Where plastic meets paper: how to reduce costly nursery bills

Where plastic meets paper: how to reduce costly nursery bills

How choosing the right tray and using inserts can help avoid labor shortage woes and costly labor bills – all while producing better quality plants.

March 21, 2018
Shaun Martindale
Containers by Proptek

Photo: Note the increased root structures on this 1 year old apple tree in the Ellepot (left) compared with a tree that is 2 years old and grown in a basic blow-molded pot. Many more roots that are also much better quality, grown in half the time.

A lot changes as the years go by.

There’s always something that seems to always be guaranteed – bones become creakier and the cost of running a nursery goes up and up.

With labor shortages, congress causing uncertainty regarding consistent immigration laws and the cost of labor being hiked up across the country, more and more businesses are feeling the strain.

But there are other solutions to this problem than simply hiring and firing.

Automation was talked about a lot in 2017 and will be even more key in 2018. To get your nursery running as smoothly and cost effectively as possible and avoid the issues of labor costs and availability, you need the right technology – and that technology could be simpler than you think.

Where paper meets plastic – the benefits to growers

When combined, products from companies such as Proptek and Ellepot can save up to 50 percent of your labor bill. When you consider that labor can be 50 percent of a nursery’s outgoings, this is a big chunk indeed. There’s the container itself too: if your system is currently using a container that is only usable a handful of times, you could potentially also save tens of thousands of dollars on trays every year, as well as savings in water and fertilizer. Every time you send out a plant in plastic that you never see again, that’s even more money wasted.

See our article here on why starting with the right tray or container is so important when thinking about automation – this applies whether you are thinking about using inserts or sticking with loose-fill.

When a high-quality injection molded tray, such as from Proptek, is combined with a stabilized media insert, such as the Ellepot, this creates a system that can be highly automated to save huge amounts of time and money and also creates better and healthier plants too.

Automation is always a big decision and undertaking. The whole nursery system should be looked at in its entirety to ensure you get the most cost effective and efficient solution. This can require a big initial outlay and that can put off a lot of people – but when done right, the return on investment can be massive. To offset this, machinery and indeed the containers themselves can be leased or financed, meaning less initial outlay and a predictable future cashflow.

Working smarter, not harder: impact on nursery operations

The best way to start reducing the personnel on a nursery is to centralize your labor. This keeps machinery and people in one place, so they can be monitored and managed effectively. This also means people are out of the baking sun, have access to facilities and reduces the amount of bending over and stooping. The following sections will detail where labor can be saved – and if not reduced, how the quality of work can be improved. Let’s face it – the desire to work a manual job in a nursery isn’t very high. People can earn the same money elsewhere without the back-breaking long hours. A bold claim, but a hard truth learned by the nurseries struggling to find labor when it’s needed. If you can start offering a more secure job with pleasant surroundings that involves a higher level of skilled work, people suddenly become interested again.

De-stacking and filling

Photo: Almond tree grown in a 35 mm Ellepot

Depending on the insert, these can be made on site or bought in. If you are a larger operation it could be worth inquiring about getting a machine for your own nursery – though only some insert companies allow or can offer this.

For example, if making on site, Ellepots can be made 100 percent automatically and the media within them can be your own personal preferred mix. The only manpower you need is someone to keep an eye on the soil hopper and paper reels, changing and filing as required. It is possible for one person to look after several machines at once.

Prepared inserts can be placed into a tray or container fully automatically. If using a multi-part tray like a Proptek Sleeve & Tray system, sleeves can also be automatically de-stacked and inserted in the tray. This can only happen if all pots and containers are rigid and strong – that’s where the injection molded design comes in.

De-stacking and filling can be overseen and managed by as little as just a single person filling potentially 40,000 cells per hour.

Seeding or sticking

Seeding filled cells can be 100 percent automated in the majority of cases. The technology for this has been around for a while now and is becoming very good indeed and widely used. Machines such as a simple vacuum drum system from someone like Visser or Mosa do the job very nicely. Seeds are picked up on tiny vacuum nozzle “needles,” the drum rotates, the tray moves along a conveyor and the seeds get dropped into the cell. The tray or container then moves along another conveyor where a topping is put on, then through a shower waterer and the tray is ready to go out into the greenhouse without a single human hand touching a tray or seed.

Sticking can also be automated using robotic arms – but quite often this can be quicker using a few skilled people rather than a very expensive machine. Sticking a cutting into an Ellepot is much easier for a person than fiddling with a small seed.

Moving plants around

A lot of labor savings can be made in this area of the operation. Not only can costs be saved, but a lot of back-breaking, hard-going work can be saved too. Happy workers are effective workers, after all. Five effective workers are cheaper than 10 ineffective ones. Happy workers stick around too – meaning less time and money needed for recruitment and training.

