The importance of knowing basics of plant nutrition

By Karla Garcia, Hort Americas Technical Services

Plant nutrition is a key factor in growth and yield. But how can we know which nutrient is missing? Or which is the best fertilizer for our crop?

In learning about plant nutrition, we first need to know there are nutrients required in greater quantities than others. The nutrients that are essential for plant growth are called “macronutrients”. The rest of the nutrients also essential for plant growth but in lower quantities are called “micronutrients”.

Continue reading The importance of knowing basics of plant nutrition

Do you want to sell the freshest, most flavorful and fragrant cut basil?

How you grow and process fresh cut basil will impact the flavor and shelf life of the harvested product.

Basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs. Whether grown as a potted crop or for fresh cut sales, basil is an herb that’s in demand year-round. Growers looking to add edibles to their product mix should consider basil to be a must-have herb in their product offerings.

Continue reading Do you want to sell the freshest, most flavorful and fragrant cut basil?

2017 retail sales of organic fresh produce reach nearly $5 billion

The Organic Produce Network and Nielsen report sales of organic fresh produce items approached $5 billion in 2017, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. Nearly 2 billion pounds of organic produce were sold in grocery stores last year, which is a 10 percent volume increase from 2016.

At U.S. retail stores, sales of organic fresh vegetables were $2.4 billion. Organic fresh fruit sales exceeded $1.6 billion. Sales of nearly $1 billion in organic value-added produce items brought total sales to $4.8 billion in 2017.

In 2017 organic packaged salad was again the leading organic fresh produce item, approaching $1 billion in sales. Packaged salad still accounts for one in five organic dollars.

Topping the sales in organic fruit were berry crops, which saw a 22 percent increase in volume sales. Organic berry sales, which include strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, topped $586 million in 2017.

The impact of transplanting times, light exposure on hydroponic crop production

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.

Continue reading The impact of transplanting times, light exposure on hydroponic crop production

Substrate trials look to assist hydroponic growers avoid propagation-related issues

Substrate trials in Hort Americas’ research greenhouse are looking at conventional and organic propagation substrates along with different irrigation strategies for producing healthy starter plugs for hydroponic production systems.

Hort Americas has retrofitted a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse in Dallas, Texas, for the purpose of studying edible crop production in a variety of hydroponic production systems. The greenhouse is also being used to demonstrate products offered in the company’s online catalog.

Tyler Baras, who is the company’s special projects manager, is overseeing the trialing of conventional and organic substrates in different production systems.

Tyler Baras, special projects manager at Hort Americas, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs propagated in conventional and organic substrates. The seedlings are transplanted into a deep water culture, NFT or vertical tower production system.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Baras, Hort Americas

“The trials I am focusing on are organic substrates vs. conventional substrates,” Baras said. “I’m primarily using stonewool or rockwool as the conventional propagation substrate. I am also starting to trial some loose substrates, including peat and perlite.

“The seedlings are never moved into another substrate. The seed is sown into plugs and then the rooted seedlings are moved into a deep water culture, NFT (nutrient film technique), or vertical tower production system. The plugs are really only useful for the first two weeks in propagation. Then it is really about getting the roots to grow outside the plugs so the roots grow directly in the water.”

For the organic production systems, Baras is working primarily with expandable coco plugs. He has also started working with some organic loose substrates including coco peat and perlite.

For the substrate studies Baras is working with two standard hydroponic crops, basil and lettuce, primarily butterhead lettuce.

“When I’m testing the lettuce I use either raw or pelleted seed,” he said. “With basil it’s all raw seed. Basil tends to germinate relatively easily, whether the seed is planted into a dibbled hole or sown on top of the substrate.”

Focused on irrigation strategies

A primary objective of the substrate trials is to determine the best irrigation strategies for both organic and conventional substrates.

“This is probably more important with some of the organic substrates than the conventional substrates because the organic substrates tend to hold more water,” Baras said. “One of the big challenges that organic hydroponic growers run into is overwatering their plugs because coco holds more water than conventional substrate plugs that growers are used to. Coco plugs hold more water than stonewool, phenolic foam and polymer-based peat plugs. These other plugs dry out faster than coco plugs.”

For the substrate trials, rooted seedling plugs are finished in a deep water culture, NFT (nutrient film technique) or vertical tower production system.

Baras said growers who are moving from conventional to organic production tend to use the same irrigation techniques they employed with their conventional propagation program.
“The growers will continue to irrigate the plugs a couple times per day,” he said. “With a lot of the organic plugs, when the seed is sown, they only need to be irrigated once every three days. If the plugs are overirrigated the roots don’t have an incentive to search out the water when they are planted into the production system. The search for water is what drives the seedling roots down to the bottom and out of the plugs.

“The goal of planting into plugs is to have the seedling roots grow outside of the plugs into the water of the deep water culture or NFT system. If the plugs are overwatered as young seedlings, the roots don’t make it down to the bottom of the plugs so it takes longer to start the seedlings and sometimes they just end up rotting because the plugs remain too wet.”

