Shipping Aquatic Plants

We have come to rely on the internet to find plants that are otherwise unavailable locally but sourcing is only half the fun (or challenge). Getting it to your doorstep is the other. It seems that often times, receiving packages with crushed, damaged or melted plants are a necessary evil or right of passage for us. The cause of shipping delay may be beyond our control but proper packaging may spare us or other from receiving fouled plants. This article delves into the the topic of common shipping practices in the hobby, the pitfalls and introduce some clever techniques to promote better practices. By the end of the article, you will be better versed in these dark arts of shipping… and know how to better speak to shipping with new sellers.

Let’s start with how things go pear shaped:

Heat/Frost 

The packages often sit on plane or truck holding facility for extended periods so care must be taken to ensure temperature variations do not permeate the packaging and affect livestock. Heat and frost directly breakdown cell walls of plants to permanently damage plants. This is often treated as a seasonal concern while the danger is present year round.

Lumping

Dozens and dozens of plants should not be dropped into a single large bag and shipped. Stems should not be in contact with another and plant piles induces compression and friction. Hours of jostling in transit guaranty damage.

Leaks 

Water added to bags that are improperly sealed eventually soil boxes and weaken the packaging overall. When the post office receives a package in this condition, they will bag and tag as damaged. This sort of mishap induces further delay.

Cramming 

Packages may arrive jammed in an undersized box, flat envelop, insufficient insulation, over insulation (crushing plants).

Paper Towels

A proverbial catch-22 as it serves to insulate and moisturize plants but 0ver saturated-towels attribute to accelerated melt and damage notable in extended transit in temperature extreme situations.

Poor Timing

Shipping on Thursday, Friday or before a holiday weekend needlessly adds an extra day layover in transit.

Being Cheap 

This particular one touches all of the above in some way, shape or form. Common cost saving tactics are:

  1. Choosing First Class over Priority mail which extends delivery time by 3-10 days depending by zone/distance.
  2. Using padded envelops instead of boxes to save weight and cost.
  3. Skipping insulation to safe weight and cost.
  4. Saving on ziplocks by lumping all plants into a single large bag.
  5. Using cheap bags that leak and failing to use countermeasures.

We have all seen (and done) some of these things. Let’s acknowledge and move forward onto better methods.

 

Packing Plants Accordingly

Materials

Boxes

I typically use boxes for all plant shipments. Boxes come free from the USPS but just about any box can be used so long as they are structurally sound and sufficiently fit what is being shipped. The two boxes of choice i rely on are the Priority Mail Shoe Box (7-1/2″ x 5-1/8″ x 14-3/8″) and  Priority Mail Box – 4 (6″ x 7″ x 7″). Both require ordering from USPS.com and will arrive within a week. Larger plants require the Priority Mail Shoe Box while the Priority Mail Box – 4 is suitable for all other plants.

Envelopes

These are only acceptable mosses, and seeds since these are shipped flat. I use padded envelopes as the cost is nominal and provides an extra layer of physical and temperature protection in transit.

Ziploc bags 

These are a staple in this hobby. Anything air-tight can be used and I rely on the double ziplock sandwich bags from Stop-and-shop more most things. They come in a variety of sizes so find a few that fits the items you wish to ship. 1 quart freezer bags for large plants and snack bags for mosses, floaters and most foreground plants. Walmart sells pouch sized bags which are great for shipping food samples, fertilizers and other dry goods.

Pro tip!  Ziploc bags actually aren’t water tight and eventually leak in transit. Use a strip of scotch tape to seal the bag.

Plastic bags

These are ideal for our purposes. They are readily available, light and can be used many ways. Use as stuffing to eliminate cavities in box, double or triple bag for layered insulation or bagging to ensure items are water tight. Remember to check for hole at the bottom or in any of the folds. A single hole would defeat its insulation usefulness.

Paper Towels

They are great as they stay together while being wet but they are often used in the wrong ways. Use these as plant supports for plants like Blyxa Japonica and roll as you would a bouquet of flowers then mist lightly with a spray bottle. These need not be slobbing wet but rather moist to the touch. Paper towels can be wrapped on the exterior of ziploc bags for additional insulation. This is commonly used to wrap heat and cold packs.

Plant Types

Aquatic and bog plants

These are fairly undemanding so long as they are held straight with minor bending allowed. They can be laid flat in a ziplock bag and spaced a few millimeters in-between to prevent contact. No paper towel is needed but the stems themselves should be freshly retrieved from the tank. The ziplock bag should be closed with no air pockets within and will serve to reinforce the plant in transit.

Stem bunches

These are best divided into multiple ziplock bags for transit. Though not ideal and depending upon the species, multiple stems can be grouped together in a single bag but the numbers should vary by the weight of the ziplock and size of the plant.

