By Brian Gandy
B.A. Horticulture, Permaculture Design Consultant and Sustainable Business Life Learner
Botany Lane is a locally owned and operated wholesale production center growing succulents, annuals, perennials, herbs & veggies, and tropical plants in liners, pre-finished and finished sizes. They sell to Colorado independent garden centers and landscapers as well as growers all over the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Annual Crops and Perennial Customers
As an advocate and enthusiast for Sustainable Business practices, commercial horticulture and cannabis it was my pleasure for the opportunity to wax poetic with Production Manager of Botany Lane’s location in Arvada (Denver), CO, Mr. Daniel Ortega. Botany Lane provides high-quality ornamental standards, primarily to Independent Garden Centers which pivots around the central tenant of Permaculture, “Self-Regulate: Accept Feedback”. Daniel and his operation actively engage in this through their proximity to the end-user allows them to observe and modify behavior as the P.C. principle is written. If a hanging-basket goes out that has been overly coddled or comes up short for a customer, this news comes home and the system adapts organically to take note and improve.
Botany Lane’s perennial customer base has allowed this business to continue to grow and thrive even through the challenges of 2020. Another resilience strategy they have embraced and are excelling in, is the cultivation of hemp for seed production and top-tier biomass for extraction or direction consumption. In their pursuit of a crop that is foreign to most ornamental growers, Daniel has teamed up with GE to implement their ARIZE line of top-light style LED-based technology. Top Light refers to the more traditional application of lighting in a greenhouse, suspended from the structure to deliver PAR(Photosynthetically Active Radiation) and augment the amount of daylight that may or may not be available depending on the time of year.
Cannabis Driven Innovation
The serendipitous timing of technological advancement in component technology, coupled with the “green rush” of medical and recreational cannabis has fueled the flame of innovation in Horticultural Lighting technology over the last decade. Primarily in the last 5 years, crystalizing many of the insights into technology that is proven in efficiency gains and hitting production targets. Since surpassing “legacy” technology like High Pressure Sodium and Metal Halide based lighting circa 2018, household names like GE have picked up the torch to combine these insights with proven engineering prowess and durability standards, resulting in the ARIZE line of fixtures.
Botany Lane is no doubt a benefactor of this innovation cycle. In addition to having the industrial-grade technology to implement, it has also furthered the knowledge gain that supplemental lighting can shave days off of cycles, make more room on the floor and improve the dollar per square foot per unit of time metrics that all growers survive on. The roughly 20 year old PL Light Systems single-ended HPS fixtures collecting dust, boom times and old lamps could have let this factor fall by the wayside. Economic pressure and a technological paradigm shift are motivational factors that provide to industry to see how we improve our bottom lines and contribute to a cleaner future through impact reduction through the People, Planet and Profit model of Sustainable Business.
A short walk to their trial greenhouse demonstrated the kind leadership and resulting smoothness that a production manager like Daniel cultivates. The concept of taking care of the people that take care of you runs double edged, especially in the vividly tangible and quality driven worlds of ornamental horticulture and hemp. There is very little tolerance for coming up short in this world. If it doesn’t make the cut, it goes in the compost heap. Without a compassionate approach to staff, quality driven crop production goes into the heap too.
How does lighting technology affect people? One of the predominant adjustments to working with LED is the color of the light. The term “Blurple” comes from the color of monochromatic spectral formulations, namely the combination of blue(450 nm) and red (660 nm) making a pinkish-blue and purple light which can be challenging to work under. These singular colors are the most efficient approach, but there is a resounding challenge to working under these fixtures. From a component durability level and also longevity, these workhorses will illuminate the skies above greenhouses with an eerie pink glow. GE and most other LED manufacturers have taken this into account adding enough “green” light, which is the peak wavelength of human perception and we perceive the combination of these colors as “white”. The “Pink” spectral offerings from GE, provide enough green light for human eyes to adjust and make working and scouting under them much easier than the “Purple” offerings. The decision to deploy one or the other will be dependent on the application.
Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Daniel and his processors universally agree that the crop grown under LED light has better density and harvestability than that grown outside when looking at their hemp crops. Ornamental hort is driven by perceived quality of lushness, bloom color and uniformity. One example of this was clearly demonstrated by some asparagus fern seedlings that Mr. Ortega showed us. With seed being in short supply, they were planting one seed per cell, and they were able to demonstrate that with application of LED light provided significant bushing out and pushing of growth in this species. Happy plants make for happy people!
With regard to staff and potential collateral effects of fertilizer and chemical applications, LED can be used to reduce the need for both, reducing the potential for toxic exposure to employees and customers of industry staples like plant growth regulators (PGR’s). Daniel has observed and executed shortened time to flowering in ornamental species, resulting in reduction of these compounds by half or more. In cannabis, we have clearly demonstrated the physiological and morphological response of plants to respond to differing qualities of light, most notably, bluer shifted spectrum resulting in more compact and shrubby vegetative growth. Conversely more red allows more elongation and prolific blooming in many species. Less chemical applications and the ability to elicit plant responses with tuned lighting from LED-based sources makes for a healthier working environment when it comes to chemical exposure.