Type of irrigation system

In addition to looking at the irrigation frequency of plugs during propagation, Baras is studying the impact of different methods of irrigation during propagation, including overhead and subirrigation.

“When deciding whether to use overhead or subirrigation, it depends on whether raw or pelleted seed is being sown,” he said. “If pelleted seed is going to be used, a lot of times it’s advantageous to use overhead irrigation because it helps to dissolve the coating surrounding the seed. This helps to ensure the seed has better contact with the substrate. Sometimes it’s almost a little easier to get good germination with subirrigation if raw seed is used because of the direct contact with the substrate.

Growers need to avoid overwatering young seedling plugs or their roots may not make it down to the bottom of the plugs, which could delay transplanting into the production system.

“Smaller indoor growers often use subirrigation for germination. A lot of the large growers, especially those coming from the ornamental plant side such as bedding plants, usually have overhead irrigation systems installed. These growers have propagation areas set up with overhead irrigation, which can be used to start their hydroponic vegetable crops.”

Baras said most indoor warehouse growers are not going to be using watering wands or overhead irrigation in their operations.

“Most of the warehouse growers will be using subirrigation, such as flood tables,” he said. “For them it is going to be important that they select the right kind of seed to get good germination. They may have to try other techniques like using a deeper dibble or covering the seed with some kind of loose organic substrate such as perlite or vermiculite. Growers using overhead irrigation can usually sow pelleted seed without having to dibble the substrate.

“Many growers tend to have issues when they are using pelleted bibb lettuce seed with subirrigation. We are looking at ways of increasing the germination rate using dibbling with the pelleted seed or increasing the dibble size or covering the seed.”

Baras said growers who are using automation, including mechanized seeders and dibblers, prefer to use pelleted seed.

“With pelleted seed it’s easier to be more precise so that there is only one seed planted per plug cell,” he said. “I have seen automation used with raw basil seed. I have also seen organic production done where automation was used just to dibble the plug trays. Dibbling seems to be one of the biggest factors when it comes to getting good even germination.


Need for good seed-substrate contact

Baras said occasionally with tightly packed coco plugs, if the seed is not pushed down into the plug the emerging radicle may have issues penetrating the substrate.

“This helps push the radicle down so it contacts the substrate and establishes more easily,” he said. “When subirrigation is used it can be advantageous to cover the seed with vermiculite or just brush the top of the coco plug after the seed is planted to get some coverage of the seed.

“What usually affects the way that coco plugs work is the size of the coco particles. There is really fine coco. There is coco fiber, which can be mixed into the plug to help with aeration and increase drainage. We are looking at various plugs with some increased fiber content trying to aerate the plugs in order to speed up the drainage.”

Stonewool or rockwool is the primary conventional propagation substrate in the trials. Other loose substrates, including peat and perlite, are also starting to be trialed.

Baras is also looking at using loose substrates in different ratios in plugs and then transplanting them into deep water culture, NFT, and vertical tower systems.

“One of the issues with hydroponic systems and loose substrates is these substrates can enter the production system and clog up the irrigation lines,” he said. “The trick is trying to avoid having any loose substrate enter the system. We are looking at using loose substrates and allowing the seedlings to establish longer in the plug cell during propagation before transplanting them into the production system. This enables the seedlings to develop a larger root system, which can prevent loose substrate from falling into the system.”


For more: Hort Americas, (469) 532-2383;

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas;


Products being used in greenhouse trials

Fertilizer trials look at leafy greens, herb growth in hydroponic production systems

Early results from fertilizer trials in Hort Americas’ research greenhouse show knowing the levels of nutrients in fertilizer solutions can go a long way in avoiding problems with deficiencies and toxicities.

Hort Americas has retrofitted a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse in Dallas, Texas, for the purpose of studying edible crop production in a variety of hydroponic production systems. The greenhouse is also being used to demonstrate products offered in the company’s online catalog.

Tyler Baras, who is the company’s special projects manager, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs in five different production systems.

“We’ve got a deep water culture or raft system using Hort Americas’ fertilizer blend with calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate,” Baras said. “We are using that same nutrient mix in a nutrient film technique (NFT) system and a capillary mat system.

“I’m using Terra Genesis organic fertilizer in a vertical grow tower. I’m also using the same organic fertilizer for all of the seedling propagation in a flood-and-drain vertical rack.”

Tyler Baras, special projects manager at Hort Americas, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs in different production systems, including deep water culture and nutrient film technique. Photos courtesy of Tyler Baras, Hort Americas
Tyler Baras, special projects manager at Hort Americas, is overseeing the trialing of leafy greens and herbs in different production systems, including deep water culture and nutrient film technique.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Baras, Hort Americas

Baras said the fertilizer recipe he is using in the deep water culture and NFT systems is based on general recommendations from Cornell University and the University of Arizona for leafy greens crop production.

Differences in nutrient levels

The deep water culture system has been running for three months. The water reservoir for the system is 8,000 gallons.

