By definition, hydroponics is composed of two Greek words – “hydro” meaning water and “ponics” meaning labor. It is used to reference a method of growing and farming plants – flowers, vegetables, and grains – in a water-based solution without soil. Flowers by Bauers, a local florist with a retail store in Jarrettsville and a greenhouse and wholesale operation in White Hall, has been using hydroponic techniques to supply its busy floral shop and the surrounding region with snapdragons for over 16 years.
While there are several variations to hydroponic growing systems, Flowers by Bauers uses a perlite mixture substrate in its system. Perlite is a mined material and one of the best hydroponic growing mediums around. “With a perlite supplier less than 28 miles away from here,” explains Charles Bauer, the chief grower and one of the owners, “we save money on transportation expenses, and it’s easy to get when we need it.”
All in the Family
Bauer, his brother Richard, and his son Matthew own and operate the retail and wholesale flower business. “Matthew is a second-generation owner of Flowers by Bauers and a seventh-generation farmer on his mother’s side of the 100-acre farm known as Garnet Anderson Farm,” explains Bauer as he introduces his son during the greenhouse tour. With farming in their blood, the Bauers obtained college degrees in horticulture from the University of Maryland, with Matthew adding business classes to help round out his future plans. “I want to grow the wholesale and greenhouse side of the business,” says Matthew. “There are a lot more interesting things we can try.”
Innovation seems to be a natural by-product of these curious growers. “We’ve been ahead of the industry for years,” boasts Charles Bauer. “We’re very hands on and are always tweaking things to see the result. We developed an inventory control program for the retail side that allowed us to manage our ROI in real time through software my brother wrote. We are also one of the only growers in the world harvesting snapdragons this way. Practically anywhere else you go, they are using soil. We even have people from the Netherlands calling us about our methods.”
Why all the fuss over snapdragons you may wonder? Snapdragons are a very popular spike flower in floral arrangements – especially sympathy work – yet are not easy to ship. When laid flat for shipping, the stems will respond with negative geotropism, causing them to turn away from gravity, resulting in stems that are curved when delivered – an undesirable outcome. Bauer grows his own supply and enough to provide snapdragons to over 130 flower shops in and around Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. “We produce about 500,000 stems a year,” explains Bauer. “During the winter we supply our main markets of Baltimore and Delaware but reach out to include Washington, D.C., in the summer when production is at its highest. In the past we’ve even supplied snapdragons to the White House.”
Efficiency without Impact
Once a seed germinates – at approximately four to six weeks – it is planted in the hydroponic troughs and then 100 percent grown and controlled by the computer program that operates the delivery systems. An elaborate arrangement of pumps and pipes gathers nutrients and water from large reservoirs and delivers the intricately balanced mixture to the roots of the plants at precise intervals. Sensors placed throughout the greenhouse feed never-ending data to the computer program that makes adjustments to the nutrient mix based on variations in temperature, hours of light, humidity and transpiration rates. Any water that is not used by the plants is gathered in gutters and fed back to the reservoirs for measuring and remixing to be used again. “The people from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation love us,” smiles Bauer. “There is no run-off or impact to the Bay. Zero.”
Zero impact on the Bay is a substantial benefit considering the effects of soil erosion, waste water management and water conservation on our environment. Traditional farming requires an abundance of land and water – two fixed resources – and the addition of pesticides and physical controls to mitigate animal, insect and weather factors. Needing only 1/20 to 1/30 of the amount of water as traditional soil-based gardening, hydroponics conserves one of our most precious resources, especially in arid climates where the lack of water directly relates to the incidence of hunger and famine. “We use less water in a day than a family of four,” states Bauer.
“We are trying to reduce labor costs and the handling of materials like perlite, so we are experimenting with another hydroponic technique called NFT – nutrient film technique. This method would eliminate the substrate all together, but may require us to use a nursery environment to germinate plugs instead of the bare-root system we currently use. We can fit many more snaps in the same space with our current system, but could cut labor costs with NFT. However, the NFT system is also less forgiving under stress requiring more alarms and backups to retain product quality. Sometimes you have to look at other systems and methods to prove that you are still using the right one for your circumstances and desired outcome.”
Innovation and Research
Innovation attracts other innovators. For the last three years, Flowers by Bauers has been participating in a $5 million research project centered on saving water, increasing efficiency and reducing the environmental impacts of ornamental plant production practices. Research and development teams from the University of Maryland, Cornell University, University of Maryland-Center for Environmental Science, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, University of Georgia, and Colorado State University, along with Decagon Devices and Antir Software, have been collecting and analyzing data from the greenhouse plants located in Jarrettsville over the Internet and during in-person visits. Bauer tells us that “the hydroponic system is a very fluid system. We can make changes today and the R&D teams can see the effects tomorrow. It’s fast data and immediate results. We get alerts on our smartphones, or we can go to the computer portal and look at any one of a thousand readings on what is happening in real time. We can’t change the weather, but we can be anticipatory of what may happen and program the computer to make the necessary adjustments to the delivery of the nutrients.”
Staying out in front and trying new things is what being innovative is all about. “We are now working on a new project where we are trying to grow lettuce in the space above the snapdragons. So instead of just producing in square footage, we are utilizing cubic feet. We had local Amish farmers design and make these hooks to suspend the planting troughs above the rows of snaps. We think we can produce about 40,000 heads of lettuce in this space that we can turn around and sell to our flower customers. We’ll test for about a year before we dedicate any more capital investment to a full blown system.” By 2050, scientists are estimating that the world’s population will increase to 9.3 billion people from the current estimate of 6.9 billion. With the static and possible loss of farmable land due to degradation, hydroponics is no longer just innovative and interesting but important as a means to feed the additional 2.4 billion people projected to inhabit the earth. I95
Flowers by Bauers
1110 Baldwin Mill Rd PO Box 470, Jarrettsville, MD 21084
Toll Free: 800-254-7650 / 24hr: 410-692-5141