Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Rootrainers and bog roll tubes: some thoughts

I don't often endorse commercial products, and even less often patented ones. It's even more unusual for me to spend sixty quid on plastic flowerpots (I'm still checking my pulse). But as a former cardboard-tubeholic sceptical of overpriced plastic I've been won over by the usefulness of the Rootrainers system. Although I was in denial about it for a couple of years (clinging to my bog rolls) there's no question that the crops I raise in Rootrainers do significantly and consistently better than the ones grown in anything else. Consequently I've decided to blow my Christmas money on a few extra trays of them for this year's pea extravaganza. I still save bog roll tubes through some obsessive compulsive disorder but I'm going to have to find some other use for them (overwinter nests for giant bees?)

There was a discussion on this blog a while back about whether the chemicals used in bog roll tube manufacture leach out into the soil and harm the plants. Since then I've been looking carefully at how well my bog roll grown peas have been getting on and although they usually do all right once they're planted out there certainly seems to be an issue with germination. I normally get close to 100% germination from my home-saved peas but when sown in a lavatorial cylinder, germination flushed down to 50-70% with very erratic emergence. Some didn't show themselves until about three weeks after sowing. Particularly badly affected was the breeding project from which the red-podded pea later emerged. More than half the F2 seed I sowed was lost to poor germination, and some of those might have been useful red phenotypes ... I can't afford to lose that many. Later in the year I sowed some more seeds from the same batch in Rootrainers, and got full germination in just a few days.

I know there are a few arguments against using Rootrainers. They are expensive. Patented products carry a premium and I'm often wary about what I'm actually paying for. But while I'm deeply opposed to the patenting of genes and plant varieties, when it comes to protecting genuinely useful (non-living) inventions that took a lot of work to design it's a bit different. If you look closely at the design of a Rootrainer 'book', how snugly it fits together and how the shape of every nook and cranny has been meticulously engineered to nurture the plant's roots and aerate them without letting the compost fall out, it's obvious that someone who knew what they were doing has put a lot of thought into it. They are a bit fiddly to clean and put together and (the big ones at least) seem to consume frightening amounts of compost, but what can I say? The plants they produce are among the best I've ever grown.

Rootrainers were developed in Canada for the tree propagation industry. Forestry is not so big in the UK but they are beloved here by sweet pea growers for the deep root runs they provide. I've never seen them specifically recommended for culinary peas, but as Pisum and Lathyrus grow in a similar way and have similar needs I thought it was worth a go. And it was.

I should point out that not everybody would benefit from growing peas this way. If you're growing seeds from a big packet you got at the garden centre you might as well save yourself the bother and direct-sow them in the ground, accepting that some will be eaten by birds or mice and can easily be replaced if necessary. Or use lengths of guttering, which also works well. But I grow a lot of stuff which isn't replaceable ... rare heirlooms and my own breeding projects. Very often I only have 10 or 20 seeds or less of any given type and can't risk direct sowing. For this kind of thing Rootrainers are invaluable.

Rootrainers are hinged plastic 'books' which fold in half to make very deep modules (up to five inches), and sit in a plastic frame all wedged together. It's the wedging-in that holds everything rigid, so if you take a couple out the rest will either fall over or spring open unless you wedge some other small object in there. But all the same it's useful to be able to slide out individual rows, which you can't do with a conventional module tray. And there's no sagging when you pick them up either. The sides of the books are grooved, which neatly trains the roots of seedlings down in a straight line. Each cell has an opening at the bottom which allows the roots (but miraculously not the compost) to emerge through the bottom and be 'air-pruned', which encourages the seedling to make more roots, which also grow downwards in perfect straight lines. At planting-out time the books can be lifted out of the frame and opened, and the rootball (or rootwedge, more like) will slide out with very little root disturbance. And more importantly, with very little top disturbance either. Peas have incredibly fragile stems which are easily broken when planting out (to compensate for this vulnerability they are exceedingly good at surviving injury, but it's much better to avoid damaging them) so it's good to use modules which you don't have to tip upside down or tap or squidge the bottoms of.

The aeration underneath makes a huge difference to the health of the plants and the drainage is really well balanced, so any watering from the top drains straight through and watering from the bottom (which I find works better) soaks up quickly. They retain moisture far longer than normal modules but because of the good aeration I hardly ever have any problems with mould or with seeds rotting in the soil - a very common problem with peas sown in bog roll tubes.

