Avoid Root Rot

One of my former students visited me over the Christmas holidays. He is now what I consider to be one of the best grower-managers of one of the premier greenhouse ranges in the United States.

As old professors often do, I asked him questions just to stimulate his thoughts. I asked, “How do you avoid root rot?”

We then had a half-hour discussion about all the symptoms, the chemical controls and the environmental conditions that could be used to control root rot problems in plants.

It was a very good and valuable exchange of information during which I probably learned more about the recent advancements in this area of plant pathology than he did. I complimented him on his thorough knowledge of the subject.

Then, just to keep him on his toes, I said, “You know a great deal about root rot in plants, but I was trying to determine what you know about root rot in a business.”

I compared the symptoms of plant root rot to the symptoms of root rot in a business. He said that his observations were that there are three stages of development in a business.

First, there is the development stage, secondly the growth phase and then either the maturation or demise of the business.

Breaking Down The Phases

In the development phase, everyone has to work hard and long to obtain the capital it takes to sustain the business. From what I’ve seen over the years, it usually takes three to five years to make a profit on a business in our industry unless you have a source of enough money to build and mature the business before you start.

I have one former student who said it took him and his wife more than 10 years in the development stage to become financially sound. However, today they have a retail growing operation that provides an income of more than $500,000 a year. Their business is now mature and they need to determine what to do with it.

The third stage is usually a difficult transition. The owners need to decide whether to maintain the business, pass it on to family members or sell or close the operation.

Very few horticultural businesses last 100 years. Some only last for a year, some for five years, some 25 or 50 years, but they usually follow the business life cycle. If the owners do not develop a succession plan, the business will eventually die.

Many owners have succession plans but do not share them with family members involved in the business or with their employees because they feel the time is not right. They do not want any of their customers or suppliers to know that they will be leaving the company, because if they are the key figures and have built the company, they have the respect and confidence of customers and suppliers. They want to avoid business root rot as long as possible and leave the business in a strong position for the next CEO to be successful in developing the business further.

Here are six keywords related to root rot in plants and business:


If you don’t have the plant varieties that are most resistant to root rot, you will be vulnerable to the disease from the beginning.

With people, root rot may also start with genetics. For example, nepotism, giving family members jobs that they are not capable of doing, or hiring incompetent management. Today, our businesses require many skills. Education is an essential part of the person to be hired. Those best qualified with education and practical experience should be chosen. The chances of root rot in business are high when the right people are not employed.


Perhaps you have chosen the wrong plants or you don’t know how to grow them. Your plants aren’t saleable – a sign of plant root rot.

When your sales don’t increase or you can’t sell what you have grown, there is a lack of profit – a sign of business root rot. You have to identify the cause and solve the problem quickly.


You need the right environment to grow quality product. Plants need good control of temperature and moisture, appropriate media and proper sanitation. People need the right environment to do their jobs of growing and selling the product.

Many improvements have been made in the last 10 years in each of these areas. Computerization of plant production, logistical management, information technology and sales and marketing have improved tremendously. All these are now essential to produce the plants and move them to where the consumer can purchase them.
When all these systems are working, there is less root rot.


Plants need knowledgeable people to grow them. If the growers don’t have the basic knowledge of the plant sciences, they can’t grow plants successfully. Poor or no plants will mean no business.

Plants have to look good to be sold. The best method of production will be the one that produces the best-looking plants.

People who have not been trained or have no experience growing plants almost always produce poor quality crops that cannot be sold. A successful business usually has the best-qualified growers and managers.

Quality people produce quality plants. Less root rot will occur when the business has both.


The secret of producing green plants is having the money to grow them. If plants don’t have the proper fertilizers, chemical controls, media, light and temperature, they are more difficult or even impossible to grow. Root rot will occur.
Likewise, if you don’t have money, you can’t hire the skilled people needed to do a proper job of growing the plants. If you don’t have money, you can’t build and maintain the proper facilities to grow the plants.

Many people start in our business because they love plants. They are amateurs who think they can make a living growing plants that other people will love as much as they do. While the thought is wonderful and can give them a feeling of self-satisfaction, most who enter the commercial world of floriculture have major problems when they don’t have the money to build the facilities and hire professional growers and salespeople or the contacts with suppliers of the products they need to compete commercially. No money equals plant and business root rot.


There is little hope of survival when a plant does not have the proper environment to grow. It will show signs of the problem. All types of symptoms can occur. A professional grower or outside consultant can usually identify the problem, but in many cases it is too late to save the crop. Root rot of the plant will occur.

Also, a business will not survive when all the steps in production and business management are not followed. It will not make a profit and will need to borrow money. Many have borrowed from suppliers, using the supplier as a banker because the bank will not loan them money. When debt becomes too high, the business shows signs of root rot and it may be too late to save it.

Root rot of the plants or the business means neither will survive. My point is that both plants and businesses can suffer from root rot. The prevention of the problem is similar in both!

I hope you will continue to check both your plants and your business to prevent root rot.

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago. Drop him a line at will@greenhousegrower.com.

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