In 2017, iUNU’s Luna Vision, a system of cameras that automatically monitors a greenhouse, collects data for growers and allows them to view their plants from anywhere via an app, was made available to the public. Think of it as Google Maps for the greenhouse. iUNU, a company that was founded in 2013 by CEO Adam Greenberg, grew rapidly as a result of consumer interest and adoption of Luna Vision. In October 2018, iUNU’s strong year continued when it was named to CNBC’s Upstart 100, an annual list that recognizes 100 start-up businesses to watch across all industries.
Greenhouse Management: What has changed for iUNU, and for you, in the past year?
Adam Greenberg: The thing that really took off was people started to realize that, in terms of a solution set, the new policies in effect have led to even more labor shortages. People have inventory teams, full planning teams, full facility planning teams. All of that we automate, so that allows them to redistribute their workforce. We are finding a lot of interest with all that type of stuff — it’s been a big driver for people’s needs. One of our customers [Rodney Bierhuizen from Sunrise Greenhouses in Vineland Station, Ontario] went out in front of the Canadian Greenhouse Conference and talked about us, and about how great we were for them. We’d been quiet and secret for years, and from that perspective, it’s cool to see the support now. Editor’s note: To learn more about Bierhuizen, read “Jack of all trades” in the May 2018 issue of Greenhouse Management here.
GM: What kind of problems are growers most commonly reaching out to you about?
AG: On the produce side, yield forecasting is something that they reach out to us for. On the floriculture side, it’s usually readiness and inventory tracking — the fact that we automate that is a big deal to people. In the horticulture industry, it really comes down to ‘Where are my plants?,’ ‘How many of them do I have?’ and ‘What’s the status — are they healthy, are they not healthy, is there a problem I need to look at, and when are they going to be ready?’ And we see people getting extra value [from Luna Vision] when they have multiple facilities. The idea of being able to see all of your farms from one place has been an interesting driver of people who call us.
GM: What additions have you made to the Luna software in the past year?
AG: The comparisons of events, where if you spray something, you see what happens and [can] compare [it] year after year and how weather affected it — things like that are vital. Each person that bought the system did so in the last year, so some of them are just getting to that second, third or fourth growth cycle and just now being able to compare growing cycles. Another thing that was surprising for us is that we’ve added a lot of horsepower to tracking base utilization [what percentage of greenhouse space growers are using]. Dr. Charlie Hall talks about base utilization all the time and how people say they are 85 percent efficient. But, in reality, they’re about 65 percent, 70 percent efficient. Talking to him led us to create a tool to track exactly how you use your base every single day, how you maximize it and then it tells you in real time where the spaces are and how much space you have. For our customers, they get to see where they can move things and what the environment is like without having to do manual data input.
Vertical farming has been part of traditional greenhouse production for many years. Hanging basket production, roll-out trays, growing tomatoes tied to the overhead trusses, utilizing under-bench space, and starting seedlings and cuttings on carts in a growth room all utilize extra space in a greenhouse. New technology that has improved vertical farming methods include hanging basket conveyors, tray handling systems, efficient LED lighting systems and automated watering equipment.
In a greenhouse, the cost of providing the right environment is the same whether you are utilizing 50 percent of the space with a conventional bench system or if the horizontal and vertical spaces are filled with plants. Every cubic foot that contains plants means additional income dollars. The following are ways in which production space can be increased.
Hanging basket conveyor
With the development of taller greenhouses, multiple levels of hanging baskets are now possible.
Plants spaced as close as 8 inches apart are supported by a cable that moves them past work and watering stations. The convenience of having the plants brought to the end of the greenhouse for inspection and shipping can offset the cost of the system. Because plants change location, they are exposed to more uniform daily light, enhancing growth. Plants underneath the cable system will receive less light so careful plant selection is necessary.
A movable tray system can be designed to move the plants outside the greenhouse in nice weather. Employed mostly for bedding plants and perennials, it allows a grower to double the growing space during the busy spring and fall seasons. One layer of plants is grown on a heated floor and a second layer, and the roll-out layer is housed during the night above on a set of rails.
This system is common with large gutter-connected ranges where a half-acre or more of plants is pushed out through the endwall of the greenhouse in the morning and returned in the evening. It can also be adapted to individual free-standing hoophouses.
Carts have been used for germination and cutting production for a number of years. By adding lights under the shelves, growing time can be extended and production increased. Carts can be used in the greenhouse or in closed rooms where better environmental control can be supplied. With more efficient LED lighting fixtures now available, a more uniform light level can be achieved. Multi-shelf carts are now one of the main production system for greens in closed environments.