“Even if water evaporates, since it is such a large body of water, the electrical conductivity (EC) doesn’t really move much,” Baras said. “The EC has been very stable during the three months it has been operating. The reading has barely moved.”

The first trial with the NFT system, which has a reservoir of about 140 gallons, lasted for three months.

“Every week I added an additional 40 gallons of water on average to the NFT reservoir,” Baras said. “The water is evaporating and the salts are accumulating a lot faster in the NFT reservoir than in the deep water culture system. Because the NFT system has a smaller water reservoir, the quicker evaporation rate and the water replacement in the reservoir, has caused the EC to shift a lot more.”

One of the goals of the fertilizer trials is to see what salts are accumulating in the NFT system and to see how long the system can run before it has to be flushed.
One of the goals of the fertilizer trials is to see what salts are accumulating in the NFT system and to see how long the system can run before it has to be flushed.

Baras said even with the changes in nutrient levels all of the plants have been performing well.

“I haven’t seen any nutrient deficiencies or toxicities even as the fertilizer recipe has shifted over time. We have been trialing a wide range of crops, including butterhead and romaine lettuces, kale, spring mixes and basil. I’m trialing a lot of crops to figure out when these crops start to be impacted by possibly too much salt accumulation. I haven’t seen anything yet that is alarming.

“One of the things that I have seen over the years working with fertilizers is how wide the acceptable range is for plants to grow well. Between the NFT and deep water culture, the NFT is using half the nitrogen and the plants are performing very similarly. There are recommendations for EC, but none of these fertilizer levels are set. I have some systems that have 20 parts per million phosphorus and some that have 50 ppm and the plants look the same. Most general recommendations say 40-50 ppm. I’ll have some solutions that have 3 ppm iron and others that have 6 ppm iron. It is interesting to see how wide the range is for a lot of these nutrients and the crops are performing the same.”

During the three months that the deep water culture system has been running the electrical conductivity (EC) has been very stable with plants showing no signs of nutrient deficiencies or toxicities.
During the three months that the deep water culture system has been running the electrical conductivity (EC) has been very stable with plants showing no signs of nutrient deficiencies or toxicities.

Baras said he has seen a slowing of plant growth in the NFT system.

“I’m not seeing any deficiencies or toxicities, but the crops have slowed down about a week over the deep water culture,” he said. “Depending on the crop, it’s taking a week longer to reach either the plants’ salable weight or height.

“The slowing in growth could be related to the nutrients. This could be useful information for growers. If they are checking the EC, which may have been 2.3 when a crop was started, if there is a slowing of growth, growers may want to have a water test done. The test could show that the amount of nutrients might be changing.”

Identifying what makes up the EC

During the three months that Baras had been running the NFT system he never flushed the system.

“All that I’ve done with the NFT system is add water and additional fertilizer to maintain a targeted EC,” he said. “One of the goals of the trials is to see what ions are accumulating in the system and to see how long I can run the system before it has to be flushed. When I started the target EC was 2.2-2.3. I still achieved the target EC at three months, but the composition of what was actually in the water changed.

“Originally the NFT fertilizer solution contained about 185 parts per million nitrogen. At the end of the trial the EC was the same but there was only 108 ppm nitrogen in the solution. The calcium concentration was originally 250 ppm and ended at 338 ppm. Sulphur was originally at 80 ppm and rose to 250 ppm. Nutrients have accumulated as the water evaporated. Solely going by the EC meter reading doesn’t tell the full story of what is in that water. The EC of the fertilizer solution that I started with is the same as the EC for the fertilizer solution three months later. The difference is the ions that are making up that ending EC.”

Herb production with organic fertilizer

Baras is growing a variety of cut herbs in vertical grow towers. The plants are fertilized with Terra Genesis, a molasses-based organic fertilizer. He said Hort Americas has been hearing from tower growers who are interested in trying to grow organically.

“What we are seeing is the organic fertilizer solution can change a lot over time,” he said. “The fertilizer tank solution matures as time goes on. With the organic fertilizer, the nutrients tend to balance out as the solution is run longer.

“Our city water contains calcium and some magnesium. These elements are actually the nutrients that the organic fertilizer is slightly low in. So as I run the system longer, through the addition of city water, I actually start to see an accumulation of both calcium and magnesium, which actually helps balance out the total fertilizer recipe. The balance of the nutrients has improved over time.

A variety of cut herbs are being grown in vertical grow towers and fertilized with Terra Genesis, a molasses-based organic fertilizer.
A variety of cut herbs are being grown in vertical grow towers and fertilized with Terra Genesis, a molasses-based organic fertilizer.

The pH was fairly unstable as it seemed to be going through several biological waves. It was moving rapidly between high and low. As I run the tank solution longer the total alkalinity has increased, which has stabilized it. The biological activity has also started to stabilize. The pH has stabilized in the upper 5 range. For the plants grown organically I have seen deficiencies pop up. The deficiencies were reduced as the fertilizer tank solution ran longer. The deficiencies appear to have balanced out.”