This is where a cleverly designed, injection-molded container is important. Trays or containers are arranged in a 5 x 4 or even 6 x 4 on a conveyor, then a specially adapted forklift or buggy comes in and slides forks under the legs of the trays. The trays are lifted up and taken out of the head house to the growing area and laid in neat, identical rows. No costly benching is required as the trays all have feet to lift them off the ground. 100+ plants moved at once and no one has had to bend their back, there’s no RSI and it’s a much more enjoyable job all around. Hundreds, if indeed not thousands, of man-hours can be saved each week using this method.

Sorting and grading

This is where an insert shows its true worth – when the time comes to sort the plants either to be sold or to be moved onto further growing areas.

As an Ellepot is what is referred to as “stabilized media,” a plant can be removed from its cell without removing the plant from its media. The insert is snug in the cell, but because there are no roots buried into the cell wall or tangled up in the bottom, the plant simply slides out with minimal effort. The paper keeps the media together, meaning you can even start sorting plants far earlier than if you have to wait for roots to develop to hold the root ball together. It also means the plant doesn’t suffer any transplant shock or hidden damage to where root meets stem. When combined with the tough tray with legs, these can be easily moved back to the head house where a small team of content, skilled workers are waiting.

For most, this all means a less time-consuming job for people, but this process can also be automated too. It’s an expensive route, but for big operations it can produce considerable savings in the long run. There are machines with arms that can pick up plants, photograph them and then automatically sort into 5 separate grades. Machines can run 24/7 and never get tired and never need bathroom breaks.

Bumping up

Because an insert, and Ellepots especially, are secure and well made, bumping up/transplanting to a larger cell can be greatly sped up. A large hole can be automatically drilled into an already filled container of inserts (for example, using a 100mm diameter Ellepot) and a smaller insert can then be slotted in by hand (e.g. a 30mm diameter Ellepot with a citrus tree already happily growing in it). This process does still have to be somewhat manual as plants that have been grown for some time will all be slightly different, and the drilled holes will all also be every so slightly different and un-aligned. This, however, is still a far easier job than having to pull a plant from a cell by hand, check the roots, place it in a new, bigger cell and then backfill manually. It won’t be long before the clever and resourceful people that make up our industry figure out how to fully automate this, I am sure.

Photo (right): An Ellepot inserted into an Ellepot inserted into yet another Ellepot. The plant has been bumped up twice – each time with zero transplant shock and done efficiently and automated.


Heavy duty, injection molded containers carry a higher price-point, so shipping out a plant in these is not viable or economical. Luckily, here’s where using inserts shines again.

The Ellepot at this point – even 6 months-plus down the line – is still going strong, holding the roots and media together. This means a plant can be boxed and shipped out as-is. The young plant then gets placed directly in the ground and the Ellepot is left to degrade in the soil. Not a single piece of plastic has to leave the nursery, saving thousands of dollars every year in plastic. This also reduces the chance of disease, as plastic is not being returned from outside of the nursery from who knows what kind of conditions.

More than just saving time and money – the other benefits of sturdy trays and inserts

So, there we have it – lots of ways to save hard-earned cash by choosing the right container and using stabilized media inserts. But there’s more to our jobs than money and profits – in horticulture we love our jobs – it’s a way of life. Here’s what else you can expect from this kind of system:

Better quality plants, quicker

Looking out upon a sea of perfectly consistent, beautiful looking plants is a great feeling. Using the best quality inserts with the best quality tray or container helps provide fantastic quality plants by ensuring root circling (sometimes called root girdling) is eliminated. This is by a process called “air root pruning” where the tips of roots poking out of the paper get air pruned, making more young and vigorous roots appear further up the root ball. This gives a plant a real advantage and plants that are air pruned often finish and reach the desired caliper size quicker – and survivability rates are higher too. This is great from a horticultural view – but your customers will love this as well, meaning repeat business and higher turnover.

Green credentials

An injection molded tray is more expensive than a flimsy thermoformed tray or blow-molded pot, without a doubt. But this means they last for much, much longer. Decades even. This means millions fewer trays are being thrown away every year. High quality containers, such as by Proptek, are even made from recycled materials too – and can be recycled again at the end of their long working life.

Ellepots are pretty green too – their paper is degradable and removes the need for yet more plastic shipping containers. As they can be made on site, there are many less road-miles involved too.


Labor costs are going up and workers are becoming harder to find - and nurseries need to do something about it now, or face hardship in the future.

Technology advances at a rapid pace and there are now numerous machines and options out there – but these are all for naught if you don’t have in place the one thing that is involved right through the nursery. Sourcing and choosing the right container and media is vital – chose a container that is rigid and designed specifically for use with automation. Chose inserts to ensure a healthy air-pruned plant that can be moved and sorted quickly and efficiently. Finally – ensure your containers are Insert friendly, holding them steady at both at the base and the top.