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Susmitha Nambuthiri, Amy Fulcher, Andrew K. Koeser, Robert Geneve and Genhua Niu

Market researchers have found that nursery and greenhouse production practices that reduce plastic use can increase consumer interest. However, there are broader crop performance, production efficiency, and environmental factors that must be considered before adopting containers made with alternative materials. This review highlights current commercially available alternative containers and parent materials. In addition, findings from recent and ongoing nursery, greenhouse, and landscape trials are synthesized, identifying common themes, inconsistencies, research gaps, and future research needs.

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Michael R. Evans, Andrew K. Koeser, Guihong Bi, Susmitha Nambuthiri, Robert Geneve, Sarah Taylor Lovell and J. Ryan Stewart

Nine commercially available biocontainers and a plastic control were evaluated at Fayetteville, AR, and Crystal Springs, MS, to determine the irrigation interval and total water required to grow a crop of ‘Cooler Grape’ vinca (Catharanthus roseus) with or without the use of plastic shuttle trays. Additionally, the rate at which water passed through the container wall of each container was assessed with or without the use of a shuttle tray. Slotted rice hull, coconut fiber, peat, wood fiber, dairy manure, and straw containers were constructed with water-permeable materials or had openings in the container sidewall. Such properties increased the rate of water loss compared with more impermeable bioplastic, solid rice hull, and plastic containers. This higher rate of water loss resulted in most of the biocontainers having a shorter irrigation interval and a higher water requirement than traditional plastic containers. Placing permeable biocontainers in plastic shuttle trays reduced water loss through the container walls. However, irrigation demand for these containers was still generally higher than that of the plastic control containers.

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Youping Sun, Genhua Niu, Andrew K. Koeser, Guihong Bi, Victoria Anderson, Krista Jacobsen, Renee Conneway, Sven Verlinden, Ryan Stewart and Sarah T. Lovell

As the green industry is moving toward sustainability to meet the demands of society, the use of biocontainers as alternatives to petroleum-based plastic containers has drawn significant attention. Field trials of seven plantable biocontainers (coir, manure, peat, rice hull, soil wrap, straw, and wood fiber) were conducted in 2011 and 2012 at five locations in the United States to assess the influence of direct-plant biocontainers on plant growth and establishment and the rate of container decomposition in landscape. In 2011, container type did not affect the growth of any of the three species used in this study with an exception in one location. The three species were ‘Sunpatiens Compact Magenta’ new guinea impatiens (Impatiens ×hybrida), ‘Luscious Citrus’ lantana (Lantana camara), and ‘Senorita Rosalita’ cleome (Cleome ×hybrida). In 2012, the effect of container type on plant growth varied with location and species. Cleome, new guinea impatiens, and lantana plants grown in coir and straw containers were in general smaller than those in peat, plastic, rice hull, and wood fiber containers. After 3 to 4 months in the field, manure containers had on average the highest rate of decomposition at 88% for all five locations and two growing seasons. The levels of decomposition of other containers, straw, wood fiber, soil wrap, peat, coir, and rice hull were 47%, 46%, 42%, 38%, 25%, and 18%, respectively, in descending order. Plantable containers did not hinder plant establishment and posttransplant plant growth. The impact of container type on plant growth was smaller compared with that of location (climate). Similarly, the impact of plant species on pot decomposition was smaller compared with that of pot material.

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Robin G. Brumfield, Laura B. Kenny, Alyssa J. DeVincentis, Andrew K. Koeser, Sven Verlinden, A.J. Both, Guihong Bi, Sarah T. Lovell and J. Ryan Stewart

Greenhouse growers find themselves under increasing pressure to respond to consumer preferences to use environmentally sustainable practices and materials while maintaining profitable operations. These consumer preferences reflect a mounting awareness of the environmental issues, such as climate change and their associated social costs. Ideally, sustainable horticultural production accounts for both traditional economic considerations and such social costs, some of which can be explained through the calculation of global warming potential (GWP). An obvious candidate for a sustainable intervention is the traditional plastic pot, which growers can replace with alternative biocontainers with varying degrees of GWP. This study calculates the variability of direct costs of production using alternative containers to offer a comparison of social and economic costs. We evaluated these direct costs of producing petunia (Petunia ×hybrida) grown in pots made of traditional plastic, bioplastic, coir, manure, peat, bioplastic sleeve, slotted rice hull, solid rice hull, straw, wood fiber, and recycled reground plastic containers used in a previous assessment of GWP. Our analysis of the costs when using a traditional plastic pot showed that the highest contributors to GWP were different from the highest contributors to direct costs, revealing that the price does not reflect the environmental impact of several inputs. Electricity, the plastic shuttle tray, and the plastic pot contributed most to GWP, whereas labor, the plastic container, and paclobutrozol growth regulator contributed most to direct cost of production (COP). At 64% of total cost, labor was the most expensive input. Watering by hand added another $0.37–$0.54 per plant in labor. When we analyzed input costs of each alternative container separately, container type had the largest impact on total direct costs. Before adding container costs, the direct COP ranged from $0.56 to $0.61 per plant. After adding containers, costs ranged from $0.61 to $0.97 per plant. Wood fiber pots were the most expensive and recycled reground plastic pots were the least expensive in this study. Based on our assessment and the observed small variation in GWP between alternative containers, growers would benefit from selecting a container based on price and consumer demand. Some social costs that we are not aware of yet may be associated with some or all biocontainers.

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Robin G. Brumfield, Alyssa J. DeVincentis, Xueni Wang, R. Thomas Fernandez, Susmitha Nambuthiri, Robert L. Geneve, Andrew K. Koeser, Guihong Bi, Tongyin Li, Youping Sun, Genhua Niu, Diana Cochran, Amy Fulcher and J. Ryan Stewart

As high-input systems, plant production facilities for liner and container plants use large quantities of water, fertilizers, chemical pesticides, plastics, and labor. The use of renewable and biodegradable inputs for growing aesthetically pleasing and healthy plants could potentially improve the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of current production systems. However, costs for production components to integrate sustainable practices into established systems have not been fully explored to date. Our objectives were to determine the economic costs of commercial production systems using alternative containers in aboveground nursery systems. We determined the cost of production (COP) budgets for two woody plant species grown in several locations across the United States. Plants were grown in plastic pots and various alternative pots made from wood pulp (WP), fabric (FB), keratin (KT), and coconut fiber (coir). Cost of production inputs for aboveground nursery systems included the plant itself (liner), liner shipping costs, pot, pot shipping costs, substrate, substrate shipping costs, municipal water, and labor. Our results show that the main difference in the COP is the price of the pot. Although alternative containers could potentially increase water demands, water is currently an insignificant cost in relation to the entire production process. Use of alternative containers could reduce the carbon, water, and chemical footprints of nurseries and greenhouses; however, the cost of alternative containers must become more competitive with plastic to make them an acceptable routine choice for commercial growers.