Baras said one noticeable difference between the NFT, deep water and vertical grow towers is how much slower the plants grow in the towers.

“I don’t know what to contribute the slower growth to yet,” he said. “It could be trying to determine the best fertilizer rate for the fertilizer. It could be the crop selection, because most of the crops in the towers are different from what I’m growing in the NFT and deep water culture.

“I’m going to start a deep water culture and NFT trial using organic fertilizer. I’ll have three different organic production systems running simultaneously so I will be able to compare the plant growth in each system. I’ll also be able to compare the growth of the same crops grown with organic or conventional fertilizers.”

Controlling biofilm, disease pathogens

Baras said one of the issues that can arise with using organic fertilizer is the development of biofilm in the irrigation lines that can cause emitters to clog.

“I am incorporating a product called TerraBella, which contains beneficial microbes,” he said. “These microbes help mobilize certain nutrients, like phosphorus, which can promote the formation of biofilms. This biofilm buildup is usually more of a problem with high water temperatures.

“About every six weeks I add a booster application of the beneficial microbes depending on the production system. The deep water culture system has a larger reservoir so I am not replacing evaporated water as often. For the other productions systems, like the NFT and grow towers, where I am replacing the water, I am incorporating the beneficials more often. For these systems, the fresh city water that is added dilutes the fertilizer solution. Also, there is chlorine in the city water that possibly could negatively impact some of the beneficial microbes.

For more: Hort Americas, (469) 532-2383;

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas;


Products being used in greenhouse trials



Monitoring is crucial for growing lettuce and leafy greens year round

Since lettuce and leafy greens have short production cycles, greenhouse growers need to stay focused if they want to be successful growing these crops year round.

The increasing demand for locally-grown vegetables is causing more field vegetable growers, ornamental plant growers and new growers to look at trying to satisfy this market. Cornell University horticulture professor Neil Mattson said he works with all three types of growers.

“I see both vegetable field growers and ornamental greenhouse growers trying to produce lettuce and leafy greens year round,” he said. “Both are quite common. Field vegetable growers are looking for a crop that can generate year-round cash flow. Ornamental growers are looking to fill their greenhouses in the off-season. A lot of ornamental growers no longer produce poinsettias in the fall or spring bulb crops and spring plant propagation that they would normally do in the winter. Growers could have as much as a six-month window when their facilities are not being used.”

Mattson said ornamental growers tend to better understand what it takes to grow a year-round crop.

“Ornamental growers tend to be aware of differences in crops and the problems that can arise,” he said. “They also understand the concept that there is much less light in the winter so they may have to consider using supplemental light. Ornamental growers are usually aware of the high cost of heating a greenhouse year round, especially during the winter.

“In general, field vegetable growers who have greenhouses, may only be using those structures in the spring to produce their transplants. That means they may be used to heating a couple months each year.”


Controlling environmental parameters

During this year’s Cultivate’16 conference and trade show in Columbus, Ohio, Mattson did a presentation on the year-round production of leafy greens using controlled environment agriculture (CEA). The main environmental conditions growers need to monitor and control include light, temperature and relative humidity.



Mattson said in the northern half of the United States light availability during the winter months is the most difficult environmental issue to deal with when growing plants year round.

“The target light level for lettuce production is 17 moles of light per square meter per day (daily light integral, mol/m2/d) for optimal growth,” he said. “In most parts of the country achieving that target usually isn’t an issue during the summer. In the winter, in the northern part of the country, light levels can be 5 mol/m2/d on average and even 1-3 mol/m2/d is common. That is three to five times less light than what is needed for optimum lettuce growth during the winter.”


Photo 1, Lettuce overview 1, Neil Mattson, Cornell Univ.
The target light level for lettuce production is 17 moles of light per square meter per day (daily light integral) for optimal growth.
Photos courtesy of Neil Mattson, Cornell Univ.


Mattson said supplemental light, using LEDs or high pressure sodium lamps (See the Lamps Needed Calculator, can be provided to deliver higher light levels to increase lettuce biomass. But going above 17 mol/m2/d can cause growers to have issues with tip burn.

“In the case of head lettuce, a grower can go from seed to harvested head (5-6 ounces) in 35 days if there is 17 mol/m2/d. If there is only 8.5 mol/m2/d, it takes the plants twice as long to produce that same biomass.

“For baby leaf greens, if they are seeded and transplanted and grown on for two weeks before harvesting and only receive 8.5 moles of light, the plants will only produce half the yield. If a grower normally harvests 10 ounces per square foot and there is only half the light, the plants will produce only 5 ounces per square foot.”

Mattson said a rule of thumb for New York is a grower can light a 1-acre greenhouse and produce the same yields as not lighting a 3-acre greenhouse to produce the same yields during the winter months.



Lettuce and many other leafy greens are cold tolerant. Mattson said a lot of growers want to grow them cold.

