, they do not need as much sun and can be covered this way. During growing season, they need sun. So, labor can be used to move the plants, OR, labor can be used to put up and take down the plastic covering each year. Are you starting to get the idea that labor is your biggest cost?
Okay, then there is the cost of the potting soil each time it is transplanted. Plus the cost of the pot. On average, the price of a one gallon pot is 15 cents. The price goes up to 45 cents for a three gallon. The pots are petroleum based and the price fluctuates with the cost of oil, we know what that means right now.
I have not even mentioned the cost of electricity to run the pumps to water these plants, every day.

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Cooperative Extension

When you are out choosing your plants and you have the choice between one that is beautiful, full of nice green leaves, no holes in the leaves and no weeds in the pot, compared to a half eaten, weedy specimen, which one will you pick?
The way the nursery sends those beautiful plants is with the use of insecticides and herbicides. Believe me when I tell you those things are NOT CHEAP! For a relatively inexpensive herbicide, to cover about an acre of plants, it can easily run you $300+. Then there is the labor to apply said products. There is that L word again.
The cost to weed these plants by hand is even more outrageous.
Oh yea, don't forget the cost of putting the plants on a truck to ship them. The cost of the driver, fuel, truck maintenance, etc.

Photo courtesy of

I bet by now you are seeing the pattern here.
If all of this where not enough and you have ever taken any kind of business class, you will understand the next phase, Supply and Demand. The recent economic downturn scared a lot of growers. They were afraid to plant any new liners for fear the plants would just sit there and not get bought. This has caused a gap in supply. Remember the two year time frame? If you don't plant anything or very little, the plants can't suddenly grow and be the right size to be sold. There were a few growers that rolled the dice and planted, but there are certain plants that just can't be found right now. Want a couple of examples?
Viburnum suspensum

Three gallon Viburnum suspensum are extremely hard to come by and when you do, they are pricey. Supply and demand.
There are also larger things that are getting tough to find.
Fifteen and thirty gallon Podocarpus macrophyllus.

Everybody kept buying the smaller ones and there were very few left to pot up to a larger size. Again, supply and demand. If you have the larger sizes you can get more money for them.
Again, I mention the two year growing time. Tree growers are in an even longer window and there will be shortages of trees in the very near future. They have to think 5-10 years out.
I am not trying to make you feel sorry for the nurseries, they will come through this. What I want you to take from this article is this; the next time you pick up a plant to purchase, ponder how many people have touched it in it's life. Think about all the time and money spent on it, then consider, is $6.95 or whatever the price, REALLY such a bad deal?
And remember, There is always more, Behind the Bushes.
Happy Growing!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Take Root

Today's article is going to be a little off the beaten path for me. I don't usually recommend products here, other than some of the stuff put out by Espoma (i.e. Citrus Tone and Holly Tone), but I have come across a company and, so far, these couple of things that I will talk about, are showing some good promise.
As you all know, I like to experiment with growing different and unusual plants. Finding different, easy, cheap ways to grow them or propagate them. Things that the average poor homeowner might be able to pull off.
Camellias have become, for lack of better wording, an obsession. I am a competitive person and love to see how I stack up against other people and their ways of growing things. However, Camellia plants are VERY expensive to just go out and buy. If you have friends that grow them or maybe a nursery that you are in good with, today, I will show you an easy way to multiply your collection.
I will start with the basics.
The best time to root Camellia cuttings is Summer. The wood should be semi-ripe. Not hard and woody and not green and very pliable, a kind of in between.
To root the Camellias, or any other type of plant for that matter, you basically need a pot or container, a medium in which to stick the cutting into, light, humidity and of course, the cutting.
I have created a humidity chamber out of rubbermaid type containers. They look like this:

The thing with the tube going into the first picture is a reptile fogger. As you can see, I have three different container experiments going on here. Two large and one smaller. One of the large ones has the fogger going into it. The idea of the fogger is to provide humidity. I run it for 30 minutes, then off for 30 minutes while the lights are on. The lights are on for 18 hours and everything is on timer switches. You only want bright indirect light. Don't put the light directly on the plants, it will just fry them.
When the fogger is on it looks like this inside:

The temperature stays between 70 and 85 degrees.
Okay, that takes care of the light, warmth and humidity.
I use a 50/50 mix of fine pine bark and perlite as my soil medium. It is well draining, light, yet holds some moisture.
This is where the products I was telling you about come into play.
I take a Camellia cutting, about 6 inches long, cut all but the top two leaves off. I then cut those two leaves in half to help retain moisture. I scrape a little of the bark off at the cut end and dip it into Dyna-Gro Root Gel.
It looks like this:

I think there was a horror movie made with stuff that looked like this. LOL
Also possibly a Ghostbuster was hit with it.
I have used all kinds of rooting products before and got so-so results. This is so much easier to use. The theory behind the gel is it seals the cutting and functions as an artificial root system until the cutting develops its own roots.
You will want to have your pot filled with your medium of choice and, using a pencil, poke a hole into the center of the medium so you don't scrape the gel off.
The stem will look like this:

And the final product will look like this:

Always make sure you tag your cuttings, preferably with the botanical name of the plant, but at least the common name. I promise you, even if you stick only one cutting, you WILL forget the name of it. I like to put the date that they were stuck too. That gives me a better idea of when they might be ready to start checking for roots.
Usually I start checking 6-8 weeks after I stick them.
I mentioned that there where a couple of products I wanted to discuss. While the Root Gel seems to be working exactly as planned, Dyna-Gro has a couple of other things as added insurance to your success.
For all intents and purposes, I am using a mist system to propagate my Camellias. So, I am also using K-L-N Rooting Concentrate and Pro-Tekt Concentrate.
The directions are: Mix 1/2 teaspoon K-L-N and 1 teaspoon Pro-Tekt per gallon of water and add to the systems holding tank. Keep the cuttings moist. I have had to modify this slightly. I made the mixture and using a spray bottle, I spray the cuttings by hand a couple of times a day.
The K-L-N rooting concentrate is pretty self explanatory. It is just a little more of a kick to get roots to form.
The Pro-Tekt Concentrate I actually find fascinating. Reading directly off the bottle, "contains potassium and 7.8% silicon to reduce stress caused by heat, cold, drought, insects and disease".
This stuff is not just for rooting cuttings either. It has directions for maintaining your plants and hydroponic production. It can be applied with your irrigation and/or as a foliar spray.
This is what my cuttings look like after a month:

Not great pictures I know, but trust me when I tell you they look good. Like I said, I have tried other rooting agents and after a month I was losing them quickly. The leaves would start falling off and they would just up and die. These are not.
I am not one for pushing products just willy nilly. If I mention something here on my blog, I have actually used it and like what I see.
So far, I like the results.
If you would like to contact Dyna-Gro yourself and ask them any questions, their website is HERE
Or you can call 800-Dyna-Gro
Just as a side note, I have some WONDERFUL friends that have allowed me to come into their yard and take some cuttings or have sent me cuttings from their yard in other states. I also want to thank a local nursery that has basically a forest of old Camellias, some more than 50 years old, that allowed me to come acquire some cuttings. You ALL are great!!
As always, if you have any questions for me, I am only an E-mail away:
Happy Growing!