Pro-tip! Stems should ideally face the same direction with roots at one end of the bag.

Note emersed plants have the advantage here as they generally have a stronger stem and leaf structure than their submersed equivalent.

Floaters

These generally suffer necrosis due to extended exposure to moisture on the upper regions of the plant. To pack properly, lay down a paper towel (cut to size) in a zip lock, mist sparingly, then lay the plants with roots facing down to the napkin. The bag should be shipped flat to prevent the plants from flipping.

Mosses

Place laying flat in a zip lock bag. Do not drop a golfball in a ziplock as it potentially breaks the intricate frond growth but rather spread out first then insert flat into the ziplock. Misting once in the bag is optional.

Pots

These tend to be heavier and are best isolated in the box to prevent damaging adjacent plants. Bag these then wrap with newspaper to fill any vacant pockets in the box.

Pro-tip!  Species should ideally be bagged separately to prevent confusion. Individual labels would make you a star!

Boxy/triangular shaped plants

Odd shaped plants like Eriocaulon, bucephalandra, cryptocoryne and anubias require consideration for lateral protection. Damage on these species often require months of recovery to grow new leaves. Use hard containers for hamburgers, sauces, plastic boxes and even an empty blank CD-R container. Anything can be used so long as it encloses the entire plant and does not exert force upon the plant when closed.

Insulation 

Boxes can be insulated with styrofoam lining, shreded paper, packing peanuts or even home insulation (stay away from fiberglass). Newspaper is great because it can be used flat as a wrap or crumpled as a volume reducer.

Pro Tip! Use multiple layers of plastic bags (LPB) sealed with air pockets for added protection. This offers an air cushion and temperature insulation.

Heat / Cold packs 

For plants, i never use them. The plants will survive the journey with the steps taken above and do not need heat or cold supplementing that tropical fish may require.

 

Packing 

Collect all of the individual plant packages and place in the box, the largest packages going in first. When using LPB insulation, remove the contents of the box and place within a plastic bag that is within a larger plastic bag. Purge the inner bag of air and ensure that the box is closable before tying. Fill the outer bag with air and tie after ensuring the box lid is still closable. T and tie tightlythe layered bag insulation the bagging method, remove all the packages while maintaining its position and place within a larger plastic bag. Tie the bag keeping it most of the air out.

Tape the box shut and you are ready for weighing.

Use a scale to determine the package weight then purchase a shipping label.

 

(Optional) Write or stamp “Fragile” on the box.

Shipping

The shipping label can be purchased online for wholesale pricing (guessing 10% off) and avoids waiting time at the post office since you only have to drop off the box.

I generally ship by weight and distance as it affords using a larger box with better insulation than the flat rate boxes. Of course this depends on what is being shipped. Things like hardscape would be better suited to flat-rate boxes.

Scheduling

The best days to ship are Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. The worst  are Thurs, Friday and days before a Holiday long weekend. Why? Because the later group of dates includes an extra day held at the post office.

As a rule of thumb, mail plants by the fastest economical means available such as USPS priority mail (2-3 day delivery), or UPS ground if delivery can be guaranteed in 3 days or less. The point of shipping and destination will affect delivery times. The quicker the trip, the better condition upon arrival.

In closing

I’ll be the first to say, these aren’t the best ways to ship but merely the methods I have learned, applied, and tweaked over time shipping to hundreds of hobbyists. The only defense against delayed delivery is proper packing. If there are other methods or materials to consider, do share as there’s always room for improvement.

Know your rights! When plants arrive in less than reasonable condition, take photos and contact the seller. If they are concerned with your happiness (and their credibility), a resolution within a reasonable time frame is usually stress free. The main problem in failing to resolve these situations is rooted in the lack of knowledge on best shipping practices and you now know what is and isn’t appropriate going forward. If a seller elects to negotiate or argue resolution, then move on. The hobby should be a source of joy and the community is relatively small. Since people naturally talk, the person who loses isn’t going to be you anymore. 🙂

Disclaimers:

Do not mail plants to California or Hawaii because of strictly enforced state laws prohibiting importation of plant materials into these states. Most countries restrict or prohibit importation of plants from other countries as well. Check postal regulations for further information before mailing.

Adhere to the federal noxious weed list and refrain from shipping these plants across state lines. Link to be provided….

Mail plants bare root if possible to minimize spread of soil born diseases.

Make sure plants being mailed are healthy, free of insect or disease problems.

Please let potential recipients be aware of plants with algae, snails or other nasties in the tank.

Thanks for reading.

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The Aquatic Plant Society
The Aquatic Plant Society is dedicated to promoting the science and aesthetic of the Planted Aquarium. We are committed to a responsible and environmentally conscious pursuit of the hobby, and invite all to share in and add to our knowledge.