Growers use an even more diverse range of fabrics. There are fleeces and thermal nets to aid early production in the field while ground covers can help keep crops clean and reduce the need for herbicides. Insect, bird and hail/rain netting is often deemed necessary to raise the quality and yield of edible and some ornamental crops.
On the nursery, fabrics can be found in most stages of production. Around the site there may windbreaks and shading, while polythene tunnels are a regular feature on most. Nurserymen growing under glass are likely to employ shade netting, thermal screens and blackout screens. Fleeces and prop blankets may be used in the propagation department. Standing-out beds will almost certainly be topped with ground-covering fabric and many nurseries and garden centres will consider capillary matting for irrigation.
But the question for everyone looking to buy fabrics, regardless of the sector or of the function of the material, is one of quality. Do you opt for a budget product, even though you suspect its longevity may be shorter? Or do you invest in more expensive fabric in the hope that it could last many years and be reused? For some tasks it may be possible to consider degradable materials and save on the cost of collection and disposal. While many growers and nurserymen choose to spend as little as possible, others are taking a fresh look at the fabrics available to them.
Peak sales periods
Sales of various fabrics tend to peak at different times of the year, depending on the sector, function and season. XL Horticulture in Devon is reporting many enquiries for its high-quality CosyTex fleece. An alternative to traditional horticultural fleece, it is a transparent knitted net made of ultraviolet-stabilised, thermally efficient polythene tapes that give good light transmission and irrigation or rainwater transfer.
Weighing 38g per square metre, CosyTex gives some protection against aphids and can withstand up to 300 Kilo Langleys of ultraviolet radiation, making it suitable for four years of consistent use. Because it can be used for several seasons, disposing of the fabric is only a concern every few years instead of being an annual headache. It is available in roll sizes of 200m x 2m, 4m, 6m or 8m and 100m x 10m, 12m or 16m.
At Agralan, based near Swindon, managing director Alan Frost reports high levels of interest in Enviromesh. This is a quality fabric that, according to Frost, "should last at least 10 years".
A fine-mesh netting, Enviromesh is woven from ultraviolet-stabilised polythene. Significantly for organic growers and at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to use chemical controls, this netting excludes insect pests such as cabbage root fly, carrot fly, caterpillars, aphids and leaf miners from the crop. It also protects against birds, rabbits, hares and deer.
Enviromesh can also be used to protect against frost, hail and wind - protection from wind also helps to reduce water loss - and it reduces soiling of salad crops from rain and irrigation water splash.
Mesh size is 1.35mm and weight is around 55g per square metre. Light passage through Enviromesh is recorded at 90 per cent and air passage at 75 per cent. It is supplied in a range of widths, in standard roll lengths of 100m. An Ultra Fine version is offered with mesh size of 0.8x0.8mm to protect against flea beetle and for use as screening across glasshouse doors and vents. Again, life expectancy is 10 years.
Woven ground fabric
Ground cover is a popular purchase at this time of year. Lows of Dundee horticultural executive Rosie Wrigley reports high demand for the company's quality polypropylene woven ground fabric. "PP ground cover is going through the roof at the moment, with a lot of fruit growers now using fabric as well," she confirms. "We only do the superior 100g grade. That's best way forward."
Similarly at PG Horticulture, business development manager James Avery has seen good sales of ground cover. "It's that time of year for things like ground cover materials but this year people have also been looking at capillary mat options," he says.
PG Horticulture supplies capillary matting from German manufacturer Reimann, whose products include Florapol, Floraplus 2, Floraplus 3, Vivapol, Vivaplus 2 and Vivaplus 3. Florapol and Vivapol are single-layer capillary matting. Each has a twoand three-layer equivalent to comprise woven polypropylene and/or polyethylene film. The two or three layers are glued and pinned over the entire area of the matting, making it quick and easy to install.
Avery says Florapol is a more cost-effective product compared to Vivapol, an aspect reflected in the water-retention statistics. "We tend to only supply Viva products, given the water retention and capillary properties, and this is aligned to our focus on marketing and supplying high-quality products," he adds. "I would encourage growers to buy a quality product. So many just buy cheap and cheerful, thinking it will get through one or two years, but I know a grower who has been using Viva matting for about 10 years. With care, they are long-lasting."
Vivapol single-layer matting is described as having exceptional capillarity, even water distribution, high water retention, tear resistance and low shrinkage. In 200g per square metre, white, it is suitable for cultivation, container production and retail use.
Vivaplus 2-Ply combines Vivapol with Contex ultraviolet-stabilised polypropylene ribbon for a material for use in aluminium trays and containers. It is heavy-duty, black with a check pattern, 300g per square metre and comes in widths up to 5.2m. The 3-Ply Vivaplus combines Vivapol with Contex and a polyethylene waterproof bottom sheet for store counters and ground displays. In widths up to 2.2m, it weighs 400g per square metre and is black with a check pattern.
Many growers are now viewing fabrics as an investment. Referring to quality capillary matting, Flowering Plants managing director Francis Richardson says: "We do have customers who see the point." Flowering Plants supplies Florimats, including Florimats 2 and 5 for commercial growers of potand container-grown plants. For garden centre benches, Florimat 3 provides an easy water management system, producing quality plants and lowering the costs of watering.
In times of financial pressures, growers need to know how fast a product or system will repay the investment. "Once properly installed, Florimat systems are easy to operate and maintain," says Richardson. "With reasonable care, they produce healthy plants of consistent quality for lower costs and with few or no plants out of grade. To work out how fast your investment should repay you, you need to consider the benefits."
A main benefit is even water distribution and redistribution. Each Florimat has a specific capillary action to not only deliver water evenly but also redistribute water from plants that are not using it to those that need it. "Plants in any one area should all get the same breakfast when they are watered and all grow the same muscles as they dry," Richardson points out.
Flowering Plants customers also report that Florimats can eliminate the use of growth regulators because, providing alkalinity is appropriately controlled, they can use a "wet-to-dry" cycle to control the height of plants such as choisya, hebe, photinia and poinsettia.
Then there is the opportunity to improve quality, while still reducing costs, by ensuring liquid fertiliser is evenly distributed to the entire batch of plants and by greatly reducing leaching. Florimats also encourage large and diverse populations of microflora for plants to take up fertiliser more efficiently. Beneficial microflora - those that predate on plant pathogens - also mean reduced fungicide usage.
"Customers using the Florimat system rarely use fungicides against wateror soil-borne pathogens. This is good for your pocket as well as your marketing," says Richardson. He also promotes the use of Florimat 3 in garden centres to sustain and improve plant quality.
"The F3 system allows people to do a better job in five minutes than they could do in hours of hand watering and can improve plants overnight," he adds. "Florimat 3 capillary matting on its own usually cuts watering time by 60 per cent or more." That valuable time can be spent restocking benches.
Such benefits can only strengthen the case for investing in quality rather than spending money on replacements year after year.