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Consumers are keeping Dutch bulb growers smiling as sales of these crops continue to increase.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve seen an increase in sales of tulips and lilies,” says Henk Westerhof, chairman of Anthos, an organization that represents the flower bulb and nursery industry. More than 1 billion bulbs are shipped to the United States from the Netherlands each year, Westerhof says.
Bulb transactions between U.S. horticulture industry entities are increasing, too. Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, CEO of Van Engelen, a bulb grower in Bantam, Connecticut, says she’s seen an uptick in bulb orders from retail stores and other buyers, including greenhouse potted plant growers.
“We continue to attract a healthy percentage of clients each year,” van den Berg-Ohms says. “We are extremely satisfied and even enthusiastic about flower bulb sales.” She adds that tulips are still the most popular flower bulb, mostly because of the diversity of colors and relative ease and assurance with which they can be forced. Popular tulip bulbs for forcing include single and double tulips, Triumph tulips and some species tulips.
While tulips continue to far outdistance any other bulbs in popularity, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in minor or specialty bulbs, some of which are forced in greenhouses.
“A continuing trend, and certainly an area we’ve been promoting, is the exquisite vast range of bulbs, not just tulips, and not all forced,” van den Berg-Ohms says. With that said, she adds that there are many new tulip varieties coming out, some of which could be used for potted production in a greenhouse, including ‘Princess Irene,’ ‘Purple Prince’ and ‘Pretty Princess.’
Growing a better bulb
Flower bulb research is ongoing at Cornell University under the direction of Dr. William Miller, director of the Floral Bulb Research Program. Miller’s crew has been studying potted bulb culture for some time now, researching new cultivars, strategies with growth regulators, ethylene’s effects on plants, interactions of specific plant pathogens, carbohydrate metabolism in bulbous plants and physiological disorders.
One area of study and experimentation Miller and his undergrads are currently taking part in is the root development in tulips in 6-inch pots. Miller appears to be taking a cue from the exporters in the Netherlands.
“Within tulips, we tend in the U.S. to grow too many roots,” Miller says. “We plant bulbs in the fall and water them in pretty heavily, then put them in coolers.” He went on to say that sometimes growers don’t pay enough attention to the temperature in the coolers, and subsequently end up with pots packed full of roots.
“It’s astounding how many roots they can have,” he says. “Tulips don’t need that many roots and it can lead to root diseases; the roots dry out. Stress occurs because the roots aren’t surrounded by soil, they’re surrounded by roots and more roots.”
Miller and his undergrads, with the financial support of Anthos, are looking into a way to reduce excessive root growth with tulips in 6-inch pots. They’re conducting an experiment in which they delay the planting date of potted tulips. They cool the bulbs dry before they plant them, then toss them back into the cooler around January for another five or six weeks, during which time they root fairly well. When they brought the bulbs into the greenhouse to finish, Miller asserts they didn’t have the root mass that bulbs planted earlier did.
“What it is, is cooling them on schedule but delaying the planting eight or nine weeks so after planting the bulbs go back into the cooler; they have at least five weeks in the cooler to become established before started in the greenhouse,” Miller says. “We’ve had really good results with that experimentally.”
The cost of dirty water
Another area of research that is ongoing at Cornell is the effect of dirty pots on air uptake in lily bulb production. The dirtier the buckets, the less air uptake. This results in having to clean the buckets more often, which costs bulb-producing companies tens of thousands of dollars, Miller says.
“For growers it becomes expensive to wash the buckets,” he says. “We know if you have a lot of bacteria in the water, it reduces the water uptake and flower size and how long it can last.” Miller says he has an undergraduate student looking at bacteria levels in the water and just how much bacteria forms before it becomes a problem. For now, though, the dirtier the buckets, the shorter the lifespan of lilies, so Miller advises growers to keep washing the buckets.
The beauty of bulbs
At the famed Smith College Botanical Gardens in Northampton, Massachusetts, growers force various species of bulbs for their annual spring flower show that is more than 100 years in the running. They chill bulbs in a cooler that can hold 6,000 pots and then finish them in one of three bulb production greenhouses on campus. The result is a cacophony of color in the spring time, as a host of tulips, daffodils and other spring bulbs flower in the greenhouse and get ready to be displayed in the gardens.
Dan Babineau is in charge of the spring flower show at Smith College. With the help of horticulture students in the program, he pots up thousands of bulbs, including quite a few tulips.
“Tulips are the most tricky because you have tulips blooming outside from the middle of April to the end of May, so the ones that bloom late, such as parrot tulips, need to be potted up early,” Babineau says. He says these need a good two months to grow in the greenhouse, so he and his colleagues put them in the coolers as early as the last week of December.
The biggest challenge overall is fungus in the pots, Babineau says. If you don’t routinely apply a fungicide, he says, problems are most likely to develop. Another problem can be in the bulb itself.
“I planted the same species of tulip in the same area in three different greenhouses and every single one aborted and didn’t flower,” Babineau says. “Pests aren’t too big [of] a problem because we keep the temperatures cool.” He says they usually start the bulbs out at about 50 degrees and gradually work up to 60 degrees. He says it takes a little longer to finish bulbs this way, but he’s noted some advantages.
“If you can grow bulbs cooler and with really bright light, that’s better,” says Babineau, who adds they don’t need to resort to electric light. “You don’t get any elongation and you get stronger stems.”
It’s the Dutch that started the bulb frenzy some 400 years ago, Westerhof says. The Netherlands has the right climate and soil type to propagate the billions of bulbs that are exported all over the world. You might say it’s bulb heaven for anyone in this industry.
“I pinch myself every day when I’m out there in the fields,” says van den Berg-Ohms, who attends professional flower shows in the Netherlands. “It’s just mind-blowing.”
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.
Increase production using the vertical greenhouse space
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. firstname.lastname@example.org