Garden Center Nursery Management: Container Production *
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Components of a wholesale container nursery

Designing a container nursery requires a thorough review of selected production site, and building a detailed inventory of all the facilities that will be required for the efficient production of plants. While container nurseries don't require the extensive holdings of land as would be the case for a field grown nursery, their intensity of management is considerably greater (1). A small container nursery may only consist of 5-10 acres of ground (2). While container raised crops can be produced in as little as 6 months, the developing plants will need good cultural care over their entire life spans.

Principal components of a modern wholesale container nursery:

  • Nursery entrance
  • Office
  • Propagation/transplanting
  • Container yards
  • Media mixing
  • Shipping/recieving
  • Chemical storage
  • Employee structure
  • Shade/over-wintering structures
  • Equipment storage
  • Collection basins

A well-managed nursery has all the attributes of any other manufacturing business. As an enterprise they often start out small and expand as production expertise is gained and as sales grow. Smaller facilities give way to larger units. Can yards expand in size and sophistication. Additional labor is required to meet the higher work loads. Even if the size of the nursery does not expand, most container nurseries develop better materials handling, irrigation, pest management, and shipping practices as they evolve.

By reviewing all of the different aspects of a modern container nursery, a manager will be better able to plan an efficient operation initially, while still retaining a positive attitude to the opportunities for future expansion (3). Whether a nursery begins as a part-time enterprise to supplement the family income, or starts out with a large sum of investment capital, they all consist of common features and facilities. New growers should tour facilities similar to the size and complexity of the enterprise they are considering establishing. Generally there are both retail and wholesale operations within a day's drive, in the Pacific Northwest, that can be called upon for a tour. Include a camera and notebook on any tour so that comments and images can be recorded for latter review.

Design a layout
The first step in any building plan involves carefully measuring the size of the site and noting its general features including soil types, prevailing slope and aspect, native vegetation, any water features, and the position of any existing buildings. As with a field grown nursery, a hand held GPS unit can accurately measure dimensions, and pinpoint the location of notable features on the site. More sophisticated GPS units can also be used to denote changes in elevation which is very important for the lateral movement of rainfall and potential irrigation runoff. After collecting GPS data, and transferring it to a personal computer, drawing software can be used to design the hypothetical location of structures, can yards, and service roads. When the final layout has been determined, a poster of the nursery can be produced on a large capacity printer for others to view.

By having the schematic for the nursery on a personal computer the various sizes and stages of production can be moved and altered easily. Drawing software can display maps with scales so that distances between operations can be visualized. If plants will be moved from one stage to another with forklifts or other motorized equipment additional space will be needed to maneuver, than if the plants are moved by hand or conveyer belts (4). In designing the layout thought should be given for expansion of each phase of the operation. Building architects should be consulted to explore the possibilities of building designs that can be added upon to at a latter date. Greenhouse supply companies often have sales staff that can suggest methods to add onto existing greenhouses. New operators will usually find that other members of ornamental trade will review a nursery layout, more so if it's for a new operation distant from their own.

Plan for efficiency
A nursery can be thought of as an assembly line for producing plants. Each phase of the operation should supply the next. There are essentially 4 stages in the production (5). During the initial propagation stage, plants can be started from seed or cuttings, or liner stock is procured from other growers. This stage may require a greenhouse for faster production. During the second stage, referred to as the transplanting stage, container media, pots, and plants all come together for assembly. In the third growing-on stage, which can occur in either a greenhouse, outdoor can yard, or in shade house, plants are allowed to mature.

In the final shipping stage, plants are either loaded onto carts or into cardboard boxes for truck shipment. In every step of way, labor will be required to move and handle plants. As 25% to 35% of the total production costs of producing plants consists of labor (2), and 60% of labor involves moving plants, it is imperative that travel distances between areas is minimized. A good design that has industry wide acceptance consists of having the office, propagation/transplanting, and shipping/receiving facilities located near the nursery entrance with the container yards radiating out to fill the acreage (1, 2).

