Technology helps gardens grow at Penn State

A group of Penn State students gathers over a wooden worktable in Headhouse II. Their hands move in unison as they clip the leaves and clean a harvest of microgreens, which were planted in the greenhouse in early spring. In a couple of days, the gardeners-in-training will dine on the small leaves (that look more like shamrocks than lettuce) throughout an end-of-semester potluck.



Together with their microgreens, the students grew natural tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers and herbs as part of a hydroponics and aquaponics class, which taught the ins-and-outs of utilizing soilless processes to grow plants. The student’s efforts which on a weekly basis yielded approximately 80 pounds of cucumbers alone were a success, in part, due to brand-new technology contributed to the nearly 60-year-old greenhouse.

Headhouse II, which was built in 1960, and 8 other College of Agricultural Sciences greenhouses were updated last year with climate-control computer systems, LED lighting, a roof weather station and other automatic tools.

Like plants in any ecosystem, those in greenhouses need a well-calibrated mix of light, water, air and nutrients to grow. Producing perfect climate conditions and growing habitats can be expensive in older buildings, according to Scott DiLoreto, greenhouse operations manager at Penn State. He stated adding the modern-day climate-control innovation has helped him to not just grow healthy plants, however to reduce energy costs and outputs too.

The innovation we added has actually made it possible for teaching, learning and research study to take place in the greenhouses at a scale that wasn’t possible before, DiLoreto said. Prior to the upgrades, a variety of the greenhouses weren’t especially beneficial in summer or winter season, because temperature levels would be expensive or low to grow plants. Now that we can efficiently manage the internal climate, there’s more usable space and it’s more functional for a variety of activities.

6Using a new Wadsworth climate-control system, DiLoreto has the ability to handle the mechanical systems (consisting of air circulation fans, misters and heat pumps) that identify temperature, light and humidity in every compartment of each greenhouse about 50,000 overall square feet. While he can pre-program or alter each setting manually from his computer or mobile phone, he can likewise set the system to auto-adjust based on outside climate condition.

We installed a rooftop weather station on Headhouse I that measures wind speed, wind direction, temperature level and light strength from the sun, DiLoreto stated. The information from the weather station communicates with each greenhouse compartment computer, so I can configure the mechanical systems to immediately adjust based on the weather condition outside.

When sunlight goes above or below a pre-programmed value, new supplemental LED lighting, which replaced the older high-intensity discharge lights, will kick on or off.

If the sun gets really intense, you put on t require the LED lights, DiLoreto stated. Alternatively, I can program it so that if the lights are off in the greenhouse and everything of an abrupt gets truly cloudy outside, the weather condition station will detect that and inform the computer to switch on the lights. And since LEDs only produce the red and blue wavelengths that drive photosynthesis, no energy is squandered producing light that doesn’t assistance growth.

Helping plants grow is also something Robert Berghage, associate teacher of gardening and extension specialist in greenhouse crop production, has actually been teaching and doing for years.

This spring, Berghage started a business in Headhouse II to teach the University s initially course about hydroponics and aquaponics, which use nutrition options and fish waste to fertilize plants instead of soil. Berghage said student need for the course (which he co-taught with Elsa Sanchez, an associate teacher of cultivation systems management) has actually been on the rise for several years, in part due to the buy fresh, purchase regional motion and a growing interest in understanding where food originates from and how it’s produced.

I believe the sustainability component of these processes is likewise interesting for students. Hydroponics yields are much, much greater than they are for an equivalent crop out in the field, and water use tends to be more efficient as well since we re watering in a closed-loop system where very little water is lost, Berghage stated. The brand-new greenhouse climate controls helped us a lot this term, and the LED lights enabled us to produce vegetables throughout a part of the year when we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise and now each student is gathering and taking home 5 heads of lettuce weekly.



As a group, the 21-student class was responsible for building the hydroponics and aquaponics systems (consisting of the fish tanks), picking climate settings, and fertilizing, watering, taking care of and gathering their plants. They likewise learned company skills and the economics of running a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and greenhouse for revenue.

By establishing a CSA and learning company and food safety treatments, the students are now in a position where they might begin a small hydroponics or aquaponics business if they desired, Berghage stated. If not, simply having the experience of growing their own food is extremely helpful. Learning how to produce food in an environment with this sort of innovation helps strengthen a lot of other scientific and academic objectives.

In addition to teaching and learning, there’s likewise more research happening in the greenhouses, according to DiLoreto.

We’ve had an influx of new faculty and scientists from plant science, plant pathology, environmental biology, entomology, environment science and management and other departments, DiLoreto stated. I’m now able to supply them with far better data such as comprehensive logs of temperatures, weather condition and watering schedules over a time period to use in their analyses and journal articles.

DiLoreto said the IT is also helping him stay up to date with the requirements of thousands of varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and succulents in his care.


The very first thing I do when I get to operate in the morning is turn on my computer and scroll through the settings for each greenhouse to see if everything is fine, DiLoreto said. I can handle 50,000 square feet from my desk and so far, the computers have actually just made my days easier. I still believe there’s something about going into the greenhouse to feel the air and see the plants that you can’t learn from looking at a screen. Perhaps I’m just traditional.

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