This concept developed by Verti-Gro more than 20 years ago can increase the density of plants in the greenhouse by three to five times. The vertical stack of pots can be easily rotated to provide more uniform light. It is an easy to install system with water and nutrients supplied by gravity from the top. Harvesting of crops such as letttuce, greens, peppers, herbs and strawberries is done while standing.
High wire and trellis vegetables
Crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that are grown from a single or double stem increase the vertical space that is used. High-wire crops that are grown supported by wires or pipe attached to the trusses or roof of the greenhouse require a structure that will support about 15 pounds per square foot. Trellis crops are usually tied to a separate frame supported on the floor. Crops are usually grown in pots, bags or troughs.
Fixed stacked shelves are common in warehouse production of crops such as lettuce and greens. Adequate light has to be supplied to meet crop needs. A future step will be to develop systems that will move the plants as they grow making more efficient use of the light supplied. Movable stacked tray systems have been developed that rotate to give the plants sunlight and supplemental light in the greenhouse. A ferris wheel tray support system was built by a few growers in the 1970s when energy costs escalated.
John is an agricultural engineer, an emeritus extension professor at the University of Connecticut and a regular contributor to Greenhouse Management. He is an author, consultant and certified technical service provider doing greenhouse energy audits for USDA grant programs in New England. email@example.com
A few months ago I was walking through the houseplant section at my garden center, and I saw a customer frowning. She was holding a Peperomia and was clearly unhappy. I don’t normally work in that section of the store, but after seeing her face, I stopped to ask if I could be of assistance.
“You can tell me what this is,” she responded. “The tag only says ‘Tropical Plant,’ and that doesn’t tell me anything.” I sighed, and as I pulled a fact sheet on growing Peperomia out of our files, I admitted to sharing her frustration. Increasing numbers of tropical plants come into retail stores with generic labels. This means that many of our customers end up not knowing what they’ve purchased or how to take care of it.
It’s perfectly understandable, of course, why growers use generic tags. Buying such labels in bulk makes them less expensive, and the grower is never stuck with old labels they can’t use. Should there be a switch from growing one species or cultivar to another, the tag is still useful. And should their workforce be fluent in languages other than English, they won’t be challenged since one label is good for all pots.
But that said, the practice of labeling all pots as “Tropical Plant” or “Flowering Annual” is bad for independent garden centers, our customers and for horticulture in general.
In the garden center, generic labels make sales more difficult. As my customer left with her plant and care sheet, she admitted that at the moment I walked through the greenhouse and assisted her, she was ready to put the plant down and leave the store. If she couldn’t feel confident that she could find out what plant she had and where it should go in her house, she wasn’t going to buy it.
Jodie MacKenn Bross, co-owner of Glenwild Garden Center in Bloomingdale, New Jersey, knows that a plant that’s tagged with the botanic name makes things easier on a garden center’s employees, as well.
“A plant labeled with a botanic name saves me from looking like an idiot,” she says. If a plant is new to an employee and it has a generic tag, it’s impossible to even know where to search for the pertinent information.
“I find that the younger plant lovers, the Millennials, with their love of succulents and houseplants, really want to know what they are buying.” Jeff Mason, Mason House Gardens in Uxbridge, Ontario
“I don’t know every tropical,” MacKenn Bross says, “and with generic labels, when a customer asks, I have to say that I don’t know. Not good.” This is especially a problem during a busy season when there isn’t time to look things up.
Annie Stuart, marketing specialist at Weston Nurseries, with locations in Hopkinton and Chelmsford, Massachusetts, says that because of the widespread use of generic tags, they have started manually tagging and cataloging all of their houseplants.
“It’s made the greenhouse staff’s life more difficult,” she says, “but the rest of us can hunt up and sell things more easily. We also have a better grip on inventory, so we can answer availability questions on the phone.” This is another way that specific labels can lead to more sales.
It’s been said that customers prefer common names, and that the public finds botanic names intimidating. But those who work in retail find that this has changed for one simple reason: smart phones. “I seem to remember the mantra being ‘Latin is too complicated for the average customer,’” says Jared Hughes, owner of Groovy Plants Ranch in Marengo, Ohio. “My experience with my customers is that Google has made this mantra obsolete. Many of my younger customers seem more comfortable with Latin names than their more mature counterparts.”
Jeff Mason, of Mason House Gardens in Uxbridge, Ontario, also finds that his younger customers are not intimidated by botanical names. “I find that the younger plant lovers, the Millennials, with their love of succulents and houseplants, really want to know what they are buying.” Mason says he also wonders why there are different labeling practices for tropical plants. “If the perennial growers manage to tag plants with specific names, the tropical growers should be able to do so as well. Very few perennials would get sold if they were not tagged.”
