Today's Grower Blog

Today's Grower - Greenhouse Blog

Hydroponic How-To: Growing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Growing hydroponically in a greenhouse is not a recent innovation but for some growers it represents a change from the comfort of growing in soil. If one was to poll greenhouse vegetable and flower growers you would find that the majority in fact are growing hydroponically, and those who are growing in soil are hesitant to change from what they are confident in. 

The term “hydroponic” actually refers to any plant culture that is grown without soil, and it involves a number of variations on the same theme. Hydroponic growing systems can include: substrate culture where the roots are allowed to grow in an inert or semi-inert media; solution culture where the roots are immersed in ponds of nutrient solution; NFT culture (nutrient film technique) where the roots are contained such that a thin film of nutrient solution constantly runs by the roots; and aeroponics where the root systems are suspended within an enclosed area and are misted with nutrient solution.

What are common hydroponic growing media?

Hydroponic substrates include: coir, rockwool, oasis cubes, perlite, peat-based mixes, and many others. It is the peat-based mixes that growers tend not to classify as “hydroponic” as it can be manipulated when it is manufactured to have an EC charge and a specific PH. Traditional thinking towards hydroponics is that the media has no measureable EC with a specific PH; rockwool for example normally has a PH of 8 (caused by lime forming on the fibers during manufacture), and no EC value. Growers are often referring to traditional substrates as “unforgiving” and having “no buffer” when it comes to giving the plant nutrients. 

So why grow hydroponically? 

One advantage is the efficient and productive aspect of hydroponics; growing hydroponically requires less labour as systems can be almost totally automated at various stages of plant growth. Growing in soil contrarily demands more attention to issues that cannot be automated; weeding and tilling for example. Soil borne diseases and parasites are also diminished when growing hydroponically, while precautions of such issues should always be taken, a fresh growing media per crop will greatly limit such outbreaks.

Another advantage to growing hydroponically is that plants grow substantially quicker than those grown in soil; studies have indicated up to twice as fast with the yield being considerably larger as well.

A further advantage to growing hydroponically is the conservation of water. Depending on the method of irrigation, up to 70% of the delivered water and nutrients to the crop can be recycled and reused.  With the environmental concerns prevalent in society today, keeping water consumption to a minimum is a bonus.

Are there disadvantages to growing hydroponically?

No growing method is without its imperfections. The issues that can arise when growing hydroponically can be due to the inconsistency of the manufacture of the growing media. One needs to be selective in purchasing the growing media; cocoa coir for instance if bought from the wrong supplier can be full of sea salt, days of leaching will not bring the EC down enough to root seedlings in. (I know this from experience) 

Rockwool is one of the most common hydroponic growing media but it also has its drawbacks; as mentioned it can have a high PH which needs to be brought down before sticking cuttings and it is not environmentally friendly.  Rockwool is hard to dispose of and will last indefinitely if it is buried; the fibers and dust from rockwool are also a health risk when ingested.

A crop grown hydroponically can lead to frustration if all aspects are not fully understood and considered.  Most hydroponic media is without buffer; that is what you give the plant is what it takes in. The water and nutrients are brought straight to the roots, if you are giving the plant the wrong nutrients or at the wrong consistencies, the plant takes this up instantly. Simply put: in soil the buffering capacity is the ability to resist change; hydroponic media does not have this capacity. This is why it is so important that an irrigation system is dependable and well controlled. Nutrients have to be delivered to the plant with a specific EC and PH with little room for variance. Water needs to be provided on a tight schedule to avoid crop stress from not enough or too much watering. 

At GGS we use our experience to integrate both irrigation and control systems to accommodate even the most sensitive hydroponic crop.  Our experience both in providing turnkey solutions as well as many years of growing gives us the advantage we need in providing the grower with the tools vital for a successful grow.  We adapt and modify each system to ensure that the grower has the utmost confidence when growing any crop.  Whether it’s lettuce in a pool system or rooted cuttings in rockwool cubes, GGS can provide the equipment necessary in growing a quality crop.

The Biggest Problems That Can Be Solved by Retrofitting an Older Greenhouse

Structure maintenance and planning involves more than just new construction projects and a focus on expansion.  Often the best dollar value for a grower is in retrofitting and modernizing existing greenhouse structures.

