According to Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor at the University of Florida who has spent the past few years studying LED lighting, the flexibility of LEDs is a main reason to consider adding them to a greenhouse operation.
Specifically, Folta says LEDs can reach plants’ receptors with blue, red, far red and green light that result in different physiological outcomes. In simple terms, each individual wavelength gives a plant specific growth instructions. Growers can adjust the light per their specific production goals.
“Think about the long-term flexibility of the system — the ability to add new wavelengths, to always think of LED lights not as energy to grow plants, but LED light as instructions telling a plant how to grow,” Folta says. “Light is information. Giving plants different parts of the spectrum — from UV all the way to red — growers need that flexibility.”
By “instructions,” Folta is referring to LEDs filling lighting’s dual roles of providing energy and directions. By utilizing the full spectrum of lights LEDs offer, a grower can potentially tell a plant when to flower, how much to grow or to limit its stem growth. LED lights have this capability because by changing what light spectra are used, a grower can simulate several different environmental conditions in ways other lights cannot.
“We shouldn’t be trapped with a single wavelength that provides a single set of instructions to that plant,” Folta says. “How are we not just going to provide energy to grow, but tell the plant how to grow and produce a product we want?”
Folta does acknowledge that LEDs can be more expensive than other options like HPS lights. But he also notes that there are financial upsides to LEDs even if they take longer to pay off.
“If you can get an enhanced, higher value product because you’ve increased pigmentation or you can increase shelf life by using LEDs, then it makes sense,” he says. “And if you can save energy with LEDs instead of using something like HPS, then it also may be a wise investment.” In Folta’s research, he and his team have grown crops with LEDs using “significantly” less energy.
For those interested in adopting LEDs, Folta recommends starting small and doing a few in-house trials. But the upside is undoubtable there, he says.
“With some experience, nuance and appropriate trials, I think you can obtain energy savings and a higher value product,” Folta says.