All plants are not created equal! Deciduous ornamentals, coniferous evergreens, herbaceous perennials and broadleaf evergreens all have their own cultural differences. Plants are not dissimilar to people in that they too have circulatory systems that need to absorb nutrients in order to thrive. Just as people who are in good health tend to resist illness, plants that start out healthy are more capable to fight disease and resist insect problems. There is an enormous amount of attention given to raising our “green friends” and the equation to bring them to fruition is an exciting challenge.
With an increasing demand for premium plant material and the realization that ours is an industry dealing with perishable commodities, at the mercy of Mother Nature, it’s no wonder that the cost of producing such a product has increased. Going forward, there needs to be more of an appreciation for the production of plants as it takes an average of eight years to produce a marketable plant for the garden. Much more is involved than simply buying a liner, sticking it in a pot and waiting for a return on your money.
The ability to produce premium plant material is truly an art form. The creation of a plant’s life and understanding the behavioral aspects of different kinds of plants is an arduous task to say the least. First there is the research, science and luck of finding new plants. Plant hunters scour the globe, record locations and wait patiently to return during the dormant season to collect a sample. Plant hardiness is determined through a series of tests judging the adaptability to extremes in heat, cold, moisture, drought and direct sunlight. The challenge of mass producing a plant at an affordable price is a priority on every growers mind. There are different techniques used to produce plants. Air layering is a method developed by the Chinese to produce roots on the stem for more difficult to root plants. Grafting is the process of connecting two different plants (scion wood and rootstock) so they grow as one. Most of the beautiful Japanese maples you see in garden centers for sale have been grafted. Tissue culture takes a piece of a plant (such as a stem tip, node, embryo or seed) and places it in a sterile, nutrient medium where it multiplies. These are just a few ways that have helped plants become stronger and more consistent.
Propagating plants is only part of the battle. Progressive growers have found ways, through science, to enhance a plants performance, offering a competitive advantage. Advanced fertilizers, organic companions and suitable growing environments all affect costs, but the results speak for themselves. Regular nitrogen fertilizers can cost one quarter of what a slow release fertilizer can. Mycorrhizae fungi are beneficial organisms that grow along roots of host plants, enlarging the roots’ surface-absorbing area helping the plant’s uptake of nutrients and water. This helps reduce transplant shock, environmental stress, soil borne diseases and pathogens. Equations are also considered for spacing plants so that sunlight hits all sides, finishing a plant properly. Finally, the growing environments today are futuristic. Heated floors encourage roots to establish more quickly. Temperature and wind sensitive gauges retract the ceiling of Cravo systems (advanced glass greenhouses) helping to protect and create the most perfect plant material possible.
Although strides have been made for creating more consistent, durable and attractive plants, the attention towards finishing an almost perfect product has made it more labor intensive. Just as a parent is never finished raising their children, so to are gardeners never finished maintaining their plants. Pruning and feeding are two disciplines that are never fully finished. The decision of your purchase should not merely amount to dollars and cents. Branching structure, tree caliper, overall body, plant health, root development and cosmetic differences are just a few variables which can affect the cost of a plant. Suffice to say, a rhododendron grown by one grower is not the same as one grown by another.