Here is a list of potential solutions to common problems that greenhouse growers can resolve by improving existing structures:

1. Greenhouse Labor efficiency problems

  • Replace stationary benches with rolling benches. Many greenhouse growers in an effort to pack in as much production inside the greenhouse leave virtually no space to walk between the crops. With rolling benches you only need one aisle per house. So you may increase the width of your production aisles without losing any crop production, this enables workers to move more efficiently between the benches.
  • Bring in material handling systems like double rail carts, moving basket systems, or conveyor belts. Remember, if your material handling system is supported by the greenhouse then you need to make sure the greenhouse design will handle these loads.
  • Consider adding more ventilation, or even just HAF fans to move the air. If your greenhouse gets too hot in the summer it’s not just your plants that may be lagging. Creating a good working environment will lead to more productive workers.
  • Purchase better environmental controls to help you automate irrigation, fertigation, ventilation, shading, and lighting.  Rollup sides are another area that can be operated with a motor and connected into your environmental control computer.  Any area where workers are still manually adjusting the environment takes valuable employees time away from more valuable plant care tasks, and can be automated to save you time.

2. Needing to increase production:

  • Rolling benches get another vote under this category. Typically rolling benches can add 25% more production space from conventional stationary bench layouts.
  • Flood floors are another option to reduce the need for aisle spacing and pack in more plants per square foot.  If your square footage is enough to justify it, adding in robots for adjusting pot spacing on the floor can make this a big winner.
  • Reglazing the roof. If you are growing in a poly greenhouse the reglazing is part of your regular maintenance schedule. But, 8mm PCSS roofs, Acrylic, and even glass can get dull, or damaged. When looking at how to get more out of your greenhouse consider the light levels you need and review your roof glazing.
  • Add in supplemental lighting and or shading systems if your plants flowering cycle can be manipulated by adjusting light levels this may be one way to get an extra crop out in a year, or even just provide you an opportunity for timing market readiness better for the best buying season.

3. The existing crop environment is not ideal

  • Consider adding extra ventilation. This can be the easiest and most cost effective retrofit to an older greenhouse. Rollup curtains can be added on to any hoop house or gutter connected poly sidewalls or poly end walls, and can be manually operated or automated with a simple motor. Hard glazed sides and ends can be fitted with vents, and in most cases we can reuse the existing sidewall glazing. And gutter vents, and ridge vents can be added to most greenhouse arches with a little expertise. What is that value in adding ventilation? Better flexibility for your growing environment, to reduce humidity, increase airflow, and help to harden plants.
  • Raise the roof. Granted this is not a retrofit project for the squeamish, and in some cases it may be more expensive than tearing down the greenhouse and starting from scratch. However, every year a few growers decide it is worth it to improve the growing environment. For this kind of project you need to make sure you hire a qualified greenhouse builder with experience in raising greenhouses. Keep in mind that modern commercial greenhouses are being built with 16 – 24 feet under gutter heights.

4. Problems with other operating costs increasing:

  • Install energy curtains. Energy curtains will result in significant heat savings in the winter – between 20 to 40 percent! They also provide shade and help keep your greenhouse cool in the summer months.
  • Check your vents. Over time with sun exposure, wind, rain, and snow, the rubber seal on ventilation windows can grow brittle, or malformed. This means that your vents will no longer be sealing properly. Improper seals cost money as heat is directed out of your greenhouse. Poorly sealed vents also affect the operation of your vent. Modern greenhouse roof ventilation uses EPDM rubber that is more durable than older vent rubbers.
  • Consider flood benches the savings potential in water and fertilizer can often justify the cost of the benches.

Regardless of your reasons for considering a commercial greenhouse retrofit, the first step is to know what you want to accomplish. If operation labor reduction is the key motivator behind a retrofit project then you need to look at how the greenhouse is affecting your labor. The best value for retrofitting will be different than if increasing crop yield is your main goal.

At GGS we strive to understand your business needs, contact us if you would like to discuss how a  new project or greenhouse improvement could help you grow.