One thing about Rootrainers (and bog roll tubes for that matter) which I find useful is that there's no need for potting-on. The root run is so deep it keeps the plants surging away until they're big enough to plant out. With peas it is important to plant them out before they get too big, especially tall varieties. If you leave them too long their tendrils grab hold of their neighbours and it's a right sod to separate them. They also flop over and bend the stems so a bit of care is needed to get the best out of module-sown peas. All the same, the reliability of growing them this way is well worth it. When using full-sized Rootrainers (5" deep, 32 cells) I sow two peas in each module, so I get 64 plants per tray. I don't thin them, because peas are sociable plants and like climbing up one another. I plant the pairs out into the garden when they're a few inches tall and they grow away like rockets.

Since I'm stocking up on new Rootrainers this year I'm going to try the smaller-celled version, which is very slightly shallower, uses a lot less compost and has 50 small modules per tray instead of 32 big 'uns. I think these will be ideal for sowing peas individually, which is what I want to do with some of my breeding projects.

Last year I tried sowing sweetcorn and climbing beans in Rootrainers, and they all did extremely well too.

As I say, the advantages of Rootrainers are likely to be useful to some people and not others, depending on what you grow and how you like to do it. But so far for me they've proved themselves a good investment, and they do last for years. I've used them with coconut coir (very light and airy, good in every respect but the plugs tend to fall to bits when planting out), peat-free multipurpose compost, and a John Innes seed compost (makes a nice sturdy plug but it's very heavy and some of the sandy particles get washed out the bottom).

On the subject of giant bees, I was out in the garden on New Year's Day and I met with a huge bumble bee the size of a guinea pig. Well all right, it wasn't quite that big but it was pretty damned enormous. It was buzzing around listlessly in the frost looking confused. I don't know what's going on with bees at the moment.


Unknown said...

I love my Rootrainers, although it's worth noting that the plastic doesn't do well when left outside for weeks on end.

As to the excess loo roll tubes, bung 'em on the compost :)

The Allotment Blogger said...

Very interesting. I'm a dedicated bog-roll inner tube person myself, but I'm also a planter of tree seeds so perhaps I will try a comparison planting on the tree side and see if germination is substantially better in rootrainers. I agree about root runs; it's vital for long-lived plants to get that early root establishment on germination and bog-rolls are very good for that.

As for bees, it's a real issue - last year some bee populations were out and about in February and then suffered catastrophically with the damp and cold of March which led to hives being wiped out across much of Southern England.

Kath said...

Interesting post (as usual) - I've only ever used loo roll tubes for pre-germinaed parsnips which prevents the usual gappy rows and the rolls just break down.

I started sowing heritage peas last year with some from the HSL - as you say, 10 peas and you don't want to lose ANY. I also did my first pea crosses and again, the seeds are precious.

As it happens, a group of villagers had bought some local provenance wild flowers for the churchyard which came in the slightly shorter root-trainers. My little eyes lit up! I asked if anyone wanted them when we'd finished planting and no-one did. What a bonus for doing good!

Anonymous said...

As far as starting peas indoors, did you read the Real Seeds newsletter from 2008?


Buried deep down in the middle of it was the suggestion that starting peas indoors by sprouting them in kitchen roll was usually enough, and fully developed seedlings in containers often wasn't necessary.

I'm going to try this for the coming year, because I don't really have the indoor space to start all of my peas in pots.

Anonymous said...

I've been saving my bog rolls - to plant parsnip seeds in. Worked well for me last year and think the idea was from Matron or Vegetable Heaven. Sweet peas also did well in them.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Patrick, yeah I'd be the first to admit that growing peas in modules makes no sense at all for most people! I only do it because some of the seeds I sow are irreplaceable and very often I only have them in quantities of 10 or fewer. I have tried the pre-sprouting method recommended by Real Seeds and it does work well. But I still lose a few to snails or frost. Starting them off in modules indoors raises the success rate enormously and extends the season, so for a pea-nerd like me it's worth the extra effort.

Owen Bridge said...

We used Roottrainers last spring for starting our tomatoes with resonable success (yes, they're available here in Canada too). I actually prefer using slightly larger pots for starting most of our tomatoes, although they must be the perfect size for peas. We're lucky here in Nova Scotia that the winters kill off most of the slugs, so we can simply direct sow peas with reliable results.

Also, I've just starting following this amazing blog! Thanks for all the great information Rebsie, I'll soon have to acquire some of the English pea varieties that you descibe so well but are unavailable in North America.

Robbiegirl said...

I'll admit the price of Rootrainers puts me off. Is there a cheaper alternative I wonder?

Oh and happy birthday, by the way!