Nursery entrance
Nursery owners often take a great deal of pride in landscaping the grounds surrounding their office and parking lot. By showcasing the types of plants sold by the wholesaler, a company can attract a wider diversity of retail garden shop owners and landscape contractors. Plants can be displayed both in the ground as well as in the containers they will be sold in. Directional signs should be clearly provided showing where customers should park, as well as the direction of traffic for truck drivers. All entrance roads should be wide enough to allow standard highway trucks and trailers to turn off of easily.

A well designed entrance sign, flanked by a suitable display garden, can help attract passing motorists as well as provide a visual reminder of name and layout of the entire operation.

Work with a reputable sign designer to make an eye-catching, all weather sign that will become a pleasure to own and display.

The office facility should contain enough space for individual business suites, partitioned areas for secretarial staff, a copy machine/work center room, and a small conference room where sales meetings can be held. On smaller pieces of property a residential home can serve as the office. One room of the office should be large enough to seat visiting guests and display color posters of nurseries' collection of plants in bloom to buyers. A firm should employ knowledgeable sales representatives, who can provide buyers with information on gardening trends (6). As in the world of retail, a wholesale business is based on quality plants, customer service, and a good selection different types of plants in various stages of growth.

Propagation/transplanting area
The heart of a container nursery lies in the propagation/transplanting facility. Nursery owners will direct the propagation crew to produce a certain number of plants based upon either consignment or projected sales. Generally the goal is to produce enough plants to meet the year's demand without having too much extra stock at the end of the year.

Propagation can take the form of:

  • Greenhouses where media-filled trays are set out for starting seeds, leaf or stem cuttings, or root divisions.
  • Tissue culture labs.
  • Pole building with lower benches for transplanting container stock from smaller pots into larger ones (referred as "bumping up").
  • Greenhouse with benches for starting softwood or hardwood cuttings.
  • Pole barn with benches for dividing herbaceous perennials.

As for structures, small growers generally start out with poly-covered greenhouses (7) and pole barns for dividing plants. As the nursery matures, larger and more sophisticated structures are usually built (8). Single layer PVC greenhouses are recovered with double layers of poly. Soil heating cables are utilized to warm the base of the propagation trays. Fans are hung to ensure good air circulation. Fog systems are installed to replace misters. Heated and insulated structures are used to replace drafty pole barns. In short, every effort is made to speed and ease the production of the young plants, and to improve the working conditions for labor.

Container yards
Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials that will be grown into larger sized plants will be set out into container (can) yards. The greatest percentage of ground (60-70%) in a container nursery will be taken up by the can yards. While the office, propagation facilities, and other structures can located on un-even ground, can yards need to graded smooth and not exceed a slope of more than 5% (2). Can yards don't have to occupy a contiguous piece of ground. A typical yard will cover an area 50' wide by 200' in length (3). If there is sufficient flat ground beds can be sized as large as 50' by 600' in length (2). By having can yards 50' wide no pot has to be carried more than 25' to an access road where it can be loaded onto either a trailer or truck.

Media mixing
Container plants are typically grown in mixtures of bark, pumice, and peat moss (9). Yard debris compost can substitute for the peat moss. As these materials lack nutrients, growers need to add back either slow or controlled release fertilizers. Growers have the choice of buying custom blended potting soils, or mixing their own. Cement mixers or front end loaders can be used to mix media. Generally smaller firms purchase pre-mixed potting soil, while larger firms mix their own in order to save money (10). In either case the media mixing/storage area should be located close to the propagation facility in order to reduce the time and expense of handling and moving media. Conveyor belts, in combination with potting machines, can help during pot filling.

As in any other production facility, nurseries require a shipping/receiving facility to move finished product out and to receive supplies coming in. A standard 4' high loading dock will be needed to service truck trailers, via the use of fork lifts. In the absence of a loading dock it is possible to use portable ramps to allow forklifts to gain access to trailers, but this introduces more chances for spills. Be sure to build enough space outside of the loading dock for truck drivers to turn and

This container nursery uses a forklift to load pallets. This type of loading works when a dedicated loading dock is not located conveniently close to waiting shipments.

backup their trailers. Roads leading up to the loading dock should be at least 30' wide so that vehicles can pass each simultaneously. At larger nurseries it's common to find shipping managers having their workers organize plants, referred to as 'staging', on pallets so that trucks can be loaded quickly and efficiently. It's generally considerably slower to load trucks by hand. During the height of the shipping season trucks will be leaving on a daily basis as product is moved out.

