5 tips to train new employees how to water

Features - Production

Communication, training and setting a schedule are three ways to help new employees master a sometimes tedious task.

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August 26, 2019

Training new employees how to water is very difficult — greenhouse staff and owners concur. Many growers have told me that watering is their No. 1 training need. Why is it so difficult to learn or teach how to water properly? Many argue that there is art in this practice, and that art is unteachable. Teaching someone how to paint like Leonardo da Vinci is impossible. Yet, anyone can learn the basic skills of drawing and painting.

Watering is not an easy task. Individuals need to consider multiple factors before deciding whether to irrigate or not. Hence, teaching it is not simple either. I argue that when training new employees, we need to communicate better and more often and emphasize the whys and the hows.

Training employees on how to water, and setting clear expectations for how it is supposed to be done, is key in making a difficult task more manageable.
Photos courtesy of Rosa E. Raudales

Tip No. 1: Define watering.

New employees must understand that irrigating crops is not about pouring water or turning on a water valve. Watering is about maintaining AIR and WATER balance in the root-zone — that is the ultimate goal.

Tip No. 2: Explain WHY watering is difficult.

Regardless of the operation size, all greenhouses producing ornamental plants are EXTREMELY diverse. Walk with your team in the greenhouse, point out the diversity and explain WHY watering everything with the same volume and frequency is not appropriate. For example, you can see a small greenhouse dedicated to retail and another greenhouse producing for wholesale. Both have the same “diversity problem.” For example, on the top scenario, you can point the different materials of the hanging baskets (coconut fiber will allow the media to dry faster than plastic), small containers need less volume per irrigation but higher frequency, hanging baskets receive direct light while plants on the bench are partially shaded, each container contains a different mix of crops, and the canopies are dense or the crop is too high, making it difficult to visually assess moisture. Workers who are aware of the differences are more likely to pay attention while doing the task. Explain how fluctuating weather patterns makes watering difficult. We tend to talk about seasons as a parameter, but the truth is that the oscillation of temperature and sunlight that we see within a week in spring and fall is broad. In Connecticut, we can go from a snowy-dark-cold day to a sunny-bright-warm day in less than 24 hours. Prepare your staff to respond to these unplanned changes.

The weather itself calls for a watering decision. On top of that, workers must decide what to do instead of watering. Workers may fear being perceived as if they are not working hard enough and the easiest way out is to grab a hose which may be WHY some workers overwater. Head growers must communicate with their staff to make sure they all agree about how weather patterns will affect daily tasks. If the staff member’s role is to water a section, but the crop doesn’t need it, then the staff should have a clear directive about what alternative activities to conduct.

The top of crops being grown, the time of the year and other factors can factor if plants in the greenhouse needed to be watered.
Example of petunias in a hanging basket with dry media that do not need watering immediately.
Photos courtesy of Rosa E. Raudales

Tip No. 3: Discuss WHY plants need water and WHY excessive or insufficient levels affect crops.

Photosynthesis is the process in which solar energy converts to chemical energy. For photosynthesis to occur, a water molecule must be broken down. Hence, without water, there is no photosynthesis; without photosynthesis, plants will not grow. Water also carries nutrients and helps maintain cell/plant turgidity. The take-home message is that plants need water to maintain structural integrity and perform basic functions. Plants also need oxygen in the root zone to maintain essential plant functions. That is why we cannot keep the substrate saturated. Explain physical properties of the growing media. When we fill containers with growing media, there will be gaps between the media particles. If we cover the bottom of the container so nothing comes out, and then add water — the water will fill those spaces, leaving no room for air. If we then let the free water drain, a portion of the water will remain adhered to the media particles and there is also air space. This is known as container capacity.

Tip No. 4: Agree on HOW and WHEN to water.

The instructions for most activities in the greenhouse are specific — hence why they are easy to learn or teach. For example, dip the cuttings before transplant, after (x) number of days transplant (#) liners to an (x) size container, a given amount of product per area or container, spray every number of days, prune to a given height, etc. However, most operations don’t communicate that specifically about watering. I recommend that every operation develops clear guidelines for watering. I know it’s not a simple task (that is why we started acknowledging the complexities), but it must be done. Everyone in the operation MUST agree on what is the criteria to irrigate or not to irrigate. Dry media does not always call for action and growing on the dry side has many benefits for ornamental crops.

Tip No. 5: Retain your employees

Retrain to make sure the staff has not deviated from the original guidelines.

The author is an assistant professor and greenhouse extension specialist at the University of Connecticut. You can reach her at rosa.raudales@uconn.edu.