A Greener Pot
Western Pulp Products' fiber pots meet consumers' green expectations.
June 19, 2008
When Western Pulp Products introduced the nursery industry to biodegradable, molded fiber containers in the mid-1950s, headlines in the company's trade ads heralded the news: "Now you can plant pot 'n' all!"
While this feature is still a strong selling point today, especially with the steam-rolling green movement in America, Western Pulp has since come out with a broad line of paraffin wax-permeated, extra-strength molded fiber pots that perform very well above ground, as well.
There are several advantages to using Western Pulp containers. For starters, because they stand up much better to the sun's UV rays, they often outlast plastic pots, says Jim Lee, Western Pulp Products' sales and marketing manager. The result is that waxed, molded fiber containers do not become brittle or break after a single year's use.
Another reason Western containers are especially popular today is that they are made from 100 percent recycled newsprint and, to a lesser extent, heavier kraft paper trimmings, such as cardboard. The comparison to plastic pots is obvious: Western containers won't lie around in landfills — or someone's backyard — for eons after they've outlived their usefulness. Because they're made almost entirely of cellulose, they decompose rapidly in the soil, and can even be used to make compost and mulches, or simply thrown out with landscape clippings. Compared to plastic, they also let plants breathe when used above ground.
One drawback to Western containers, especially during these times when almost everything is price driven, is that the smaller ones usually cost more than plastic pots.
"Western containers are not always more expensive than plastic containers," Lee says. "Normally, as our containers get larger, their pricing becomes comparable to plastic pots, and in some cases, they are actually lower in price." Where prices do contribute to higher plant prices, retail garden centers are finding, however, that there are lots of consumers who are willing to pay the added cost for a container that's not only eco-friendly but will last longer and is easily disposed of.
Another disadvantage, one which has since been solved and even turned into a positive, is that because of their irregular surfaces, Western containers will not take a traditional sticky-back bar code. The company overcame that problem by coming up with a T-fastener and barcode tag that attaches quickly to their retail line of containers and can simply be snipped off after purchase.
The silver lining to this is that because Western containers do not accept ink, you won't find any blaring, unremovable logos plastered all over them. "Like the Un-Cola years ago, we're the Un-Branded container," Lee says. "If you're a garden center, do you really want every one of your container vendors with their merchandising and branding programs in there? It would look like a zoo."
Western Pulp makes a broad range of molded fiber pots, starting with the small, 1.6-gallon patio planter all the way up to the monstrous 70.67-gallon container, which drew a lot of attention at the most recent OFA Short Course. Included in the company's portfolio is the hanging basket line, which starts at a capacity of 1.84 gallons and goes up to the 5.99-gallon garden basket. All in all, there are close to 60 different configurations.
Lee says that for a time, Western Pulp struggled with a way to lower the cost of its containers to be more competitive with plastic. But that was soon abandoned.
"We came to the realization that we didn't have to go there," Lee says. "Molded fiber grew better quality plants," and were worth every penny.
The Standard Of Quality
Five years ago, Oregon's largest greenhouse grower was potting its hanging baskets and patio planters in plastic mainly, with molded fiber pots making up only around 5 percent of the total. Today, more than 50 percent of the plants Hart's Nursery propagates go out the door in fiber pots — Western Pulp fiber pots.
"It's really leaning very hard that way as a major portion of our pots and baskets from this point forward," says Doug Hart, third generation owner/general manager.
"I think that from a grower standpoint, the Western Pulp product is very grower friendly, kinder to the plant, it breathes, is insulated. There are a lot of advantages if it doesn't dry out so fast. They are the pot to beat."
Hart says the main reason he's stepped up his use of fiber pots is that orders are pretty much retailer driven these days. "One of the reasons that I see a lot more in the future is because of my newer customers coming on board. This is their container of choice." Hart says one of his major customers, which has always been a pulp fiber user, is planning on stepping up its original program to a green level. "What they thought was aesthetic and different before still is, but more importantly, it's (going) green." Even though other manufacturers are now offering fiber pots of one sort or another, Hart prefers Western Pulp.
"They're still the standard of quality, still the number one player. In my opinion, it's the original green program," Hart says. "My slogan for them would be, 'The only natural choice.'"
Hart believes over the next decade there will be a big change in the industry to alternative ways to market plants to consumers, especially newer generations with little time on their hands, "in a more green manner."
This came home to him dramatically in 2006 when he displayed numerous plants at the Oregon State Fair, all "plastic-less. Everybody thought it was a great idea."
He added, however, that large, price-driven chains will be slower to adopt the movement. "In the competitive market of mass merchants, that takes a real strong lead. You are going to pay probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 percent more for a 10-inch pulp than a 10-inch plastic pot."
Bauman's Big On Molded Fiber
Grower/farm direct retailer Bauman Farms near Woodburn, Ore., has had great success with hanging baskets ever since it added them to its popular farm-grown produce line several years ago. The operation uses both plastic and Western Pulp containers, the latter for around 10 years, says Brian Bauman, retail sales manager at Bauman Farms.
"The (Western Pulp) 18-inch pulp basket is by far the number one big basket we sell to customers," he says. "We sell around 1,500 of the 18-inch baskets (a year). The bigger (plastic) baskets are mostly for cities and businesses." The 18-inch Garden Basket enables customers to have a really big, beautiful basket that doesn't weigh over 100 pounds, Bauman says.
"The soil volume versus weight is a good ratio. They (hold) a good amount of soil volume but are not super heavy. They just work really well for us," he says. Plants grown in Western hanging baskets are lighter, Bauman says, because the baskets are tapered at the bottom, and thus don't require as much soil or water as a comparable-size plastic pot. "They hold just enough to keep the plant going."
While Western Pulp's biodegradable nature "is part of it" when it comes to their popularity, Bauman adds that customer awareness of what kind of basket they're getting is not high because "you can't see the basket when we sell it." But feedback has been good.
"We've had very good response from our customers on how well the plants grow in the pulp, that they hold water fairly well and give them a nice big basket." Bauman Farms buys only unwaxed Western Garden Baskets, which are designed to last a year.
The farm has very few if any hanging baskets unsold at the close of the season. Any stragglers are disposed of, whether they're pulp or plastic. "Every pot would have to be disinfected if we were to use it again," Bauman says. When such is the case, the Western pots are simply burned.
Treat Roots Better
Ellen Egan, owner of grower/retailer Egan Gardens in Salem, Ore., has used the pulp products for many years. "We mostly use their hanging baskets and we also do our roses in the 10-inch pots," she says. Two features of the Western hanging containers that Egan likes are the insulation from heat and the way plant roots cling to the rough, slightly porous sides.
"Plant roots can hook into the sides, so if the basket does dry down you don't get that gap. When you go to water, it'll soak up better." Egan says she still must educate some shoppers that paraffin-treated molded fiber pots do not leak. "They hold up just fine for a whole season and longer if people want to re-use them." Visit the Western Pulp Products Web site at www.westernpulp.com.
John Schmitz is a freelance writer based in Salem, Ore.