Why root health matters

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Earlier this month, growers, researchers and industry came together for the Root Health Symposium, hosted by the University of Florida, the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), and the Root Alliance. At this event, attendees learned about the latest advancements in root zone and controlled environment crop management.

Shawn Mallen, A.M.A.’s manager of hydroponics and berries, and Alex Frew, customer service & sales associate with A.M.A. were among the group. The Symposium showcased emerging technologies – including A.M.A.’s new Strawberry Growing System – and featured insightful presentations by researchers from Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, and Purdue. Alex shares several insights from the symposium.

Why root health matters?
“When it comes to plant quality, growers are increasingly turning their attention to what’s happening under the substrate. That’s because we’re learning more about the vital importance of root health”, shares Alex. “It can have a major impact on plant quality, yield, crop time, mortality rates and profitability. This is true across the board, from hydroponic cukes to containerized berries to field-grown trees. It doesn’t matter what you’re growing or how you’re growing it, healthy roots matter.”

Vertical farming beyond microgreens
Up until now, vertical farming has been largely associated with the production of microgreens, lettuces and, increasingly, mushrooms. “But at the Root Health Symposium, we got a glimpse of how vertical farming can be used to improve rooting success in other areas”, he shares.

A study led by Dr. Celina Gόmez at Purdue University trialed ornamental crops in a vertical farming system. By keeping cuttings of begonias and pansies in a vertical system for four weeks past germination, growers cut propagation time in half and improved rooting success, which led to reduced mortality of cuttings. They were able to turn crops faster, with fewer losses. With findings like these, the future of propagation could include vertical systems.

Researchers are also experimenting with row height, lighting and design of vertical farming systems to accommodate more varieties and better results. For example, fiber optic sun tubes are being added to systems to transmit natural sunlight.

“Talk about “the internet of things”! This is the same technology that transmits internet signals! Growers may see this technology come onto the market in the near future”, Alex expects.

Produce by Design
Dr. Germán Sandoya from the University of Florida presented trends and opportunities in plant breeding that can help growers gain more control over product and marketing.

Varieties are being bred for a wide range of general and niche characteristics, including: high yield, heat and cold tolerance, pest resistance, post-harvest behavior, nutritional values and unique marketing characteristics (for example, super-sweet strawberries and itty-bitty cukes).

Researchers are honing in on key issues, such as pythium resistance, and looking at ways to improve performance after the product leaves the greenhouse. They’re asking questions like: How long can the tomato be held after harvest in cooler conditions? Does it go grainy or mushy when it ripens?

Targeted breeding can give growers greater control over their crops, aligning production and post-harvest processes to the unique specifications of the plant. For instance, growers can tailor programs for watering and nutrition, and implement precise timing around when to pick, when to ship, how long that product will last on the truck, and how long it can stay on the shelf at the grocery store.

DIY Disease Management
Dr. Carrie Lapaire Harmon, also from the University of Florida, gave an interesting talk on plant disease diagnosis and training, offering advice on when to call a professional, versus what steps can start off as “grower DIY”.

She encouraged growers that, “If you can name the problem, that’s half the battle!” Describing changes to the plant, how it’s responding to water and nutrition – these are the first clues in identifying and managing diseases.

“Need a tip to identify disease? Just remember: Fungus is fuzzy, bacteria is wet, virus is weird.”

Dr. Lapaire Harmon also advised growers to stay vigilant about what goes into the greenhouse. Disease management starts before anything even crosses the door. Some tips included:

Screening cuttings and “don’t plant the ugly ones!” Once disease is in the greenhouse, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get it out.
Have a plan in place. Identify what biologicals you can use on the plants in your crop, and then identify what sprays are compatible with those biologicals, if needed.

Hot tips for greenhouse growers
“The Symposium featured eleven presentations, jam-packed with information – and that was just before lunch arrived”, Alex shares. Here are some tips shared by presenters at the Symposium.

Save costs. Consider whether greenhouse light schedules can be coordinated with daily hydro rate schedules, without compromising plant needs.

Focus on your market. You can grow a greenhouse full of great plants, but if you don’t have a plan for marketing and market access, you’re going to struggle to sell them.

How’s your air flow? Good air flow above the substrate is critical for CO2 and oxygen exchange within the leaf structure. Below the substrate, it’s what allows the roots to breathe.

Plants are what they eat. Test your water, leachates and nutrients more than once a week.

Emerging technology showcase
Attendees of the symposium got a chance to visit different stations and explore new technologies for greenhouse growing.

A.M.A. Strawberry Growing System

A.M.A. Strawberry Growing System
The new A.M.A. Strawberry Growing System was shown. “We were pleased with the amount of interest from growers who had never seen a system like this before”, says Alex. “It’s a professional-grade strawberry growing system – exactly the kind of system you’d see in a 40-acre greenhouse operation – but with one key difference: It can be scaled down and customized for smaller production.”

As the strawberry market continues to expand, the A.M.A. Strawberry Growing System is a solution for growers starting out in strawberry production; growers moving some of their production from field to tunnels to extend their season; research and educational institutions; and market growers serving their own communities. It comes complete with everything needed for table-top strawberry production (brackets, irrigation emitters and piping), and fits grow bags or troughs.

Pioneer Pots for Containerized Blueberries

Pioneer Pots for Containerized Blueberry Production
Patented Pioneer Pots™ were also among the showcased innovations. Researchers from the University of Florida ran a containerized blueberry trial using Pioneer Pots and other nursery containers. The goal of the study was to show the impact of different containers on the root structures of blueberry plants. The lesson? Researchers saw greater branching in the root structures of plants grown in Pioneer Pots.

Pioneer Pots are available in black, but they also come in white. “This is to help avoid cooking roots in hot climates. Cooked roots pull water from fruit and leaves and stress the plant. A.M.A. Horticulture is proud to supply Pioneer Pots to our customers as part of our line-up of solutions for healthy rooting,” Alex shares, adding she wants to share a big thank you to the University of Florida, the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), and the Root Alliance for hosting this symposium.

For more information:
Alex Frew (instagram)
A.M.A. Horticulture
2011 Spinks Drive
Kingsville, ON N9Y 2E5
T: 519-322-1397 or 800-338-1136
F: 519-322-1358
[email protected]

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