When Ken and Leah James opened James Greenhouses in Colbert, Ga., in March 1998, they were focused on one crop. The husband-and-wife team began their company with a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse for the propagation of hardy perennial starter plants.
The greenhouses were simply equipped with unit heaters and evaporative cooling pads. Fast forward 25 years, and the company has expanded to over 3 acres of indoor vegetative propagation. The growing facilities now operate with bench flood irrigation systems, programmable irrigation booms, under-bench hot water heat, and heated floors.
Ken James is producing every hardy perennial starter plant in Ellepots that benefits from being grown in them, which is well over half of his production. These include high-value plants and plants with weaker crowns.
Hardy perennial vegetative propagator
"From Day 1, we wanted to be a hardy perennial vegetative propagator," said Ken James. "That was our plan. The bulk of our products are vegetative young plants, with about 2 percent propagated from seed."
"We offer the standard perennial fare, including veronica, lavender, coreopsis, hosta, and echinacea. We complement the perennials with a tropical plant program that includes Cannova seed-propagated canna lilies, Hollywood tropical hibiscus, and Royal Hawaiian colocasia. We also propagate Star Roses' Drift and Knock Out series and Heuger Gold Collection helleborus."
James Greenhouses, which has been using Ellepots for over 10 years, began with one Ellepot machine with no automation. It is now operating two Ellepot machines equipped with tray-filling automation and drill, dibbler, and irrigation units.
Tropical plant program
The starter plants are sold through distributors to growers in the United States, Canada, and some Caribbean islands.
In addition to its young plant propagation, James Greenhouses produces about 2 million quart-size containers outdoors, which serve as liners and prefinished plants. There are 4 acres of shade and 6 acres of full-sun outdoor production where large liners are maintained. The company also does some contract-growing of finished crops. The finished crops dovetail into the grower's existing large liner production program.
"We finish a couple million plants per year in mainly pint- and quart-size containers," James said. "We propagate those plants as well, which are about half vegetative cuttings and half from tissue culture. We produce the finished pots for other growers in their pots for retail."
Propagating in Ellepots
James Greenhouses does 100 percent of its own propagation. Most of its young starter plants are produced from vegetative cuttings and tissue culture.
James Greenhouses produces about 10 million starter plants annually. Half of those plants are propagated in Ellepots. Three Ellepot sizes are used. The 23-millimeter Ellepot is used as a 105-cell. The 30-millimeter by 70-millimeter is sold as its 72-cell product. The company has also been experimenting for a couple of seasons with a 70-millimeter by 120-millimeter Ellepot, which is comparable to an 18-count or 4-inch equivalent.
"We have been using Ellepots for over 10 years," James said. "We started with one Ellepot machine with no automation. We are now operating two dedicated machines equipped with tray filling automation and drill, dibbler, and irrigation units."
Ellepots in Air Trays produce plants with root systems that are air-pruned and root branching in the trays. Plant roots don't circle around the tray cells and don't become root-bound like in conventional trays.
One growing medium
James said one thing that has helped ensure success with Ellepots is using one growing medium for all pot sizes.
"Many growers are trying to streamline their operations," he said. "We are trying to eliminate additional container sizes, growing media, and fertilizers so we don't have to stock them. Over the last 10 years, we have found that one Pindstrup growing medium works with all our crops and all our pot sizes. It works as well in a 105-cell as it does in an18-cell."
"Our goal with the Ellepots is to provide a consistent soil structure with predictable soil chemistry. The consistency of the growing medium is everything when it comes to producing a quality Ellepot."
Pioneer Pots provide James Greenhouses with more vegetative cuttings per square foot than any other stock configuration the company used previously. The pots provide very consistent and rapid regrowth of stock plant branches once cuttings are harvested.
Number of starter plants
James said the reason the company started using Ellepots was because of the number of starter plants it produces from tissue culture.
"Tissue culture starter plants require several grading steps through the growing process," he said. "While we grade at planting, we also grade at four weeks and at shipping. This is much easier and faster to do with the plants in Ellepots."
"The Ellepot is a standard. There are other stabilized media, but Ellepots make the most sense to us from a performance perspective. There is also an ecosystem around Ellepots. There is the manufacturing equipment we have on-site that we're familiar with using, and it is well-supported."
James said he is producing every crop in Ellepots that would benefit from being grown in them, which is well over half of his production.
"If it's a high-value input, it goes into an Ellepot," he said. "If it's a plant that has a weaker crown, it goes into an Ellepot. As we bring new products online, they are usually high-value perennials, and those are likely to go into Ellepots."
Ken James said Pioneer Pots are ideal for stock plant production because of their pot-in-pot configuration.
Air Trays improve rooting, shorten crop time
Initially, James Greenhouses was not using Air Trays with its Ellepots. It is now using Air Trays with all three sizes of Ellepots.
"When we took a hard look at the whole ecosystem of the trays, Ellepots, growing medium, consistency, quality, damage in transit, and customer satisfaction, we realized that although they aren't the least expensive option, Air Trays give us the most consistent quality and absolute best performance," James said. "The No. 1 thing we hear from our customers is Ellepots are one thing, Ellepota in Air Trays are another. The sum is greater than the two parts. Ellepots in Air Trays mean a root system that is air pruned and root branching in the tray. The roots are not circling and becoming root-bound like in conventional trays. The Air Tray grooves train the roots to grow straight down toward the drainage hole where they are air pruned."
Because the roots in Ellepots and Air Trays are oriented downward, the plants root out more quickly once they are transplanted into a container.
"Another benefit of propagating in Ellepots and Air Trays is that plants don't experience as much transplant shock or loss caused by tearing or damaging the plant crown when plants are removed from Air Trays," James said. "With Air Trays, there is a lot of air around the roots, and they are pruned so the cuttings are not as tight in the trays. Plants come out of the trays easily without damaging the plants."
James said growers who start with traditional rooted cuttings usually need to disturb the roots in order for the roots to start growing and branching once they are transplanted.
"For traditional heavily-rooted cuttings that are transplanted into new pots without disturbing the roots, it's going to take about two weeks before those plants are actively growing and the roots colonize the new medium," he said. "Compare that to two to three days for plants coming out of Air Trays. The roots of plants transplanted from the Air Trays are still actively growing and colonize the new medium and pots very quickly."
Pioneer Pots are ideal for stock plant production
James Greenhouses is producing virus-indexed rose stock plants in Pioneer Pots. The company plans to move its tropical hibiscus stock plants into Pioneer Pots in 2024.
"These are two big stock plant programs for which we harvest our own cuttings," James said. "Pioneer Pots are ideal for stock plant production because of their pot-in-pot configuration. The exterior pot holds an interior mesh pot off the ground, so the pots can be placed on any type of surface, including fabric, gravel, or concrete. The internal pot is not subject to sitting in puddles or standing water. The internal pot is mesh around the bottom and sides, so there is root pruning around the entire root ball."
"Pioneer Pots give us very consistent and rapid regrowth of the stock plant branches once cuttings have been harvested. The plants continually branch and renew themselves. Pioneer Pots are giving us more cuttings per square foot than any other stock configuration we have used previously."
In addition to providing very predictable growth, Pioneer Pots make it easier for the company's employees to harvest the cuttings.
"Because Pioneer Pots elevate the stock plants off the ground, they are at a much more comfortable height to harvest the cuttings," James said. "Pioneer Pots are very sturdy, and because of their cone-shaped configuration, the plants don't fall over or get knocked over. For the purpose of stock plant production, I wouldn't use anything else."
David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; email@example.com