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Testing Biodegradable Seedling Containers as an Alternative for Polythene Tubes in Tropical Small-Scale Tree Nurseries


Polythene tubes are the most commonly used seedling containers and their adoption can be attributed to high water retention that enhances seedling establishment as well as the desire for low-cost readily-available containers by nursery operators. Polythene tubes have drawbacks, however, because they adversely affect seedling root growth and are an environmental hazard. This study was conducted in Meru, Eastern Kenya, to investigate whether small-scale tree nursery operators are likely to adopt biodegradable seedling containers (cellulose papers and banana sheaths). It was hypothesised that biodegradable containers are better for seedling growth and are more environmental friendly than the widely used polythene bags. The study assessed the frequency of watering and growth (height and basal diameter) of Calliandra calothyrsus seedlings produced in various biodegradable containers under three conditions with varying watering requirements, i.e. light tree shade, shade net and polythene chambers, the first being widely used by farmers. The performance of these seedlings was later monitored in the field. Seedlings produced in biodegradable containers required more frequent watering than those in polythene bags under light tree shade and shade nets but less frequent in polythene chambers. Seedlings produced in polythene tubes had higher growth rates in the nursery, but when transplanted to the field, they were overtaken by those grown in the biodegradable containers due to transplanting shock after the polythene containers were removed. Biodegradable seedling containers can therefore be adopted in areas where water is not very limiting, and evaporation rates could be reduced and water-use efficiency improved by raising seedlings in simple polythene structures.

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  1. 1.

    The biodegradable materials EP, FP and VP are part of the Ellepot System produced by Ellegard A/S (company) of Denmark. Type EP and FP are papers with holes that are glued in such a way that the holes remain open. They consist of cellulose with polyester for enforcement. Type EP is designed to decompose in 8–12 months while type FP is lighter and is designed to decompose in 4–6 months. Type VP is polyester/viscose non-woven paper without holes that is expected to decompose in over 12 months.

  2. 2.

    Watering tests conducted prior to the experiment showed the field capacity of the substrate was about 150 ml at first watering in the 4 in. × 6 in. polytube and the available water was about 80 ml at C. calothyrsus wilting point. It was therefore estimated that 100 ml of water would be sufficient per seedling to compensate for the lost water and correct for any lack of uniformity between the seedlings as the excess water would drain off.


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This research was funded by The European Union Commission through its incremental funds to Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres, (in this case the World Agroforestry Centre; ICRAF), geared towards development of options for tree germplasm conservation and supply systems. The authors acknowledge Ellegard A/S Denmark, especially Arne Beisland, for providing the biodegradable materials at no profit for trial purposes, and the Kaguru Agriculture Training Centre under the Ministry of Agriculture, Meru County office in Kenya for availing the land for nursery and field trials. Efforts by the data collection team involving Alexander Munyi, Silas Muthuri, Valentine Gitonga and the labourers who worked with them are greatly appreciated.

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Correspondence to Jonathan K. Muriuki.

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Muriuki, J.K., Kuria, A.W., Muthuri, C.W. et al. Testing Biodegradable Seedling Containers as an Alternative for Polythene Tubes in Tropical Small-Scale Tree Nurseries. Small-scale Forestry 13, 127–142 (2014).

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  • Biodegradable cellulose
  • Banana sheaths
  • Watering frequency
  • Shoot growth
  • Shade nets
  • Light tree shade
  • Polythene chambers