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Why We Grow Outdoors
Growing crops outside in spring and summer offers advantages we just can't overlook. They can mean extra profitability for you, too!
By Brian Bourdon, Offsite/Product Line Manager
While the practice of growing crops outdoors isn't new, growers can be understandably hesitant about trying it for the first time with annual crops that can freeze. Our team at Four Star has learned how to make best use of the advantages of this practice for producing hardy, healthy, retail ready plants.
We've been growing a large percentage of our crops outdoors for over 10 years now, and are happy to share our tips to be successful with any growers who are interested. Currently, we grow about 25% of our crops for late May sales outside, and as much as 80% of our summer crops. We start moving some of our hardy annual crops outdoors 4-5 weeks before our frost free date — as soon as nighttime temperatures average in the high 30s — and we continue to grow as much as we can outside through the summer and into fall.
Outdoor Growing Advantages
Many growers perceive outdoor growing as full of risks, but we see far more benefits to it. For one thing, Mother Nature does a great job of helping plants grow, and when we get the plants outside and exposed to the wind, the unfiltered sunlight, and cool night air, they grow into better plants — stronger stems, lots of flowers, and more hardy. You just can't duplicate this inside!
Outdoor growing also helps increase our turns and use our greenhouse space more effectively by allowing us to plant more inside as we move established crops outside. We use all kinds of spaces — protected or unprotected courtyards, outdoor mum fields, and cold frames. You could even use an empty parking lot!
Many growers in early spring have mum fields sitting empty and greenhouses full. Considering this method can truly help expand your profit potential. Not only is it cheap growing space with little to no structure, heat, or electricity costs, but the plants also typically require no growth regulators, and few if any pesticides or fungicides.
Four Star's Top Outdoor Growing Tips
1. Know your crops. Identify varieties that will grow best outside in cold temperatures. Based on temperature, we have identified three levels of crops we move outside as the night temperatures gradually climb (see sidebar).
2. Start slowly! Outdoor growing is an investment in plants, pots, trays, as well as equipment for irrigation and frost protection. I would recommend to tentative growers to start with just a small amount of product and expand the program from there as you become more comfortable.
3. Get the timing right! Make sure your crop is well rooted, typically at least two to three weeks old before moving it outside, and before the move, make sure your weather forecast is for calm, dry weather with no severe frost for the first few days. After that, your crop will harden off to withstand colder temperatures.
4. Be prepared before bad weather hits. Make sure you have appropriate frost protection systems like frost cloth, sprinklers, etc. With no protection we incurred some freeze damage when we first started. Using sprinklers during frost events (as citrus growers do) insulates plants and helps them survive weather extremes.
5. Maintain proper fertility levels. For all baskets and upright containers going outside, we top-dress with a slow release fertilizer to help during periods of extended rain. In addition, after a heavy rain, we follow up right away with a 600ppm N fertilizer application to replace what has been leached out. You don't want to wait for them to dry out first.
6. Realize there are still some risks involved. If you have a sales date you must hit for a customer, it is best not to grow those crops outdoors. The weather can make it difficult to grow to a precise schedule. But for the crops you speculate on, growing outdoors will give you some of the best product you have ever grown.
We know this method can help growers maximize their profits by using empty space, increasing turns and even lowering some input and labor costs.
If you are thinking about trying outdoor growing, feel free to contact us and we can give you more detailed information on our practices and setup. We have literature, a reference guide, and are available for advice calls. We are happy to help.
Brian Bourdon has worked for Four Star for 14 years and supervises production with contract growers. To contact Brian, call 734-654-7476 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.