Training and Tools to Save Water in the Greenhouse

Flood Floors at Spring Meadow Nursery

Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, MI, uses flood floors to avoid water waste. Photo: Spring Meadow Nursery

Reduce water use. Don’t waste water. It’s become a mantra. Wise water use is a key element of sustainability, both environmentally and economically. Overwatering and water waste can greatly impact the bottom line, not just from a plant health perspective but also by increasing operating expenses. Training your team, using the right systems and tools, and developing a robust maintenance program can alleviate water waste issues.

Watering can seem simple, but it isn’t, and newly hired staff can have a steep learning curve. “I think any experienced grower would tell you that it’s one of the hardest things to teach other people — how to water plants properly,” says Dave Joeright, Growing Manager at Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, MI.

Matt Foertmeyer is an owner and the Growing Operations Manager at Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse in Delaware, OH. He’s passionate about irrigation, and it shows.

“I’m always talking about how to reduce the amount of water we use as growers in our industry,” he explains. “I think our industry has a big problem with overwatering. We irrigate way too much, maybe even twice as much as we should.”

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People and Processes

Even with modern systems, people are still front and center. Training is key, and repeatable processes reduce confusion and guesswork. Standardizing systems — media, plant groupings, irrigation systems — is key to achieving uniform results across multiple growers with differing experience levels. It also makes training easier and increases flexibility (Cindy can fill in for John and vice versa).

“We’ve all been to or worked at places where there are five different types of sprinkling systems or different kinds of irrigation pins and sprinkler heads, which makes the training harder,” Joeright says.

There’s no substitute for eyeballs on target. “The biggest thing I’m always trying to communicate to our growing team is to look at the signs. A plant shows you it’s ready for irrigation. We don’t irrigate because it’s Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. We irrigate because the plant is showing us it’s ready,” Foertmeyer says.

Joeright explains that some growers are just turning irrigation on for 25 minutes and have no idea how much water is needed. “Put a tray underneath your containers when you irrigate and collect how much water comes out the bottom. It seems pretty simple, but it’s surprising how many people don’t do that to see if they are wasting any water.”

“I pride myself as a fairly dry grower, so taking the time to work with irrigators on water management is key,” says Jeff Stoven, West Coast Propagation Production Manager at Bailey Nurseries. “We conduct grower walks on a frequent basis and talk about how often something was watered or when the next cycle will occur. When we have water management at the forefront of our mind, it leads to great conversations about nutrient management, crop health, plant quality, sizes, and finishing times.”

Standardizing Media and Equipment

Keeping the growing medium choices simple makes it easier for the growers to train in moisture management. Foertmeyer explains that switching media can bring issues.

“A few years ago, we switched to a HydraFiber mix from one that was 0% HydraFiber, and that was a learning process,” he says. “All of our moisture sensors were calibrated (for the old mix). We had to go back to the drawing board.”

“When working with new media and substrates, we train our staff by touch, feel, and using hands-on experience. We can show samples to our staff and explain the different physical properties or water-holding capacity of a medium, but there is nothing like using it in the greenhouse, on a known crop,” says Stoven.

Soil moisture sensors can add precision and remove the guesswork from the picture, providing quantifiable data and records for later use. “We’ve been using them for over a decade now at our facility,” Foertmeyer says.

“What I love about them is you can use them to trigger an irrigation event for you, to open a solenoid valve for a drip line, a boom, a sub-irrigation table, whatever system you have,” he says.

They’re also a great tool for assisting growers. “If you can tell a grower, water these at 65%, it’s very uniform from grower to grower.”

Growers know that not all plants need the same amount of water, but often, the greenhouse layout isn’t planned with water needs in mind, which can lead to waste and overwatering.

“We have a few hundred different varieties of plants, all with different water requirements. We’ve taken every crop we grow, giving it a number rating, one through nine. A number one would be the heaviest water-using varieties that we have. We organize our plant material based on those water categories,” says Joeright.

Regular System Maintenance

It’s easy to overlook the importance of irrigation system maintenance and inspections. Commonly, we assume a break or malfunction would result in underwatering, but overwatering or waste can also happen. Think of pipe cracks, valves that can’t close, or a pump that doesn’t get turned off. When growers are doing walk-throughs, they should be looking at the system components as well as the plants. They’re likely out there more often than the maintenance team.

“We’re pretty much boots on the ground five days a week, and we rotate weekend duty. Somebody always comes in on the weekends,” Joeright says.

Foertmeyer echoes the importance of training staff to inspect irrigation systems. “That’s really important,” he says. “We want our growers to be able to identify these things and communicate them to the maintenance team. We’re always training them to walk the entire line.”

“A lot of it comes down to training, communication, and understanding crop and water management. Watching crops, measuring water usage, and physically checking plants all play a critical role in water savings. Talking, walking, and communicating with the grower staff can provide them the confidence to enact water- saving practices. I often tell them I would rather see a little dry damage than root rot,” says Stoven.

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