This month, I’d like to offer eight “quick and dirty” tips that will help beginning growers as well as seasoned veterans who may need to revisit some of their daily practices.
- Find your market. Let’s start at the beginning. Actually, let’s start before the beginning. Long before taking a bank loan, buying your greenhouse, planting, and harvesting your greenhouse vegetable crop, there is an essential step that is not to be missed. This is the step that converts all of your investment, time, and hard work into income. Of course, this is finding your market.Before developing your game plan to produce, first you must discern how you will sell your produce. Visit the grocery stores, restaurants, farmers’ markets, and all other potential sales outlets well before you even break ground.
- Secure labor. Who will do the work required to grow and manage your crops? Certainly if you are small enough, you can do it by yourself. But if you are a bit larger, you will need to calculate how much help you will need each week to make it work. This can be part-time or full-time labor, but run the numbers to be sure you will still be making a profit after paying for your help.
- Develop a pollination plan. Know in advance what your pollination technique will be. As soon as there are yellow flowers popping open, it’s time to get in there and transfer some pollen. Outside, tomato flowers are pollinated mechanically when the wind shakes the plants. But in the greenhouse, this has to be accomplished in other ways. For many small growers, electric pollinators are used to vibrate flower clusters every other day.For greenhouses with more than a couple of gutter-connected bays, bumblebees (not honey bees), are an excellent way to be sure flowers are pollinated. Some growers have had success with low-powered leaf blowers.
- Get a grip on pests. Learn to identify the most common insects and diseases that may invade your crop. At a minimum, learn what whiteflies, aphids, thrips, leaf miners, and mites look like, as well as their damage signs. As for diseases, familiarize yourself with Botrytis (gray mold), powdery mildew, early blight, target spot, tomato spotted wilt virus, and the wet molds. Know the symptoms.If you need help, take digital photos and send them to your county agent, area agent, specialist, or diagnostics laboratory. Many times a good photo is all it takes, but the lab may require that you ship live tissue to confirm. Lastly, scout your greenhouse every day.
- Assess your irrigation plan. As plants grow, their leaf area increases, transpiration goes up, and they will need more water. While you may start with just a few ounces of nutrient solution (water plus dissolved fertilizer) each day, as plants mature, they will need 2 to 3 quarts of water every day. A simple trick is to add one extra emitter to the line and insert it into an empty milk jug. That way you can check it every day to see how much solution is going to the plants. Avoid any wilting! Increase the water gradually during crop growth up to the mature stage.
- Check your work. You may not have heard this since your high school math teacher told you to do it, but it’s still important.After you mix up a new batch of fertilizer, check the pH and electroconductivity (EC) to be sure you mixed it correctly. Also, it is smart to periodically check the pH and EC of the solution in that gallon jug with the extra emitter in it. That way you will know what the plants are getting.
- Conduct tissue analysis. This should be done at least every other week and whenever plants just don’t look right. Take 10 leaves selected randomly and all of the same physiological age, and ship them off to your tissue analysis lab, either university or private. This is the only way to know the nutritional status of your plants. Visual cues are very important, but only a lab can tell you the actual levels of each element in the leaves.
- Take notes. Keep a log book of all important details so you can refer back to it later and compare the current situation to what has happened in the past. Record how much nutrient solution you deliver each day, along with pH, EC, and other important measurements.Make notes of pests, diseases, and any other problems observed, as well as diagnoses and solutions. Save your tissue analysis results and annotate them with your visual observations. This will help to train your eye for future problems.