Amherst Nurseries owner experiments with soil-saving

Most nurseries sell trees either in large containers or “balled and burlapped,” a technique that involves digging the tree in the field with a large root ball, which is then encased in burlap for easy transport. John Kinchla of Amherst Nurseries is experimenting with a new method he believes saves soil and produces a better root system.

Kinchla has been working with Daniel Lass, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of agricultural economics, and Cathy Neal, an extension specialist at the University of New Hampshire, in testing the new system, Rootmaker bags.

“You see balled and burlapped trees leaving a nursery and you realize how much soil is leaving, too,” Kinchla said. Some growers still fill the growing bags with soil, but Kinchla has a different experiment.

“The whole idea of Rootmaker is to reduce the amount of soil necessary. We use zero soil, just compost and bark mulch,” he said.

He purchases one-year saplings, called liners, and upon arrival from the wholesale supplier, plants them in the compost-bark mixture in the knit fabric bags. Then he sets them in rows above ground for two or three months. Finally, he creates a furrowed row, drags an auger behind a tractor to dig holes and plants the trees, bags and all, about every five feet in the nursery row. They will continue to grow in their bags in the ground for two or three years.

The Rootmaker system has been used by southern nurseries for about 20 years, according to Lass in a video on YouTube that is linked to the Amherst Nurseries website. The bags haven’t been popular in colder New England but Kinchla is helping UMass scientists evaluate the system for our area.

Lass said the system not only saves soil but inhibits the development of girdling roots common in container-grown specimens. Girdling roots, ones that circle the plant in the pot, eventually can cause death of the tree.

Kinchla said the essential feeder roots, kept contained in a pot or cut off when digging a bagged and burlapped tree, can easily grow through the Rootmaker fabric, which must be removed before planting. The mild upheaval to the roots in the new system is a form of root pruning rather than a detriment to the plant.

Kinchla’s two-step nursery planting technique is time-consuming but Lass says in the video “the savings are at the other end when you dig. They pop right out of the ground in the little bags.” Testing a new system like this “is a little risky to adapt,” Kinchla said, but as a UMass graduate with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he is interested in the research aspect.

Last week he had a few trees and shrubs in the nursery yard that had already been removed from the ground for demonstrating at New England Grows and other professional conferences. You could see the healthy roots coming out of the Rootmaker bags on a boxwood, a ‘Dart’s Gold’ ninebark, a ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple and a ‘PeeGee’ hydrangea. Despite sitting in the cold and snow for nearly two months, they looked perfectly healthy, although he said the hydrangea “had seen better days” after its travels.

From mowing to growing

Kinchla graduated from UMass in 1997 with a degree from the department of plant and soil science. Originally from eastern Massachusetts, he said, “I’ve always done landscaping. I started mowing when I was 12 and it put me through college.” At UMass he got more interested in growing plants than in simply mowing grass and wanted to become a vegetable grower but that field wasn’t very popular then. “It’s different now,” he said. “Agriculture as a whole has taken a big upturn and upswing.” Growing local vegetables — and local trees and shrubs — is much more popular in the 21st century.

In 2004, after getting his master’s degree in agricultural economics at UMass, Kinchla opened Amherst Nurseries as a wholesale operation in Sunderland.

He also bought 75 acres in Charlemont for growing trees and shrubs. Then in 2007 he bought 15 acres at 199 Belchertown Road in Amherst with plans to open a retail store.

The store opened in 2009 “right in the middle of the recession,” he said ruefully. But he added, “It’s best to start growing trees when you are younger.”

He still grows vegetables. A previous owner had leased the Amherst property to farmers for years, so last year Kinchla had a crop of pumpkins and gourds. This year he will plant zucchini and summer squash between the rows of trees to sell wholesale.

“We have a high water table here so we don’t want to use a lot of fertilizer and herbicide,” he said. Irrigation of his trees is by soaker hoses laid on the ground beside the rows of trees and shrubs.

In Amherst he now has about 5,000 to 6,000 deciduous trees, including fruit trees, plus the same number of evergreens and about 2,500 shrubs. The trees on his Charlemont farm are field-grown and then dug and balled and burlapped. Land is cheaper in Charlemont, he said, and one advantage of the higher altitude is that it is cooler in the summer.

“When we have a lot of hot weather like last year, it bought us extra time in digging,” he said. Rows and rows of trees and shrubs can be seen from Route 9 at the nursery, which opens for business for the season today.

Kinchla purchases saplings from wholesale nurseries including Nasami Farm in Whately, the native plant nursery of the New England Wild Flower Society, and from growers as far away as Oregon. He then grows them for two or three years before putting them up for sale.

“I buy almost everything in,” he said. “It’s hard to do propagation especially since I don’t have a mist house.”

Although he specializes in deciduous trees, he also grows evergreens like arborvitae and spruce.

The evergreens provided a little color in the fields on a cloudy March day. Kinchla says these popular hedging plants require considerable pruning in their early stages. ‘Emerald Green’, for example, is a rather compact conical shape, while ‘Green Giant’ needs careful pruning and he often provides a training stake to get the right shape.

From the beginning he has offered landscape design and contracting services. He hires seasonal employees who work in Amherst and Charlemont as well as on his Sunderland acreage.

Kinchla said it will be interesting to see, over time, how the new Rootmaker system works in New England.

“The customers really like them,” Kinchla said. For one thing with only compost and bark, the tree is a lot lighter to carry.

If Kinchla’s experiment is successful, it will have great implications for the nursery industry in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Amherst Nurseries with its balled and burlapped, field-grown and Rootmaker system trees and shrubs is open for the season.