“The Cornell CEA research group proposes that these crops be grown at fairly warm temperatures so that they have the faster 35-day crop cycle,” he said. “This is based on having 17 mol/m2/d and a daily average temperature of 70ºF-75ºF during the day and 65ºF at night.

“During the winter the issue with temperature is paying to heat the greenhouse. It’s easy to control the temperature, growers just have to be willing to crank up the thermostat.”

Mattson said temperature can be really hard to control in southern climates in the U.S.

“Under hot conditions, temperatures in the 80s and 90s, head lettuce is going to bolt prematurely,” he said. “It can be difficult to drop the day temperature low enough to avoid early bolting.”

Beyond trying to reduce the air temperature, research done by the Cornell CEA group has shown that lowering the root zone temperature to 74ºF or less using chilled water can help prevent premature bolting.

“Chilling the root zone temperature allows growers to grow using warmer air temperatures by having the cooler water temperature,” Mattson said. “This is an effective way to chill the plants even when the air temperatures reach the 80s and 90s.”

Mattson said the biggest issue with warmer air temperatures occurs with lettuce and spinach. Warmer temperature and long day conditions can both cause spinach to experience premature bolting. Mattson said warmer temperatures can also promote Pythium root rot on spinach. Spinach is much more susceptible to this water mold than lettuce or other leafy greens.

“Chilling the root zone temperature can help to prevent the disease organism from developing as quickly as at warmer temperatures,” Mattson said. “If the root zone temperature can be kept cool, it won’t completely avoid the Pythium issue, but it will help control it.”


Pythium baby leaf spinach, Neil Mattson, Cornell Univ.
Cooling the root zone temperature won’t completely avoid Pythium disease, but it will help control it.


Pythium spinach closeup, Neil Mattson, Cornell Univ.
Close-up view showing Pythium root rot on spinach.


The Cornell CEA group found that the optimum root zone temperature for spinach was 64ºF-65ºF. At this temperature Pythium was deterred, but there was no crop delay. If the root zone temperature is lowered to 62ºF, plant growth is slowed.


Relative humidity

Mattson said the relative humidity for lettuce and leafy greens should be between 50-70 percent. He said the lower humidity helps to limit pathogen issues.

“High humidity favors powdery mildew and Botrytis,” he said. “High humidity also favors the physiological disorder tip burn. Tip burn is caused by a calcium deficiency. The higher the relative humidity the less transpiration occurs in the plant resulting in the plant not taking up an adequate amount of calcium.”


Lettuce tipburn, Neil Mattson, Cornell Univ.
High humidity favors the physiological disorder tip burn, which is caused by a calcium deficiency.


Mattson said a relative humidity lower than 50 percent can cause an outer leaf edge burn, which is a physiological disorder.

“This is a different disorder than tip burn caused by calcium deficiency,” Mattson said. “The outer leaves develop lesions where the veins end on the edge of the leaves. The lesions occur where the sap exudes out of the veins and then is reabsorbed by the plant and there is a kind of salt buildup.”


Fertilization, water quality

Although fertilization and water quality are not environmental parameters, growers can have issues with both if they don’t monitor them. Lettuce and leafy greens are not particularly heavy feeders compared to other greenhouse vegetables like tomatoes and other vine crops. Mattson said lettuce and leafy greens are relatively forgiving crops when it comes to fertilization.

“Growers need to monitor the nutrient solution every day in regards to pH and electrical conductivity (EC),” he said. “The reason for testing the nutrient solution at least daily is because in hydroponics the nutrient solution pH can change by one or two units in a day.”

Mattson said for container crops like petunia and geranium, pH does not usually change by more than one unit in a week. He said container growers may check the pH every week, and some may only do it every two weeks. But for hydroponics a grower needs to stay on top of changes in pH.

In addition to daily pH and EC monitoring, Mattson said a detailed elemental analysis of the nutrient solution is important.

“Periodically, about every four weeks, growers should send a sample of their nutrient solution to a testing lab to determine if the plants are absorbing nutrients in the proportions the growers expect,” he said. “Certain elements in the solution may decline over time and a grower may have to add more of these elements and less of others.”

Mattson said some systems, like CropKing’s Fertroller, have automated sensors which measure pH and EC in line so it’s a real time measurement. The controller makes the necessary adjustments.

“Typically if a grower is putting high alkalinity water into the system, the pH tends to creep up over time, so the controller automatically adds acid to reach a target pH,” he said. “Likewise, the machine does that with EC too. If the EC is going down because the plants are taking up nutrients, the controller adds fertilizer stock solution to reach a target EC.”

Mattson said iron deficiency due to high pH is the most common nutrient disorder he sees on lettuce and leafy greens. Occasionally magnesium deficiency occurs because the water source contains enough calcium, but not enough magnesium.


Iron deficiency due to high pH is usually the most common nutrient disorder on lettuce and leafy greens.


“Many fertilizers don’t include calcium and magnesium, so growers can run into issues with magnesium deficiency,” he said. “Basil tends to have a high need for magnesium. We usually recommend basil be provided twice as much magnesium as lettuce.”


