Growers supplying cold-hardy nursery stock to tree fruit, nut, berry and grape growers, or cultivating cold-hardy perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb, share many of the concerns of their farming customers. But due to the nature of their business, they also have situations that differ from those faced by the farmer growing these plants to harvest a crop. – Nursery Grower Challenges

“One of the greatest challenges we have is how to judge your market,” said Bob Wells, owner of Bob Wells Nursery, LLC, in Linsdale, Texas. “Tree growing isn’t a 60-day deal. It’s several years out just to get a bare root tree, and a five-year deal for full-grown trees.”

Wells, a fifth-generation nurseryman, offers cold-hardy, fresh-dug, field-grown fruit and nut trees, as well as bare-root plants and container-grown stock, plus asparagus and rhubarb. The standards – cherry, apple, peach, pear, plum – are joined by fig, olive, persimmon, pomegranate and more. The nursery offers everything from basic raspberries and blueberries to today’s super berries such as goji and elderberry. They supply retail customers as well as commercial farmers, and offer mail-order service, freight shipping and on-farm pickup.

“We don’t have enough of the larger fruit trees” in the three- to five-year-old range, Wells said. They can’t keep them in stock, as trees in this range are now in demand for those requiring instant gratification. Other nurseries are in the same predicament, so purchasing stock to meet this market demand isn’t feasible.

Nursery Grower Challenges

Foreseeing the future market

“Anybody can grow something, but the other half is marketing and the ability to sell it,” he said. “You have to be willing to work with the times.”

The industry changes, and new breeding programs, issues such as climate change and water restrictions, emerging diseases and pests, and even the popularity of different fruits, changes rapidly. Wells stays current on industry trends, working with extension agents, researchers and growers to assess where needs are going to be.

Weather extremes may be causing demand for more cold-hardy varieties in some areas, and water restrictions may change the growing landscape for nurseries and orchards. Currently, Wells is focused on peach tree decline in the traditional peach-growing southern states, where a late freeze has killed many trees as well as seedlings. There will be a heavier demand for peach tree stock for the next several years.

Every sale is important, Wells said, but anticipating the needs of an industry years before the plants will be available for sale is challenging. If Wells miscalculates, he can be stuck with a lot of inventory – thousands of plants he’s invested in growing over several years – for which there is no market. Selling at cost might be a means of moving stock, but it could also put him out of business, he said. Correctly assessing market trends is crucial to making a profit.

Another interesting emerging market for his nursery stock is survivalists, Wells said. From family homesteaders to organized groups preparing for full self-sufficiency, the market for edible fruit stock is growing. He doesn’t see the demand subsiding anytime soon. Whether selling a few trees or many, preparing to meet the needs of the “back to the land” market is a strongly emerging piece of his business.

A field of grown thornless black raspberries

Irrigation and nutrition

While survivalists and commercial farmers are concerned about harvesting fruits, nursery stock growers are focused on the nonfruiting plants. Fruit diseases are not a primary concern to nursery growers, but leaf and stem diseases are.

“Nursery stock doesn’t fruit, so there isn’t a focus on fruit diseases in nurseries,” said Nicole Ward Gauthier, Ph.D, Extension plant pathologist, University of Kentucky. “Leaf diseases, however, are an important part of nursery management. Other devastating diseases, like fire blight, which can kill young trees, are intensely managed by nurserymen.”

Although nursery stock in general is not developing fruit, the restrictions on fungicides and insecticides specifically labeled for fruit use remain in place for nursery growers. Because nursery growers often also grow ornamental plants as well, and they can be treated with a different array of crop protectants, this restriction means additional costs to control diseases.

“This can cause growers to stock several other products, increasing inventory costs considerably,” Gauthier said. “Sprayers also need to be washed out so that there’s no cross-contamination. This can lead to additional labor cost due to spraying two different products at two different times.”

While farmers are seeking fruit yield, nursery growers are seeking to grow the plant itself. This requires a different nutrient management focus. In the orchard, lower nitrogen rates are applied, allowing plants to develop fruit, not vegetative growth, and to keep the plants of smaller stature and easier to harvest and cultivate.

“Nursery stock is irrigated and fertilized in nursery settings with the goal of reaching a certain height, caliper or other size,” Gauthier said. “Thus, maximum fertilizer and irrigation rates are applied.”

Container plants, in particular, require vast amounts of water. Unlike plants in an orchard, container-grown plants have access to a small amount of growing mix, typically in black plastic pots, which dries out quickly.

“Our wells are working daily. Containers get watered two times per day, ” Wells said.

While field-grown nursery crops aren’t as water intensive, and are often produced with minimal irrigation depending on climate and crop need, container growing poses numerous challenges in relation to water use. Weather, growing medium, crop need for water, crop canopy, irrigation system – drip, overhead, trickle, or subsurface system – as well as the precise calibration of irrigation systems, all play important roles in container-grown nursery crops. Too little water, and the plants will be stressed. Too much and fertilizer leeching, subsequent nutrient deficits and root damage will occur.

Fertilization in containers consists of topdressing by hand, or by pre-mixing fertilizers into the container substrate, which requires specialized mixing equipment. In field-grown stock, fertilizer can be broadcasted. Either method can use fertigation.