One of the first selling points of every bleeding-heart LED enthusiast is the reduction in power consumption from the use of this new and improved technology. We have undoubtably had to crack a few eggs to get to this precipice, but now that we are here, there is no looking back. Currently, the market standards and technology allow roughly 660 Watts to replace 1100 watts. This is based on a 1:1 replacement of LED to HPS. This is much closer to a reality in a greenhouse scenario than it is in a sole source lit cannabis facility. I work in this disclaimer technology for any cannabis grower who has not been successful at making the switch, however as a man of science as much as passion, this author has observed yields and quality that unabashedly shame streetlight based tech in warehouses. HPS and MH technology is based on the consumption and replacement of lamps that contain mercury. A naturally occurring compound that is toxic in alarmingly low amounts, extremely persistent in food webs and very difficult to remediate or recycle. The GE ARIZE L1000 LEDs are built to last combining efficient, component-cooling design along with future proof durability and rigor standards, as a result of their robust engineering effort. Durability and reduction of harmful inputs into products is a leap forward in sustainability in horticulture.
In a not too recent history, 60 percent of Colorado’s power was derived from coal powered plants. Many of these plants in our backyards and around the world are being actively shut down for their contributions to greenhouse gases and toxins. Reducing consumption here is a no-brainer and with industrial grade hardware from a brand the likes of GE, the immediate conversion to LED tech is now within reach to traditional horticulture. Again this innovation cycle has been fueled by funds flooded into the process by legal cannabis.
The first driver of any business, “Sustainable” or otherwise is economic. I like to tell people “if you can’t afford a soapbox, no one will hear you”. While I do much more soapboxing than the modest Mr. Ortega, this is absolutely true. Providing high quality “Retail Ready” baskets and containers and “Grower Ready” liners, Botany Lane is a textbook example of a wholesale production center. A differentiation that many producers in traditional horticulture are potentially reluctant to is cannabis. With “Hemp” (Marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin) cultivation further helping to blur the line and bridge the gap between closet cultivation and mainstream crop production, Botany Lane has taken the plunge into this potentially lucrative cultivation curiosity.
I can say with confidence as a grower and 10 year veteran in the Colorado cannabis industry, that the hemp industry in 2020 has been, a rougher roller coaster ride than many industries. With a bubble set to burst, pre-pandemic, many producers were still sitting on their 2019 crop and a diluted market awaited anyone brave enough to tackle the 2020 season. Survival of the fittest already at play, commercial cultivators know what it takes to produce a crop with optimized inputs, precision practices and much slimmer margins than many people who jumped into hemp over the last few years. This tact along with the latest tech, have allowed Daniel’s crop to draw a premium only in his second year of production.
Do LED fixtures cost more than legacy technology? Yes. But, when you factor in the fact that upgrading to newer HPS fixtures, would increase the power demand of this facility, resulting in costly infrastructure upgrades for more amperage. This fact, coupled with rebates provided by our industry forerunner, Xcel Energy, make the economic hurdle much shorter. Xcel energy, along with providers across the country are providing incentives for more appropriate technology installations and operations. Once the CAPEX is laid out, OPEX drops when you don’t have to re-lamp HPS fixtures yearly for the best performance. Adding GE ARIZE LEDs to a greenhouse operation now, combining rebates, reduced power consumption and shortened cycle times are a ticket to a feasible ROI and improved bottom line in the future.
With the market and year induced awakening of supplemental lightings ability to drive profits, Botany Lane along with the support of Hort Americas and the GE LED fixtures, have set the bar for manageable conversion to LED-based technology. Unlike the fast and loose spending associated with the THC cannabis frenzy, traditional horticulture takes more of a blue-chip approach to adopting new technology. Hort Americas and GE balance this with educational and sensible sales efforts helping growers learn to grow with LED. As any cannabis grower who has made the switch will tell you, it is not as simple as take down your HPS and hang an LED. There IS a learning curve, one that quality vendors and technology will get you through safely.
Lighting the path for a more sustainable future
ESG (Environmental and Social Governance) is the current corporate acronym for the active engagement in these practices. Using metrics, definitions, KPIs and accounting to quantify the reduction of impact by firms. Daniel Ortega and Botany Lane may not realize how important their openness and actions are, but this is the trend a horticulturist and sustainability advocate like myself spends his days striving and advocating for. Finding the balance between the astonishing beauty of ornamental, medicinal plants and a more harmonious societal and environmental impact, Daniel Ortega and Botany Lane with the help of Hort Americas and the GE LED lighting technology, stand out as model in these pursuits.