Innovation Sensations By Meghan Boyer

Ingenuity in the greenhouse can do more than solve problems; it can save you money

While there is probably a machine available to solve each greenhouse need from irrigation to pinching, some growers choose to invent their own means of handling certain operations. When this happens, products you might expect (PVC pipe and watering heads) and some you wouldn’t (empty soda bottles and meat thermometers) appear in the growing space and suddenly become vital to growers. Such greenhouse ingenuity is beneficial: Growers achieve their goals in a low-cost, creative manner without purchasing additional equipment.

This phenomenon is not isolated to one greenhouse or one region; growers from coast to coast are designing their own gadgets, which means you can too. Read on to find out about five low-cost solutions growers at different greenhouses have created. Implementing one of these ideas or coming up with new designs of your own is a creative way to add necessary systems to your greenhouse without spending a lot of money.

Fertilizer Failsafe

The people at White’s Nursery & Greenhouses, Chesapeake, Va., didn’t like the stories about failed fertilizer injections they heard from fellow growers: In each story the unbeknownst failure would go unnoticed until the malnourished crop deteriorated, costing time and money and sometimes resulting crop loss. With this in mind, the growers at White’s started checking up on their fuel injectors by placing clear, empty bottles on each bench. The idea is to place one line from the drip irrigation system down the neck of each bottle. As the system waters the plants, the bottle fills up with a mix of water and fertilizer if the injector is working properly. One glance at the liquid color and growers know whether or not the injector is working: Green liquid means everything is fine; clear liquid means there’s a problem. The cost to implement this simple failsafe is minimal, especially if you recycle bottles, and fertilizer problems will never go unnoticed, which can save money in the long run.

Irrigation Tunnel

Wood posts, PVC pipe and water nozzles are the biggest inputs in the homemade irrigation tunnel that the growers at Metrolina, Huntersville, N.C., created. The design is simple and effective: Pipe lashed to a post is suspended between two additional wood posts. Seven attached watering nozzles fan evenly across the pipe. Just after transplant or before they are Á pulled for shipping, plants on a rolling bench system move through the irrigation tunnel. The evenly spaced nozzles distribute a consistent flow of water. Because the bench moves at a steady rate, growers know that each plant is receiving an equal share of water. A plastic-covered basin sits below to catch excess water. As none of the materials required to construct this irrigation system are extremely expensive, it is a cost-effective means of irrigating plants.

Soil Thermometer

Knowing the inner soil temperature of long-term crops such as poinsettia is beneficial, and the canopy temperature often does not accurately reflect the temperature surrounding plant roots. For this reason, growers at Boven’s Quality Plants, Kalamazoo, Mich., started using meat thermometers to measure the temperature of their poinsettia crop’s root zone.

The device is specifically designed to reach interiors: The long temperature-sensor is inserted into the soil, allowing for a more accurate read and better environmental control. Multiple thermometers are spread throughout each bay. Because the dial face rests just above the soil line, a bright flag accompanies each instrument so growers can easily find them again. Growers can periodically check the thermometers to ensure the soil is a suitable temperature. Thermometer lengths vary, which makes them adaptable to different crops and pot sizes, and the average price is less than $20, which makes this kitchen instrument an inexpensive trick for monitoring soil temperature.

Automated Pincher

Growers at Blooming Nursery, Cornelius, Ore., came up with an easy way to pinch their plugs and cut back unsold perennials: A lawn mower is rigged to do it for them. The mower is supported on each side and suspended from a track. Using a rope hooked to the support system, the mower can be pulled over plant flats. The mower hangs at a precise height, so growers know how tall the plugs need to be for this system to work effectively. The blades quickly take off the top of each plant, which has the same effect as when the plants are pinched or cut back by hand.

This system saves money and has the potential to make money. Instead of purchasing an expensive piece of automation, an inexpensive, even second-hand, mower can be used, and automating trimming and pinching saves substantial labor costs. Additionally, pinched plugs can be sold at a premium since they save the customer from the expense and time of doing it.

Run-Off Collector

As demand to conserve resources increases, more states are mandating growers use reclamation systems to collect and treat runoff from irrigation. To ensure nary a drop of liquid escapes, growers at Olive Hill Greenhouses, Fallbrook, Calif., designed an irrigation collection system using PVC pipe.

Each pipe has a series of holes cut into it. Potted plants fit snugly into the holes. When the drip irrigation system waters the plants, the excess flows out the bottom of each pot and into the pipe where the run off is directed to a holding facility. The entire system is secured to the ceiling, hanging at roughly head level. Benches rest beneath the pipes for additional growing space. Olive Hill growers utilize the PVC pipe system for long-term orchid crops so they have to move pots less often.

Though this homemade system requires installation and pipe-cutting prep work, it is ultimately a low-cost response to water conservation laws, plus it creates more production space without purchasing new benches.

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Meghan Boyer

Meghan Boyer is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1013 or E-mail at [email protected]

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