How quickly hydroponically-grown lettuce and leafy greens seedlings are transplanted and their exposure to LED light during propagation can impact crop production times.
Most growers using traditional hydroponic substrates transplant lettuce and leafy greens seedlings as soon as the roots reach the bottom of the plugs. This usually takes from seven to 10 days.
“We are trying to see if we can go far longer in Stage 1, which is this seedling stage,” said Tyler Baras, special projects manager at Hort Americas in Bedford, Texas. “Stage 1 occurs in a propagation area.
“Some growers incorporate an intermediate phase (Stage 2) which is a growing out stage. Stage 2 might consist of nutrient film technique (NFT) channels closely spaced next to each other or a deep water raft system with high density spacing. Generally a 2-foot-by-4-foot raft holds 72 plants or more. Both Stage 2 and 3 occur in the final growing out system. During Stage 3 those same NFT channels are spaced further apart or in a deep water system the plants in a 72-count raft are transplanted to a lower density 28- or 18-count raft.”
Baras said holding the seedlings in Stage 1 for a longer period would reduce the amount of time that is required in the final Stage 3.
“This would actually be a two-stage system with an increase in time the seedlings are in the propagation stage or Stage 1,” he said. “Our reason for doing these studies is to see if we can eliminate the labor required to transplant the plants from Stage 2 to Stage 3, but still achieve yields similar to three-stage systems. Three-stage systems generally achieve more crop turns per year than two-stage systems. For many small growers trying to find enough labor and high labor costs can be major issues. If we can reduce the amount of labor required by extending Stage 1 this could help growers.”
Baras said the reason most growers don’t try to grow the seedlings longer during Stage 1 is the chance for root damage that can occur when the plugs are transplanted into the final production system.
“If seedlings are held too long, especially in a sheet substrate where there isn’t any divider between the plants, the roots can easily grow into the neighboring plugs,” he said. “When a grower goes to transplant the plugs and tries to pull them apart damage can be done to the roots. When the plugs are transplanted into the final system this root damage can lead to stunting and leaf dieback. The damaged leaves are more susceptible to disease pathogens and can attract fungus gnats. The plants will also require additional cleaning at harvesting to remove damaged leaves.”
Baras has observed the problems caused by holding the plugs longer in Stage 1 occur more often with transplanting into NFT systems than with deep water raft culture.
Baras said that he has conducted several trials with different substrates holding the seedlings in Stage 1 up to six weeks.
“We have gone the longest with self-contained plugs,” he said. “This is usually with organic production where there is slower growth. We have pushed the seedlings for a longer period of time. So far the best results with conventional hydroponic production are at about three weeks. With organic production it’s around four weeks because the plugs are self-contained and the roots don’t grow into neighboring plugs.
“We are pushing some of the seedlings to nearly a month and not seeing significant leaf dieback or stunting from root damage. We are shaving off several weeks within the final production system. It’s still possible to damage the seedlings if they are held in Stage 1. We are seeing the upper limit is higher for deep water culture than it is for NFT.”
Impact of LED lighting
Baras said another factor that can impact seedling development is exposure to supplemental light.
“We have been trialing different photoperiods and light intensities,” he said. “We have found that the light treatments that we give the seedlings can actually affect whether the plants produce more roots or more leaves. We are looking at the differences between exposing the seedlings to sunlight and LED light from GE Arize Lynk fixtures and different photoperiods.
“Depending on the lighting treatment we can create a smaller plant on top but increase root mass. This allows us to grow the seedlings longer without the plant canopies growing into each other. When the seedlings are removed for transplanting there is no damage to the leaves. There are more leaves left intact by growing more compact plants. We are still able to get a lot of root development.”
One of the most exciting findings that Baras is seeing is the increase in final weight of lettuce given LED supplemental light.
“When we started our research we were using traditional production methods,” he said. “We would sow the butterhead lettuce seed and place the trays under sunlight and then transplant the seedlings between seven to 14 days. With this traditional growing method we would produce a 6-ounce head. With the adjustments that we are making to staging and using LED lighting we are producing 8-ounce heads in the same amount of time. We are very excited about that. We think it is one of the most significant things coming out of our research greenhouse right now.
“The plants grown with LED light are finishing with 2 ounces more of plant weight. This seems to be related more to light quality and the influence that it has on the seedlings’ morphology than on total light received. It is not like the plants are receiving a lot more light when they are exposed to LEDs instead of sunlight. The morphology of the plants is completely different because of the light quality spectrum they are receiving. We now want to look further at light quality treatments during the seedling stage. This includes different ratios of blue/red LEDs, the inclusion of different colors and checking for variety specific results. There are still a lot of trials to do.”
One of the trials that Baras wants to study further is varying the length of time the lights are on.
“We are also looking at how long the lights are on,” he said. “Whether there is a big difference depending on the length of the photoperiod. We have not found an optimum length of time. We have found that more light is not always better.
“We are looking at exposing the seedlings to 20 hours or 24 hours of light. Right now 20 hours of light is outperforming 24 hours of light. But 24 hours of light is outperforming natural sunlight. This is across all crops, including a couple varieties of lettuce and Italian basil.”
For more: Hort Americas, (469) 532-2383; https://hortamericas.com.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.