Duane Van Alstine: How I Came to the Horticultural Field

Duane and family at Balfour project

Many years ago I was in the retail business managing a staff of 30 plus people.  The grocery chain that I worked for had just been bought by a larger company and things were drastically changing.  I had been considering a career change anyway and since I was still fairly young, I decided that it was time.  Not knowing what direction I wanted my career to go I answered a newspaper ad for “Greenhouse Labourers”.  I thought it would be a nice change while I sorted out my next career move.  While the hourly wage was not near what I was used to, it would pay the bills and afford me time to ponder my future (so I thought).  I answered the ad and on my interview with the Head Grower I brought in a resume and was told to start on the following Monday.  That Monday was Thanksgiving however and there were just 3 of us in that day.  Because of the lack of labourers on that holiday the grower was able to give me a complete guided tour of the operation.  My first impressions were the opposite of what I envisioned; my image of a typical greenhouse operation was wooden benches, soil everywhere and back breaking work.  This operation was equipped with rolling metal benches, equipment that greatly improved efficiency and was a spotless working environment.

Later that week I was approached by the owner, he had a puzzled look on his face and stated that he had been looking over my resume.  He had one question; “what are you doing here”?  I told him my story and when I was through he indicated that he might have an entry level management positon for me.  Within a very short time I was given a junior management position, it was during this period that I was given the opportunity to be an integral part of the growing process of numerous crops.  Every day I met with the head grower and every day I learned another piece of the science of crop management. 

Niagrow/GGS project

As luck would have it, the business was growing and a business consulting company was brought in to aid in putting together a management team.  The position of “Operations Manager” was posted and those wishing to apply must write an easy on what changes to the daily operation this new position would initiate.  I quickly identified areas of improvement and I was promoted.  In the Operations Manager position my main focus was managing every facet of the crops’ life from cutting to flowering.  This was to be where I realized that this was now my passion, horticulture was my new career!

Two short years into my horticultural career the Head Grower left. The owner stepped into that position and seeing my passion for growing he facilitated my move into more of a grower/operations manager position.  We attended nutrient classes together; I received my pesticide licence and often met with horticulture consultants.  Before long I was making key growing decisions in pesticide and growth regulator applications and nutrient management for all crops within the 380,000 sq. ft. operation.  Without consciously realizing it I was now a grower for a large successful greenhouse facility!

As time went on I became in tune of what the crop needed and with the benefit of a great team of assistants the quality steadily improved.  I won’t pretend that the journey wasn’t tough, outbreaks of pests and disease challenged my sanity at times but I was always able to get advice from other growers in the industry whom I still have contact with in my present position.  Long hours and seven days a week were common place but the passion for horticulture drove me to do whatever it took to grow a quality crop.

I truly believe that things happen for a reason; had I not answered that newspaper ad I would never have felt the satisfaction of knowing that I had a hand in growing beautiful plants enjoyed by thousands of consumers.  I also wouldn’t have met my wife.

Duane next to irrigation tank at latest project

After 17 years working in a greenhouse it was time for another career change, and I joined the GGS group, initially as a project manager for various greenhouse construction projects. Understanding the complexities and the benefits of all the systems that go into commercial environmental controlled greenhouses from the grower side was definitely an advantage in making sure new greenhouse construction projects went together smoothly. As GGS continued to expand, adding new companies and divisions ( JGS Limited, Niagrow Systems, Marijuana Cultivation Facilities ) I took on additional responsibilities becoming the Manager of Niagrow, as well as being part of the Marijuana Cultivation Project Management Team.

It has been exciting utilizing my growing and system knowledge to aid growers.  With large scale growing being second nature for me, it has allowed my transition from grower to project management to be one of confidence.  It is very satisfying when you can successfully ensure your customer is equipped with the best systems and environment for their plants.

Here I am more than 20 years later in the same industry and enjoying every minute of it!

Canadian Government Investing in More Plant Science Research

Vineland Research Center

Three weeks ago the Honourable Ed Holder, Minister of State (Science and Technology), announced a $333-million investment for new research infrastructure through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI)  Fund. 

Now Vineland Research and Innovation Centre has been awarded $614,280 in research funding from the CFI to provide growers with resources to produce high quality and competitive crops.