Bishops Homegrown said...

Never used root trainers, but thank you for the heads up, I may have to look into those now. BTW, I hope you had a great birthday my friend! Where have you been lately?

Ottawa Gardener said...

For your bog-roll obsessive compulsive disorder, you could always use them as cut worm collars... of course you may be lucky enough not to have that scourge... I wonder if plastic water bottles with holes in the bottom would work?? (I'm just trying to avoid spending my xmas money on them too after your endorsement ;) )

Misshathorn said...

I agree, they are a good investment. I've been using them for over 10 years to get most things started. The only downside I've found is that occasionally a slug will secrete itself up in the nooks & crannies and do damage at night.
But, I want to ask - are those peas in the top picture this year's?

Anonymous said...

I'm from the states but I'd never heard of "rootrainers" before. I'll have to see if we have them here. Although like you I don't like purchasing this kind of stuff. I'd

bruce elliott said...

i used bog rolls a few times many years ago , got alot of mould problems from them so went back to old fence pailings cut and nailed togethet to form trays ,, remove 1 side for easy removal of seedlings,
,i just fell back to the plastic reusable type myself ,after finding suiatable reusable ones cheap

Anonymous said...

They're also excellent for starting off leeks if you don't have room for seedlings on your plot.

VP said...

Hi Rebsie - interesting. I haven't found much difference between loo roll tubes and Rootrainers, but then I germinate my peas, sweetcorn etc first before potting them up.

My other use for loo roll innards is for blanching leeks - no need to earth up soil around them, so easier to do and less soil to wash off them later :)

Anonymous said...

Theres no doubt about it - rootrainers win hands down. Could someone not come up with a more eco conscience version of these?

Red Clover said...

As a novice I am in awe at how well your peas (and I am assuming most everything else) seems to be doing. Thanks for the tips. I am going to have to check them out!

ConsciousGardener said...

I can't say I've seen these here in Texas. I'll have to peruse the web for some! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Never seen Rootrainers before, but boy. Those are some nice looking roots!!

Anonymous said...

I've always used bog rolls as I'm skint, but if there is a chemical used in the manufacture of bog roll (and kitchen towel) inserts that affects germination/growth, then not only should we avoid using them for individual sowing, but we shouldn't be putting them on compost heaps either.

Unknown said...

Great article! I am saving loo rolls for peas this year and I will report back with germination details!!

Great blog, please check mine out: http://ryans-garden.blogspot.com/

Keep up the good work!

Rachel said...

I love the idea of Rootrainers, but have had real trouble with the one set I have bought. I can't get all the books in the frame so they are a bit floppy and not held tightly shut and when trying to fill them they kept opening on me, argh! Hopefully I'll have better luck next time.
I love the look of the new pea and the details of how you created it are really interesting, thanks.

mjm said...

Great blog. Too bad you're not updating it much anymore. I'm giving toilet paper tubes a go this year as an experiment. I don't like peat pots, and I would think the tubes would degrade in short order in the ground. You can check out my blog on garden Xing

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AMIT said...
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Arizona foreclosures said...

I started sowing heritage peas last year with some from the HSL - as you say, 10 peas and you don't want to lose ANY. I also did my first pea crosses and again, the seeds are precious. Roll-Off Containers

Mike, Hemel said...

Re Rootrainers, I have used them for a number of years to grow Heritage varieties of peas and runner beans and they are excellent. However, they are fragile and even with the most careful handling they eventually come apart at the base. Don't despair and bin them as they can be easily used in their broken state because the tray in which they are held keeps them together when they are filled with compost.

Gale Green said...

Hi: I just stumbled on to your blog and read all the comments, also,--all with interest. Lee Valley (great woodworking tool, garden stuff, hardware, etc. catalogs!) offers these Rootrainers for sale. One for about $17--, and if you buy 3+--the price is around $15. Has anyone found a less expensive version? I know your site is ad free, but it would be really helpful and save a lot of human hours of work finding stuff on the internet if those who find, would post where they find and a general $$. Thank you! (PS--I live in southwest New Mexico (USA)--about 6,000' altitude. We have hot summers so it's important to get peas growing as soon in the spring as possible--I'd like to use this method.

Jon B said...

Also just stumbled across your blog - very interesting. I use a greenhouse full of them and they are excellent - saves loads of space and plants really thrive. Found best place to bulk buy is garden roots - met the guy that runs its at a couple of garden shows as was converted - www.garden-roots.co.uk

not sure about the bog rolls ! - but may give them a try if run out of cash!

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