Photo 6, Basil magnesium deficiency, Neil Mattson, Cornell Univ.
Basil tends to have a high need for magnesium and usually should receive twice as much magnesium as lettuce.


Mattson said growers should test their water more frequently to determine if there have been any changes in the alkalinity of the water, including calcium, magnesium and sodium concentrations.

“In the Northeast this summer, we are experiencing a drought,” he said. “I’ve heard from growers who say the EC of their water is going up, which implies that some salt levels are going up. But we don’t know specifically which salts and that would be useful to know what specifically is changing.

“It really depends on their water quality. In particular, EC, alkalinity and whether there are any nutrients in high concentrations, like sodium, can be an issue. It really comes down to how long they are trying to capture and reuse the water. In our Cornell system we have traditionally grown in floating ponds. We use that same water cycle after cycle for several years. We can continually use the same water because we start with deionized water. However, even if the water has fairly low salt levels, using the same water will result in the accumulation of sodium to harmful levels over time.”


For more:
Neil Mattson, Cornell University
School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section
49D Plant Science
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-0621

Cornell Controlled Environment Agriculture “Hydroponic Lettuce Handbook”


David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas;


Webinar on “Managing Nutrient Solutions for Hydroponic Leafy Greens and Herbs”

If you missed the e-GRO webinar “Managing Nutrient Solutions for Hydroponic Leafy Greens and Herbs” on Jan. 22, 2016, which was sponsored by Hort Americas, you can still view the webinar on YouTube.

Hydroponic greens and herbs are produced in systems with recirculating nutrient solutions. In order to maintain productive and quality crops, it is important to know how to properly maintain the nutrient solutions. Dr. Chris Currey at Iowa State University and Dr. Neil Mattson at Cornell University discuss strategies for managing pH and EC, formulating nutrient solutions and identifying common nutrient disorders.

Part 1: Common production systems, pH and EC management

Presented by Dr. Chris Currey, Iowa State University


Part 2: Nutrient solution recipes, common nutrient disorders

Present by Dr. Neil Mattson, Cornell University

Evaluating field-bred lettuce varieties for hydroponic greenhouse production

University of Arkansas researchers trialed 65 lettuce varieties to determine their potential for production in greenhouse hydroponic systems.


By David Kuack


An increasing number of greenhouse ornamental plant growers are looking to expand into edible crops. There are also field vegetable growers who would like to expand their production to include greenhouse crops.
Some of the easier and faster crops for growers to try to produce in a greenhouse are lettuce and other fresh greens.
One of the issues these growers are facing is what varieties of lettuce can be grown in a greenhouse environment. Much of the commercial lettuce breeding is focused on outdoor field production. Growers looking to expand their lettuce offerings beyond commonly produced greenhouse varieties usually have to do their own trials looking for field varieties that can be adapted to a greenhouse environment.


Need to expand greenhouse varieties
University of Arkansas horticulture professor Mike Evans said he is constantly receiving inquiries from growers about what lettuce varieties can be grown in greenhouses.
“At Cultivate’14 we surveyed growers who participated in one of the greenhouse vegetable seminars about their educational and research needs,” Evans said. “One of the growers’ responses was the need for variety information.
“If you look at seed catalogs, most of the information describing lettuce varieties is based on field production, not greenhouse. So if a grower wanted to grow lettuce hydroponically in a greenhouse during the winter there is little information available. If a grower wanted to use nutrient film technique or deep flow floating systems in a greenhouse, there’s basically very little information on how lettuce varieties would do in these production systems. Most of the production information is field-based.”
Evans said there is also a need for evaluating lettuce varieties for fall, winter and spring greenhouse production. He said these variety evaluations need to be done in different regions of the country to see how they perform under different climates.


Lettuce variety evaluations
University of Arkansas researchers selected 65 lettuce varieties for evaluation in greenhouse production systems. A nutrient film technique and deep flow floating system were used for the trials.
“Our goal with the variety trials was to generate better and more variety information and to determine which varieties would work best in climates similar to ours,” Evans said. “We especially wanted to be able to make variety recommendations across a production year. That is, varieties which work well in the fall, winter and spring.

“There are certain varieties that do well during winter. But as soon as the days start getting longer, the variety begins to bolt. Or a variety may do well in the fall and spring, but during the lowest light levels of winter, it has some type of production issue.”

Photo 1, IMG_1619, Mike Evans, Univ. of Ark.
University of Arkansas researchers selected 65
lettuce varieties for evaluation in greenhouse
production systems.
Photos courtesy of Mike Evans, Univ. of Ark.


Evans said the information that has been collected is for lettuce varieties that perform well in a glass greenhouse in Arkansas.
“These varieties may not respond the same way in Michigan, Arizona, Florida and Texas,” he said. “They also won’t respond the same way in locations where the light and humidity levels are different. These trials are probably good recommendations for growers in climates similar to ours.”
Lettuce varieties were planted from September through May. No crops were grown in June, July and August. Four crops were produced during the fall to spring cycle.
“Some growers try to grow during the summer months by chilling the nutrient solution,” Evans said. “We weren’t set up for summer production. Having trialed 65 varieties we will probably select 15 of the best performing varieties to evaluate for summer performance. For the summer evaluations we will have to use a different greenhouse set up in order to chill the nutrient solution.”


