Greenhouse students helping industry with organic growing research

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NC’s budding horticulturalists have laid the foundation for organic growing substrate supplier Gro-Bark to move forward with bringing a new product to market.

Gro-Bark, one of Ontario’s major horticultural supply companies, now has essential data to continue developing its proprietary recipes of growing substrate – a substitute for topsoil when growing plants in containers. This is thanks to a three-month research trial conducted by NC’s Horticultural Technician students, who grew culinary herbs in the company’s organic substrate.

Keith Osborne, horticulturist with Gro-Bark, says working with Niagara College allowed his company to trial different recipes and fertilizer regimes with student growers at the helm, capturing what worked and what didn’t.

“For instance, in this organic trial, we learned that we were too nutrient rich early on, which delayed success,” he points out. “The students did an excellent job and were able to grow an amazing crop once the issue was identified.”

As part of a course-based research project coordinated through Research & Innovation, students in the Horticultural Technician Program spent an entire semester researching and observing the growth of culinary potted herbs – in both conventional substrate and also in Gro-Bark’s organic substrate. Once background research was complete, they performed and tracked all aspects of growing, i.e. propagation and planting, as well as maintaining the crop (e.g., fertilizing, watering, scheduling, transplanting and pest and disease management).

“The students have done a wonderful job growing the plants and spending time analyzing and observing how a greenhouse crop grows. From this experience, they now have a better appreciation for the role of a greenhouse grower and the steps that go into growing a crop,” says horticulture professor and research lead Mary Jane Clark, adding that many students had no previous experience with greenhouse growing and were “intrigued” with the different approaches to growing herb plants.

For horticulture co-op student Ryan Roberts, he was appreciative for the opportunity to conduct real-world research for a new substrate product that isn’t yet even on the market.

“It’s very exciting … we’re sort of on the leading edge because we’re actually applying this research for the benefit of a company,” he notes. “We can only learn so much in class, so at the end of the day, we do have to apply it.”

Roberts also points to the learning opportunity in working with other classmates, as they conducted the trials as smaller groups. “This teaches us how to work with people because eventually some of us want our own greenhouse, so you have to learn how to interact and disperse responsibilities.”

The measurements and observations from the students for the culinary potted herb crops were compiled by Clark and passed on to Gro-Bark. In most conclusions from the student growers, the herbs grown in the organic substrate proved to be more attractive, healthier and more flavourful than their conventional counterparts. If you’d like to taste for yourself, you may find some for sale in the NC greenhouse.

-Submitted by NC Research & Innovation

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