Courtesy Athens Tree Farm

When Kip Estep and his father Earl were planning to get into the tree business, they found that most nurseries were using traditional smooth-sided plastic containers. Earl owned a successful dentist practice in Athens, Texas. His retirement hobby became a full-fledged business after he started reading everything he could find about trees. They visited Rennerwood, an East Texas grower that specializes in tree liners. The RootMaker root-pruning containers Rennerwood uses really opened Kip and Earl’s eyes. They read Dr. Carl Whitcomb’s books and decided to try it themselves.

“We like to grow with RootMaker,” Kip says. “We probably wouldn’t be in the tree farm business if we had to grow conventionally like everybody else.”

The Esteps also visited several other tree farms that had no idea what they were talking about. Instead of getting discouraged, they saw an opportunity.

“Honestly, we got pretty excited about the nursery business and growing trees because we felt like there was a better way of growing than the way that most people were growing,” Kip says.

Now, the business has grown to more than 1 million trees on 600 acres. All trees grown at Athens Tree Farm have been grown from seeds or cuttings in certified RootMaker containers. The Esteps love the RootBuilder containers because they promote prolific root branching and prevent root circling – a long-standing problem with the traditional smooth-sided container.

In addition to the development of a fibrous root system, Kip Estep says the RootBuilders improve growth rate, letting him grow a tree to a salable size quicker than other nurseries.

“We have a 10-15 percent growth rate quicker than other people have, which probably consists of an extra year that we can sell it before most people do,” he says.

There is an upfront cost to growing in RootMaker containers, but Kip Estep believes he’s found a way to save money in the long run. The tree farm grows in RootBuilder containers to develop the fibrous root systems his customers love. But before selling the trees, Kip’s crew transplants them to the cheaper smooth-sided containers that are familiar to most of their customers. That way, Estep gets to keep the more expensive RootBuilders and reuse them.

“All of the RootBuilder containers we use over and over again,” he says. “We may use them 10 times before we wear them out.”

Athens Tree Farm is still a fairly young business. Since it was founded 14 years ago, the farm has grown to 60 employees. The farm grows 18 species of trees and 15 different types of ornamentals. Large specimen items are its forte; Athens Tree Farm sells plant material in everything from 30 gallon containers to 60-72 inch boxes.