If we want the horticultural industry to grow, we need to engage the public on every level possible. Generic tagging promotes the idea that every plant is the same; this leads to disappointment when the customer doesn’t have access to the care information they need to keep that plant alive. It also denies the public the opportunity to get turned onto the stories about and behind every plant.
Examples that the public is interested in specific plants can be found on every social networking site. For instance, when you search Twitter for the hashtag #tropicalplanttuesday, a total of three posts come up. Yet #monsteramonday has regular posts every single week. It’s sad that the public is willing to call a Monstera by its botanic name, yet those who grow tropical plants are willing to dumb their labels down.
For much of the public, plants have become a blur of green sameness that is a mere background in their lives. Those of us who work in horticultural businesses know that every plant has its own name and cultural requirements. We know that plants have interesting stories that are as unique as their sizes and shapes of their foliage. It’s crucial that we share that knowledge with our customers.
Tropical plant growers, hear this plea. Please give your plants the labeling they and the buying public deserve.
C.L. is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” GardenLady.com
Michael Turner was living in Boston, studying political science as a graduate student, when he took a summer job working at a nursery in Lexington, Massachusetts. The job changed his entire career path.
“I fell in love with greenhouses and growing,” he says. “And I hated graduate school.”
Soon after, Turner moved back to his native North Carolina and started a part-time cut flower business while working full-time as a produce buyer for Whole Foods and other grocery chains. After a few years, he was able to commit to flower growing full-time and opened Sarah & Michael’s Farm, where he grows lilies. The business has been located at the same site in Durham, North Carolina since 1997. Now, his business operates year-round and sells to customers such as Whole Foods.
A key part of Turner’s business is his use — and reuse — of a coconut coir growing media; he recycles it for multiple production cycles. The idea to use coir, and recycle it, came from a grower back near where he took his first growing job. In 2006, he visited a lily grower named Fred Greene at Stow Greenhouses in Stow, Massachusetts. Greene used and recycled coconut coir and showed Turner the ropes. Soon after, he switched Sarah & Michael’s Farm's production to the material and now only grows in coconut coir.
“We had gone through every conceivable mix of growing media,” he says.
The advantages of coconut coir
Turner plants lilies in the crates that the bulbs are shipped in — a common Dutch growing method, he says — in the coconut coir. Each greenhouse is full from end-to-end with just enough room left to properly access and monitor each lily as it grows.
Turner, who sources his coconut coir from Sri Lanka through a Canadian importer, says the biggest reason coconut coir works so well is because it is a “superior rooting media.”
“The lilies just thrive in it,” he says. “Growing lilies is about growing really good roots, and lilies root really well in coir. And it matters that I am growing cut flowers and not something else because coir itself is a fairly light media. If it were a potted plant, I would have to worry about it tipping over.”
Additionally, Turner says coconut coir, unlike other growing medias he’s used, holds up well when steamed, cooled off and then reused. When he begins the recycling process, the coir fibers hold up well to the heat. To recycle it, a small percentage (the exact percentage depends on the week) of fresh coir is added to the used coir to keep the structure intact.
“It holds up much better than peat moss, for instance,” Turner says.
He adds that it helps that he has a consistent supply of coir; it hasn’t caused the issues he’s seen other lily growers face. For instance, Turner says high salt and potassium levels are a possible issue in coir, and if one or both is prevalent, it will negatively impact plant growth.
“That’s a natural property of the coir,” he says. “A good supplier will take care of those issues.”
Turner says that importing coir from Sri Lanka a few times a year is “very expensive,” and it’s the main reason why he recycles his instead of using it and getting rid of it. Each year, he buys three containers for a total cost of around $35,000.
According to Turner, steaming the material also allows his business to avoid using any pesticides in the greenhouse because it preventively rids the coir of pathogens. Additionally, because of year-round aphid pressure in North Carolina, the coir cannot be used more than once before it is steamed. Other lily growers in the Netherlands and in Canada who he’s talked to use their coir twice before either recycling it or pitching it.
“If we weren’t recycling, instead of ordering three containers a year, we would be ordering four times that many containers at least,” he says. Right now, coir is Turner’s sixth-highest operational cost; it would likely be No. 1 or No. 2 without recycling.
Originally, Turner was steaming the coir in the crates they were grown in, but found that it caused the crates to break down and be unusable. In 2012, he switched to using a system where the coir is transferred into a bunker away from the greenhouse. There, it sits on top of piping that pushes steam up through the coir, refreshing it to be used again. The initial cost for the piping was high in the short term, but Turner feels it’s made the process more sustainable for his business.
“We know what’s in our soil,” Turner says. “We’ve taken out that wild card. When you buy soil, you hope you have a reputable supply. But by keeping it in-house so to speak, we feel like we have a lot better control over it. And the lilies love it.”