Chemical storage
Container grown plants will need to have an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program to control weeds, insects, diseases, animal and bird pests, and slugs and snails. A wide diversity of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved pesticides are registered for use on ornamentals. Larger wholesale nurseries typically employ a horticulturist who will monitor the crops and direct workers to help control them. Pesticides are often purchased in bulk to help lower their purchase costs. A recognized pesticide storage facility is generally required by insurance companies to protect a company against lawsuits in the case of mishaps. Further information on pesticide storage is available (11).

Employee structure
This facility is used to house a lunch room, a rest-room with showers, and personal lockers. The walls in the lunch room can be lined with cork boards to post notices for workers. Larger firms often host catered meals or pot lucks for their workers at the end of the season. Supervisors that cater to the personal needs of their workers will find their efforts are greatly appreciated!

Shade/over-wintering structures
There are plants that do require summer shade to keep them from drying out under conditions of full sun. Shade structures often consist of hoop houses covered with shade netting or pole structures covered with wire and shade cloth. Hoop houses can be constructed with either galvanized pipe or PVC. Some nursery sites have mature trees on the site that can be utilized to provide shade. Hoop house structures can serve dual purposes by being covered with white plastic sheeting during the winter.

Equipment storage
Every nursery will need some sort of pole barn for storing tractors, sprayers, un-used pots, and all the other various implements and supplies that come with running a productive farm. This type of structure can also serve for minor equipment repair and maintenance. Given the relatively small size of container nurseries, equipment storage facilities don't have to be extensive.

Collection basins
Container crop producer are creating a unique environment for their plants in comparison to field grown crops. Containers only hold a limited amount of water, retain only a limited amount of the nutrients supplied to them, and produce plants with limited root systems. Container crops are irrigated frequently during the heat of the summer. With the lack of vegetation surrounding the pots, its imperative that consideration is given both summer runoff from irrigation, as well as storm-water runoff from winter rains. The goal of nursery manager should be to prevent all runoff from leaving the nursery property (12). Collection basins can be graded and then sealed with clay-like materials or heavy plastic. Basins can serve as a source of water for further irrigation. When runoff water is re-cycled through a sand filter, or mixed with fresh water, the chances of introducing waterborne organisms (Phytophthora spp.) back into the containers is reduced (13).

1. Getting started in the nursery business. 1. Nursery production options. 2002. Gregory Eaton and Bonnie Appleton, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

2. Starting a Container Nursery Business. 1993. Ken Tilt, extension horticulturist. Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.

3. Layout and design consideration for a wholesale container nursery. 1999. Thomas Yeager, and Dewayne Ingram. University of Florida Extension. HTML version is located here.

4. The Container Tree Nursery Manual: Volume 1 Nursery Planning, Development, and Management. 1995. Tom Landis, USDA Forest Service, Portland, OR. An on-line, PDF version of this reference is available here.

5. Nursery Management. 1994. John Mason. Published by Kangaroo Press Pty Ltd, Kenthurst, New South Wales, Australia. Carried by

6. The Nursery and Garden Centre Marketing Manual. 2000. John Stanley. The Reference Publishing Company, Auckland, New Zealand.

7. Propagation department. Ted Bilderback, Nursery Crops Extension Specialist, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. A 57-page PDF with numerous color photos of all stages of plant propagation.

8. Secrets to a successful greenhouse and business. 2002. T.M Taylor. GreenEarth Publishing Company, Inc., Melbourne, FL.

9. Pro-Gro Mixes and Materials, Sherwood, OR.

10. So You Want to Start a Nursery. 2003. Tony Avent. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

11. Pesticide storage. Robert G. Bellinger, Extension pesticide coordinator, Clemson University.

12. Best management practices for container-grown plants. 1999. Maryland Department of Agriculture. Source: Southern Nurseryman's Association publication: Best Management Practices: A Guide of Producing Container Grown Plants.

13. Capturing and recycling irrigation water to protect water supplies. Sharon von Broembsen, extension plant pathologist, Oklahoma State University. From: Water Quality Handbook for Nurseries, E-951.



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