Vineland Research Centre Construction

JGS Limited ( part of the GGS group of companies ) is currently in the process of constructing a 3700 m2 ( approximately 40,000 sqft ) state of the art pre-commercial scale research greenhouse for the Vineland Research Center. There are only a few pre-commercial scale research greenhouses in North America, and this will be the largest focused on horticulture research. Vineland’s new complex is designed to provide large compartmentalized spaces with enhanced environmental controls and a versatile layout, to allow researchers to work in spaces ideally suited to their research needs. There are two distinct growing areas one designed for vegetable crops with an under gutter height of 7m, and the other for floral production research has 4m high gutters.

Vineland Research CentreThis new funding will be used by Vineland working with the University of Toronto in a collaborative partnership to investigate techniques to promote plant health through the suppression of pathogens or by enhancing plant immune response to support field and greenhouse crops.

GGS Structures Inc. and JGS Limited have been providing research greenhouse solutions since GGS was founded in 1979.  In addition to horticultural and agricultural research, the GGS marijuana division has been asked to provide solutions for cannabis plant research for several international institutions.

You can learn more about JGS research greenhouse facilities on their website.

10 Digital Marketing Ideas for Garden Centers

Digital Marketing

There’s still plenty you can do right now to boost you digital marketing and profit in the run up to summer and fall. Lets take a look at some options.

1. Online promotion of Your Garden Center

Online promotions are a great way to attract new customers and to encourage existing customers to make further purchases. There are a few ways you could approach this, it could be a simple banner promoting an offer for online purchases or it could be a link to an online voucher that customers can print out and use in store. Have you ever had a member of family who was notorious at bargain hunting? I certainly do! Chances are many of your customers will appreciate a special promotion too and it’s a good way to take digital engagement to in person.

Discount Voucher2. Run a Gardening Competition

Hold a competition with a nice prize to show you value your customers. But think carefully about your target audience and how you present this. You want to boost your business, not attract people looking for a quick freebie.

A competition can also provide you valuable information on where you should be focusing your business on and a great way to get people to sign up to newsletters and engage on social media.

3. Promote Your Garden Center on Social Media

This is the most common and should be the most obvious one, but many businesses start promoting themselves and then slowly let it die out. Don’t! It can be a slow progress but the best way to see results is to keep at it. If something doesn’t work, try a different approach. If a customer checks you Facebook page and you haven’t posted very much if at all or even a year ago, they’re not going to waste their time supporting the page and maybe even wonder why you have one in the first place.

Digital Marketing Image 4. Gardening Content

This brings us to the next point. Make sure your content is relevant and engaging. Don’t become invisible.  As mentioned before, inactivity looses potential business. Keep it light and refreshing. You do not need heavy text content to engage with an audience.

5. Create a Garden Center E-newsletter

Simply boost business by promoting new products and offers to your subscribers amongst relevant content sent out. You can even reward your subscribers with online promotions only available to them.

6. Promote Your Garden Center on Social Media

Is there something you want to shout about? Something you want your potential customers to know? Then include it on your homepage.

7. Make it easy for customers to share your products

It maybe time to start looking at a website design overhaul if customers can’t share and like your plants and products over social media. And who wouldn’t want customers sharing products that they love, it’s free exposure for your Garden Center!

8. Use SEO to Your Advantage

Use key SEO words for products and services. Google ad words and SEO companies are there to help. Have you ever googled your company and seen in come at the bottom of the list? That’s down to your SEO and it needs to be fixed!

Garden Center Directory 9. Submit Your Garden Center Website

Submit your site to major search engines to generate traffic. Don’t overlook directory sites. Specialized directories can gain you more targeted traffic. Look around and see what’s available.

10. Engage with Your Customers

A complaint on your site or on social media? Always stay on top of it. Be polite, their business is important. Equally it is important to share appreciation with customers who express happiness or enthusiasm with your services.  It’s called social media for a reason… you need to be ‘social’ and talking to your customers not ignoring them.

Amy Carter was born in Dover, England, and studied graphic design & advertising at Canterbury College and University of Greenwich before moving to Canada. Amy works in the marketing department at GGS Structures Inc. Having previously worked for a large pharmaceutical company Amy understands both B2B and B2C marketing.  At GGS Structures Inc. our goal is to help our greenhouse and garden center customers grow their businesses.

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