Measuring growth rate
Evans said one of major growth parameters measured was biomass production or growth rate.
“The quicker the plants grow, the shorter the production cycle,” Evans said. “Every day on the bench is cost to the grower. We looked at fresh weight and dry weight, two measures of growth.
“Some growers let lettuce grow for a specific amount of time. Other growers try to achieve a specific weight.”
Evans said the lettuce crops were grown on a 42-day production cycle in both the NFT and deep flow systems. At the end of the 42-day cycle the lettuce was harvested and measurements were taken.
“Sometimes if a variety is a fast grower, the lettuce might exceed the weight that a grower would want,” Evans said. “That tells us this variety could have been grown in a much shorter period of time. Or a variety that didn’t reach a minimum weight at the end of the 42-day cycle was considered a slow grower. Fresh and dry weights were used as a measure of how fast a variety can grow. How fast can a variety put on biomass? That is what growers are selling—biomass.”


Photo 2, IMG_1600, Mike Evans, Univ. of Ark. (1)
Lettuce varieties that did well in a nutrient film
technique system tended to do well in a deep
flow float system.


Evans said there were similarities in how varieties performed in the two production systems.
“If the varieties did poorly in NFT, they tended to perform similarly in deep flow too,” he said. “If a variety did well in NFT, odds were high that it did really well in deep flow.”


Identifying disorders
Evans said the two most common problems he hears about lettuce from growers are powdery mildew and tipburn.
“Ninety percent of the calls I receive are about these two problems,” he said. “We rated the lettuce varieties we trialed for tipburn and powdery mildew. Powdery mildew, in our region of the country, is the disease that can often give growers fits. It can really wallop a lettuce crop.  We also measured the incidence of tipburn, which can be a problem on a number of greens.”
Evans said semi-heading and heading (butterhead) types seem to be more prone to tipburn.

“What happens is that as these varieties start to form heads there is an area of high humidity,” he said. “There is this little microclimate of high humidity. If a grower is growing under real high humidity, has structures with poor air circulation or the nutrition levels aren’t right, a calcium deficiency can occur. These can create a tipburn problem. We saw much less tipburn on varieties that tend to be loose leaf types.


For more: Mike
Evans, University of Arkansas, Department of Horticulture, Fayetteville, AR
72701; (479) 575-3179 (voice);;


Top performing lettuce varieties
The following lettuce varieties did well in the four greenhouse production trials conducted at the University of Arkansas.


Butterhead types
Deer Tongue





Fancy leaf types
Black Hawk

Dark Red Lollo Rossa

Dark Red Lollo Rossa
Dark Red Lollo Rossa

New Red Fire
Red Sails
Ruby Sky
Oak leaf types




Romaine types
Green Forest
Red Rosie

Red Rosie
Red Rosie




David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort
Worth, Texas:

Meeting the fertilization needs of greenhouse lettuce

Greenhouse lettuce can be a successful container or
hydroponic crop for ornamental plant growers looking to give edibles a try.

By David Kuack
Ornamental plant growers considering producing an edible
greenhouse crop may want to try lettuce. Neil Mattson, associate horticulture
professor at Cornell University, said lettuce is a plant with moderate
fertility needs.
“Grown hydroponically, lettuce has somewhat lower
fertility needs than a greenhouse tomato crop,”

Ornamental plant growers interested in growing edible
crops may want to try lettuce. It can be produced in
containers with a growing medium or hydroponically
in troughs or a float system (pictured).
Photos courtesy of Cornell University

Mattson said. “Grown as a
container crop, lettuce is relatively similar to petunia. However, lettuce has somewhat
greater calcium needs. Growers can produce a relatively good crop of lettuce in
containers, if they use a complete fertilizer at a moderate strength of 150
parts per million nitrogen.”

Mattson said head lettuce can be produced in containers similar
to a bedding plant crop. The seed would be planted into a plug tray for three
to four weeks. Transplanting the plugs into larger containers, the crop could
be finished in four to six weeks depending on light and temperature levels.
He said baby leaf lettuce can be grown in flats. The seed
is directly sown into the growing medium and grown for three to four weeks
until plants reach suitable size.
Calcium deficiency

Leaf tipburn is a physiological disorder that can occur
when growing greenhouse lettuce. It can greatly impact the salability of a

