Management of fertilizer and water use in greenhouse production




This research program is aimed at improving the sustainability of the floriculture industry by developing practices that allow producers to produce high-value crops while using fertilizers, water, and energy resources efficiently. For example, floriculture yield losses often result from poor irrigation water quality or improper fertilization practices. The improved efficiency of water and fertilizers has the potential to decrease fertilizer leaching which will help protect our state's water resources.


The most common irrigation method for greenhouse floriculture production is overhead watering. In this system, half of the applied water and nutrients typically do not reach plants. The excess water carries nutrients and pesticides that may contaminate ground and surface waters. As water quality and pollution issues become important at federal, state, and county levels it is important that greenhouse producers adopt practices that reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff. Irrigation systems are available to capture and reuse water that is applied to crops. While these closed irrigation systems are advantageous because they limit water pollution, most producers have not adopted these systems, in part, because of problems with the systems such as the buildup of salts or other toxic compounds over time, and the ability for root borne diseases to spread quickly. Another issue faced by greenhouse producers is that the water they have available to use for their crops varies in quality. For example, many growers have water that has high levels of dissolved bicarbonates and do not how to manage pH and salt buildup that results when this water is used. Unless managed properly, plants grown with poor quality water may become unmarketable. The primary audience affected by my program is floriculture producers. The broader role of my program benefits the general public through reduced water contamination from fertilizers and pesticides. In 2008, a needs assessment survey of NYS floriculture producers was conducted. The survey had 132 respondents and has highlighted current production practices and the most significant barriers to profitability. Fertilizer management, water quality issues, and greenhouse environmental control ranked highly as significant production challenges. The top three businesses challenges noted were: 1) energy costs, 2) attracting/retaining affordable labor, and 3) product marketing.


In response to runoff of fertilizers to the environment my research program seeks to overcome barriers to water capture and reuse. Currently, I am researching the influence of fertilizer levels and salt buildup on the growth of many new annual plant varieties. The results will be used to develop guidelines to use fertilizer efficiently and mange salt buildup in the production of this group of plants. On a long-term basis I am interested in identifying ornamental plants that can grow well with poor quality water; and in learning what factors allow these plants to be salt tolerant. The addition of naturally occurring silicon to a greenhouse fertilizer program may improve plant growth and response to disease pressure. Commercial silicon products are currently available for growers to purchase. However, growers are reluctant to try these products because we lack research on their effectiveness for most economically important greenhouse plants. I am currently researching silicon effectiveness to produce healthier, stronger, plants that are more resistant to stresses from diseases or poor quality water. In addition, trials were conducted at seven commercial greenhouses to determine if silicon could enhance plant performance or reduce disease incidence.In terms of extension/outreach: based on the needs assessment survey, five educational sessions and two hands-on workshops relating to fertilizer management were delivered in 2008. Based on the survey, energy costs were identified as a high priority topic and an educational session highlighting top tips for saving greenhouse heating costs was developed and presented at four locations in New York State in early 2009. In 2008, an updated Cornell commercial greenhouse web page was developed. Much new content has been added to the web page, specifically under the areas of: business management/marketing, fertilizer management, and greenhouse energy costs.


Although my research program is in the early stages, the target audience is already being reached. Conference evaluations have revealed that a high percentage of producers plan to change production practices as a result of my presentations. For example, at the 2008 Hudson Valley Nursery and Greenhouse School, 69% of respondents stated that they planned to change their nutrient management program based on my presentation. Example changes include: adjust for the high pH of water, test water and soil more regularly, add more nutrients, and use better plants less prone to nutrient disorders. Direct assistance to New York State greenhouse growers through on-site visits and telephone/email responses. Several questions are fielded each month such as: diagnosis of nutrient disorders, interpreting water, tissue, and soil tests, and helping to determine inefficiencies in greenhouse operations. Example impacts of my program include: responding to a county extension educator to determine corrective fertilizer strategies based on an operations soil test; working with a floriculture producer to proactively diagnose high pH and iron deficiency in a field mum crop in time to correct the disorder and save several hundred plants from becoming unmarketable; and helping a grower to determine that an in-efficient heater was causing ethylene build-up in the greenhouse and crop losses associated with premature flower bud drop. As my program grows, I will look for indicators that are improving the profitability of the New York floriculture industry, while at the same time introducing production methods that are more environmentally friendly.

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Researchers involved: 

International focus: 

  • United States of America

United States focus: 

  • New York