While small greenhouse growers may fill their pots directly using a bag of growing media, operations that have more than 30,000 square feet of growing space need to invest in automated machinery, says Dr. Paul A. Thomas, professor of floriculture and extension specialist at the University of Georgia.
The market offers many types of automated equipment for greenhouse growers, Thomas says. “You can have a basic feed hopper, you can have a little pump and sprayer that puts in trace elements or wetting agents — whatever you need,” he says. “Then, you can literally have a filling device that simply puts the soil down and levels it off in the flat and all that. Or you can go next level and have multiple hoppers, multiple feeds, multiple mixing things and very specialized equipment for pre-dibbling — once you’ve added the soil to the flat, it pre-dibbles so that you can put it into an automatic seeder, drop the seed in, it rolls to the center, [and] you’re good to go.”
Growers use automated systems with conveyor belts and hoppers so that the material that enters the mix is uniform and accurate, Thomas says. “For what [these pieces of equipment] do, it’s an essential thing,” he says. “If you try to put a person doing that work, the labor cost makes it outrageous. So, these are little items that pay for themselves in 18 months.”
For people who buy their growing media mix commercially instead of making their own, they can efficiently add the mix into containers because it is simple to recover waste that falls to the side with an automated system. Thomas estimates about 90 percent of the greenhouses in Georgia that he knows of have a flat-filling, media-mixing setup. “You have to have one of these to be truly a professional greenhouse, and it’s because of [the] uniformity and efficiency [it provides],” he says.
Add-on components to automated greenhouse equipment can make operations even more efficient, freeing up more employees to focus on separate tasks, Thomas says. “As a grower’s budget increases, as their productivity increases, they can add on [to existing systems], and they frequently do,” he says. “It’s one of those areas where you don’t really think about it. It’s just, ‘Can we do this yet? As soon as we can, let’s do it.’”
While buying new or upgrading existing equipment is always an option, growers could do more to maintain the equipment they have currently, Thomas says. “You will get a tremendous lifespan from those kinds of products if you, once a year, blow them out, clean them out, add new oil, check all the fittings, check all the gears — the whole bit,” he says. “Make sure everything’s up to speed so that you’re not wearing, grinding and slowly working things out of alignment.”