Costa Farms’ Britten: Producing Quality Plugs

Costa Farms' Britten: Producing Quality Plugs

To understand how to grow a quality plug, you must first define what a quality plug is. Some will argue a quality plug is simply one that is able to be transplanted and, with some work, will grow into a quality finished product. To me, this couldn’t be further from the goal. A quality plug in my opinion is one that is able to be transplanted and finished with minimal additional inputs. The more you need to “fix” a liner in the finished stage, the more you lose off your bottom line.

In order to achieve this goal, the plug must be produced so it is well toned, well branched and ready to take off running as soon as it is transplanted. This could include having bud initiation, depending on the crop. Poor quality inputs will generally result in poor quality results.

Pre-Germination

Our production methods have been developed to work toward the ultimate goal of our definition of a quality plug. The main principle is to develop a healthy, well-branched plug that is neither weak nor branched well above the soil surface. To achieve this, we first maximize the use of pre-germination growth regulators. By spraying the soil surface of the plugs with regulator prior to germination, it greatly reduces the elongation of the plugs.

Getting To Know Andrew Britten

Andrew Britten, who currently manages plug, propagation and offshore stock production at Costa Farms, joined the Miami, Fla.-based operation in 2001. Britten’s role upon his hire was to build a plug range from scratch with the intention of producing plugs for Costa’s internal production. Now, in less than 10 years, Britten oversees production of more than 115 million plugs and liners for Costa Farms’ locations in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He also developed Costa’s off-shore production site in the Dominican Republic and built his own production team from scratch over the years.

In production, Britten is developing algorithms to determine exactly how much water different crops need in propagation. He is also working to develop new ways to apply plant growth regulators on crops, including as pre-germination sprays that lead to reduced chemical use and improved control.

The much-talked-about Aqualok is partially a product of Andrew’s creativity, as well. Andrew conducted much of the research on Aqualok for Costa Farms.

As the roots emerge, they grab a small amount of regulator and take it up into the plant. This gives a very minute dose to the plant, but it is all the plant needs in its young state. As plants continue to grow, roots continue to grab small doses of the regulator, allowing for small amounts of adjustment to the size and tone of the plug.

This method is especially effective when growing crops that exhibit a lot of early stretch like marigolds, zinnias and celosias. This method can be utilized on other crops as well, because the initial stretch is not the only benefit from this method. Much smaller doses can be applied with this method, as well as fewer follow-up applications. It is possible to cut the expenses of chemicals and labor to achieve better results, with less issue of managing re-entry intervals. Our production maximizes the use of these pre-germination regulators on 80 percent of our crops.

Nearing The Finish

Once we have worked through the early stages of plug production with our pre-germination regulators, we try not to utilize additional regulators on our spring crops. Because we have the highest light levels in the country during spring, we can turn our regulation over to light intensity.

Once in Stage 3 of plug production, plugs are moved into the highest light levels so they can grow in as a finished crop. This means all plugs that are destined to grow as a finished crop without shade finish as a plug without shade–this applies 24 hours a day. Those crops that are grown as a shade-finished plant finish as a plug in 30 percent shade. This allows for the light level to heavily tone the plug without stalling it out. As mentioned earlier, the goal is for this plug to hit the ground running as soon as it is transplanted. In general we do not add any additional regulators on spring crops beginning in Stage 3.

More On Total Growth Solutions

Costa Farms launched a whole new division earlier this year, Total Growth Solutions (TGS), to market and distribute plugs and other young plants through Syngenta Horticultural Services..

The additional light level also increases the natural branching of plugs, as well as speeds up the blooming on light accumulation crops. Combining the high light level with nighttime interruption lighting has shown up to a two-week-faster bloom of a petunia plug, as one example, compared to one grown in much lower light levels–also grown with nighttime interruption.

Growth is also increased by not having delay from late application growth regulators in the plug. You should never have to push your plugs out of the regulator after transplant.

Takeaways

While there are, of course, many other factors that determine a quality plug, the ones I have mentioned can often get overlooked. Unfortunately, overlooking these principles can add a lot of stress and additional work for the grower to finish a quality flowering product.

No money is saved by cutting expenses on your starter material. Money spent in young plant production will go 10 times further in producing quality finished product than money spent fixing the initial issues. Maximize your light levels and early regulators. If that is not possible, you will probably be better off purchasing your starter material from someone who can.

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