“The main reason that tipburn occurs is the lettuce is
growing too fast under high light,” Mattson said. “For lettuce, the target
daily light integral is 17 moles per square meter per day. The light level should
be lower if there is poor air flow. If the light level goes higher than 17
moles, the rapid growth of young leaves is affected. There may be an inadequate
calcium supply, especially as the lettuce heads begin to mature and close. If
there is not enough air flow and not enough transpiration by the young leaves,
then not enough calcium can reach the leaves through the xylem sap. This can
cause tipburn to occur. It’s a case of pushing the plants too fast.”
tipburn in lettuce is not a result of a lack of calcium
supplied to the plants,
but an inability of the plants to
transport enough calcium to the young leaves.
Mattson said in many cases, tipburn is not a result of a
lack of calcium supplied to the plants, but an inability of the plants to
transport enough calcium to the young leaves.
“For container-grown lettuce, there is typically enough
calcium if the growing medium has a lime charge and if the fertilizer water
solution contains more than 50 ppm calcium,” he said. “Many common bedding
plant fertilizers, including 20-20-20, 20-20-20 and 21-5-20, do not contain
calcium. These fertilizers are typically used with tap water sources that
contain moderate alkalinity. In many cases, these tap water sources also
contain sufficient calcium.”
Mattson said it is important for growers to test their
water sources to make sure adequate calcium is being supplied, either from the
water source or added into the fertility program. If calcium needs to be added,
calcium nitrate is most commonly used. However, calcium nitrate is not
compatible with most complete fertilizers.
“Usually if a grower has to add calcium, it can be done
using a separate stock tank or a separate injector,” Mattson said. “One
strategy is to use a separate injector for the calcium nitrate in a series with
a 20-10-20 fertilizer that is being added with a second injector. Adding 50 ppm
calcium from calcium nitrate should be sufficient.
“An alternative method of calcium application, if a
grower has only one injector is to rotate between two separate stock tanks, one
for calcium nitrate and one for the bedding plant fertilizer. A grower would then
rotate between the two fertilizers. For example, for two days he would use the
20-10-20 fertilizer and on the third day he would use the calcium nitrate
applied at 150 ppm.”
Production with
organic fertilizers

Mattson has been able to grow a relatively good crop of
container-grown lettuce using granular organic fertilizers incorporated into
the growing medium.

“We incorporated poultry-based organic fertilizer (Sustane
8-4-4) into the growing medium at a rate of 8 pounds per cubic yard for both
the seed germination and transplant growing mixes,” he said. “That provided
good fertility, but for optimum yields I would also suggest making some liquid
organic fertilizer applications, maybe two to three times a week as the plants
get older.”
Mattson said the organic granular fertilizer he used is
temperature-dependent and is broken down by soil microbes. Sustane 8-4-4 has a
45-day release period, but under very warm greenhouse temperatures Mattson has
noticed quicker release rates. He said there are other slow release organic
fertilizers with different release periods. For example, Verdanta EcoVita lists
a 75-100 day release period.
electrical conductivity and pH

One strategy that Mattson recommends growers do periodically
is to monitor the electrical conductivity (EC) and pH levels.

“Monitoring EC will help growers determine if the plants
are receiving sufficient fertility,” he said. “If a grower is incorporating a
slow release fertilizer, this is a good indicator of when additional fertilizer
needs to be added. An under-fertilized plant will show yellow lower leaves from
nitrogen deficiency.”

electrical conductivity (EC) can help avoid
under fertilizing lettuce plants,
which show yellow
lower leaves caused by nitrogen deficiency.

Mattson said monitoring pH is important as it impacts
nutrient availability. He said lettuce isn’t commonly susceptible to iron
deficiency, but it will start to show up when the pH starts to increase above
“Monitoring EC and pH is especially important in
hydroponics,” he said. “A good grower who is producing his crop in a growing
medium in containers will monitor the pH every week or two. The pH may change
over the course of a week by maybe one unit.
“Growing hydroponically, a grower should be monitoring
the pH every day and make adjustments. Depending on the type of fertilizer and
the quality of the water, the pH in a hydroponic set up could change two units
in a day.”
Optimizing lettuce

Mattson said light and temperature are going to be the
drivers for how long it takes to finish a lettuce crop. Whether a grower is
producing the crop in containers with growing medium or hydroponically
shouldn’t have any effect on the length of production.

He said plant spacing can also impact the size of the
lettuce head. If plants are grown in small containers and spaced pot-to-pot,
the lettuce heads may not reach full size.
For greenhouse lettuce, Cornell University researchers
developed a hydroponic production model that enables growers to produce a
lettuce crop from seeding to harvest in 35 days if temperature and light
intensity are at optimum levels.
“When the light level isn’t optimized, a lettuce crop can
take more than 100 days from seeding to harvest,” Mattson said. “High pressure
sodium lamps would be the best lamps to use if a grower is looking to provide
supplemental light in a greenhouse to increase the daily light integral. For
the Cornell model we adjust the amount of light in the greenhouse based on the
amount of outdoor light. Seventeen moles per square meter per day is the daily
light integral we are aiming for with the model. The optimum temperature for
plant development is about 75ºF
during the day and 65ºF
at night.”

For more: Neil
Mattson, Cornell University, School of Integrative Plant Science; (607)

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort
Worth, Texas;

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