With field-grown stock, some soils may not be conducive to the growth of certain nursery stock plants, just as on the farm. But container-grown plants require specialized growing mediums, not simply soil, which requires more complex assessments of soil health.

Growing mixes are often lightweight, while absorbing and retaining water. Maintaining pH and guarding against loss of nutrients from the substrate is important to maintaining optimal fertility levels in container plants. Customized potting mixes, rather than premixed versions, can help adjust for on-site fertility programs and other variables impacting nutrient availability. Container plants also must be potted up in size as they grow too large for their containers.

“Container stock is also limited in the available nutrients and micronutrients. Therefore, nurseries must apply a full array to young plants,” Gauthier said. “Once installed into an orchard setting, plants receive micros and many nutrients, as well as moisture, from the field site, where there is open space and no restrictions from a pot.”

And, when container plants are blown over by the wind, they rapidly dessicate, Wells said. A growing concern faced by Wells is the changing weather. He is seeing more frequent weather extremes, and “late frost or early freeze on bare root or containers” will be an ongoing issue, he said.

During the cold winter months, even cold-hardy plants, particularly when grown in containers, need added protection. Straw, synthetic coverings or structures for overwintering are ways to provide protection. Container-grown plants are often moved tightly together and covered with protective layers to prevent winter kill or dessication. It’s cost-prohibitive to build a structure to guard against winds or other climate factors when a large number of container-grown plants are involved, he said.

Weeds, pruning and harvest

Weeds growing in a container plant rapidly decrease water and nutrient availability to the crop, further complicating the container-grown watering equation. While time-release granules for in-container weed control are common in the industry, “we don’t like the residual effects,” Wells said. Hand-weeding containers is extremely labor intensive. While weed-barrier fabrics are available for containers, they are not foolproof.

According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program, preemergent herbicide use is standard in the container-growing industry, but comes with downfalls. Runoff concerns stem from the water solubility of the herbicide. Using low-volume amounts and irrigating cautiously following herbicide application can help reduce concerns (search “container nurseries”).

Field-grown plants are often planted after field fumigation. Standard pre- and postemergent herbicides are utilized, along with mulching and weeding. Black plastic mulches can increase the need for irrigation, however.

Certain noxious weeds are of serious concern, and nursery stock must be free of these weeds. Nursery growers can face restrictions if certain weeds are found on the premises. There are federal- and state-listed noxious weeds. Giant hogweed and mile-a-minute vine are some familiar weeds on the federal list.

Whether field or container grown, nursery growers must properly prune their plants for the intended end users. Providing properly branched trees for commercial production requires at least once-per-year pruning, Wells said. In containers, preventing suckers is a primary concern. Field or container stock may also need staking, to ensure proper growth. But pruning nursery stock is not the same as pruning the orchard.

“Fruits are the focus in the orchard, not plant size. Plants are pruned for fruit development – maximum sun exposure, open or thin canopy, thinned fruit. The focus is yield,” Gauthier said. “In a nursery, plant size and vigor is targeted.”

Harvest and shipping

Nurseries need to send large quantities of trees to other locations. Bare root stock is light and less costly to ship, but care must be taken to prevent drying out or root damage. Field grown, balled-in-burlap stock is heavy and increases shipping costs, but allows for larger trees to be harvested. Mechanical harvesting equipment is an added expense if utilized.

Field-grown plants are normally dug at certain times of the year, during dormancy, to not interrupt plant growth. In the field, conditions must be optimal to prevent soil damage when digging, and there is soil loss when the crop is dug with the rootball intact. There will also be loss of the plant’s absorbing roots. Root pruning may be needed. Seasonal labor for harvesting is needed.

Container plants can be shipped with little preparation year-round. They can be shipped longer distances than balled-in-burlap plants and weigh less. Specialized container growing systems – copper pots, shallow bottomless systems, pot-in-pot and grow bags – have been designed to decrease some of the concerns of container growing, by alleviating issues with root growth, or nutrient and water availability, while retaining the ease of harvest compared with field-grown stock.

Climate-friendly nurseries

Nursery growers utilize a large amount of inputs. Best management practices for climate-friendly nurseries include: nutrient and herbicide/pesticide management; irrigation efficiency and water recycling; and the reducing, reusing and recycling of inputs. For operations with a greenhouse component, indoor potting or propagation space, and even office space, general heating and lighting are also concerns. Those who store field-grown trees or bare-root stock in cold-storage areas for shipment will also have energy efficiency concerns.

Container-grown nurseries often input many materials, and reuse or recycling of these materials, primarily growing substrate and containers, can vastly impact not only the environmental footprint of the operation, but the operating costs.

Because weed seeds and diseases can remain in the soils or in the containers, reusing them can be tricky. Sanitization of growing mediums and containers is possible. Steam sanitization can allow reuse of these inputs, while effectively eliminating modes of transmission. Simply soaking containers in 180-degree water for 30 minutes will have weed seed and disease-killing capabilities. System cost can be realized in production costs saved by not purchasing new materials on a regular basis, the cost of labor needed to weed containers and the cost of container disposal.

Nursery stock growers share many of the concerns of farmers growing the actual crop. With a variety of nursery operations – greenhouse, field, container – growing myriad crops including vegetables, fruits, floriculture and forestry, the industry is large and diverse. Nursery growing of cold-hardy edible crops, whether container- or field-grown, requires skills and presents challenges unique to the industry.