One way to increase profits no matter your type of nursery business is to decrease input costs. Inputs include materials, time and labor. If labor costs are reduced, but output is the same, then the cost of doing business drops. If it takes less time to do a given task, then more time is available to devote to another moneymaking function. If material costs are decreased, the profit margin increases.

Profits are simply the sales price of the product, minus the cost of production, Royal Heins, Michigan State University professor emeritus, said. Heins addressed the concept of decreasing inputs in the nursery environment and taking advantage of slower periods to enhance overall profits during the Great Lakes Expo.

Using less inputs usually requires more time. But in the nursery trade, production ebbs and flows, and there is opportunity to reduce input costs by taking advantage of slow periods when greenhouses are empty and there is time to spare.

“The space is not being used by a crop and can be used with low cost, as opposed to being empty without plants,” Heins said of greenhouse space, typically in late winter after the poinsettia crop is sold and before spring planting begins.

Eliminating Inputs

Heins encouraged nursery growers to consider eliminating the cost of liners or plugs in spring production by reducing the number of plants per pot. He worked with growers who normally put multiple plants per basket or container of spring annuals and decreased the per pot number of plants. By planting a few weeks earlier, there was no discernible difference in plant size by sales time. Using a smaller number of plants per pot allowed each plant to grow fully into the allotted space.

Early in the season, growers have both time and labor available to start plants earlier, and they can plant containers using less plants per pot, and achieve the same results as normal, finishing plants on time and with less cost.

“There’s clearly no reason that we need to add that number of inputs to produce a plant in that same container,” he said.

Every additional plant is simply an added cost. Using less plants and still getting the job done removes excess inputs and increases grower profits.

Traditionally, growers of zonal geraniums require plant growth regulators to keep the crop properly sized for shipment. While PGRs are needed to increase the branching, they also increase flowering. PGRs are also needed to stunt growth in pots planted with multiple plugs, to prevent them from outgrowing the container before delivery for retail sale. But one plant per pot will grow to fill the container without needing stunting.

“Why do we always have to push plants down with growth regulators versus growing the plant to fill the container? Growing the plant costs less money,” he said. “Given time…a single plant is filling the pot.”

Standard petunias only require three plants, not five, per 10-inch pot, Heins said. Some petunia and verbena varieties can grow to fill a pot in 10 weeks, with merely a single plant, while calibrachoa (million bells) takes 13 – 14 weeks to do so. One plant will easily fill the pot before flowering begins.

“It’s time or money. We’ve added additional time,” Heins said.

Direct Stick Propagation

Another method of reducing costs is to eliminate smaller sized liners and pots by planting directly into the finished container. Direct sticking of the cutting into the finish pot reduces both material and labor. This eliminates the need for smaller sized pots and the growing media needed to fill them, and eliminates the labor needed to transplant from smaller to larger containers as the plants grow. Direct sticking requires about seven weeks of growth, from the un-rooted cutting to a fully finished spring annual plant ready for shipping.

Because transplanting often occurs during peak spring season, when many other tasks are being prioritized, it’s often overlooked, and plants outgrow their containers. Direct sticking eliminates this problem without sacrificing results. “[It’s] a very rapid and effective way to turn a crop and reduce input costs by taking all the cost of the liner out of the process,” Heins said.

“We can root most any plant in a greenhouse, even in full sun. Light is not our enemy. Heat is our enemy. These cuttings will do fine as long as we keep them from totally dehydrating,” he stated. Misting plants with an overhead boom or other water delivery system will keep the heat down so plants can successfully be rooted.

“As long as we can mist our plants, we can increase our light. When we increase our light, we increase our photosynthesizing,” he said.

Heins gave an example of a grower in the northern U.S. who only pulls the curtains in his clear glass greenhouse when temperatures inside reach 95º F. Misting the plants keeps the cuttings healthy in full sunlight, with no adverse effects.

Perennials too can also be propagated via direct stick methods. Normally, during peak season, perennials need to be transplanted, containers need to be spaced and plants need to be shipped – labor demands are high. But if direct sticking is used, transplanting can be eliminated and labor can be freed up to attend to other tasks.

Direct sticking can be done early in the season, when labor isn’t in demand. Planting early in the season can reduce growing time by about two weeks as well, as the deeper, better draining pots promote successful rooting and increases plant growth.

Experiment With Cost Cutting

Although some suppliers require growers to plant a given number of plants per pot, this practice often inhibits plant growth. In a study of florist mums, reducing the number of plants from five to four per pot resulted in earlier flowering, due to increased light availability per plant, and resulted in more uniform plant growth.

Some plants, like Fuchsia, don’t require pinching or pruning in a one plant per pot system, Heins said. When there are four plants per pot, they need to be pinched back twice before they are ready for sale.

Heins recommended growers reduce inputs on a trial basis and see what kind of results they get. If greenhouse space is available, try direct sticking into the final container. Then consider reducing the number of plants per pot. When direct sticking is combined with a reduction of plants per pot, the savings are additive.