Automation Options in Horticulture:
Indoor and outdoor horticulturists enjoy certain perks of their respective practices, and these perks are generally interrelated with gardening labor and work environment. For indoor growers, access to conveniences such as electricity allows for the use of technology related to environmental controls, lighting systems, and irrigation setups. These workplace bonuses generally make the day-to-day routine of the indoor grower more enjoyable, as they lighten the workload and allow for the precise monitoring of the indoor garden atmosphere. Conversely, outdoor gardeners grow their crops under the expanses of blue summer skies, breathing fresh air with their hands in the dirt. For outdoor growers practicing organic cultivation, these natural environments blend seamlessly with a deep appreciation for the living biologics of soil growing.
Looking at the perks of both indoor and outdoor growing, one must ask: Can’t I enjoy the benefits of both? While it goes without saying that indoor cultivators can’t enjoy the freshness of the outdoors, who says outdoor growers can’t make their lives easier with some technological advancements? With that, Maximum Yield decided to look into automation options for outdoor soil gardens to ensure that, over the long summer, outdoor gardeners have ample time to bask in the rays of the summer sun. For those outdoor enthusiasts looking for a technological boost in their operations, here are a few options.
Controlled Environment Agriculture Controllers
Advancements in digital control technology for controlled environment agriculture have made controllers, or “brains,” an essential tool in modern gardening, both indoors and outdoors. For indoor growing, controllers have taken the thinking process out of mundane, yet easy to forget, chores like setting lighting timers and regulating temperatures. Similarly, for tech-savvy outdoor growers, the fluidity and ease-of-use of these smart-products are too tough to resist. While most smart indoor garden technology sets forth to regulate ambient environments, automated systems for outdoor growing focus solely on irrigation.
Controllers are the essential element in transitioning an outdoor soil garden from a hand watering or drip system to a smart irrigation program. Utilizing cutting-edge computer technology in conjunction with touch screen displays, controllers send precisely dictated electronic signals to components in the physical figurations of irrigation infrastructures (see next section). With electronic integration, these smart controls regulate valves relating to both nutrient and water dispersal in the macro-irrigation system. The more sophisticated of these controllers can be programmed to mix up to 20 different fertilizer feeding regiments, simultaneously, for a single garden.
The ease-of-use for smart irrigation controllers is tied to both their technological perks and practical applications. Generally, controls are the most beneficial for outdoor cultivators as relating to timing and consistency, they can be set on digital timers or light sensors for automated irrigation on a daily basis. As many plant species thrive on consistent watering and environments, the precision of controllers makes them a serious value-add for outdoor commercial operations. Also, many controllers feature “cloud-based capabilities,” in which a grower can monitor and change irrigation and nutrient levels from their smartphones or computers. As such — and if implemented correctly, outdoor soil growers can alter irrigation practices from afar — this perk is particularly notable concerning changing weather and temperature patterns. All things considered, controllers can add efficiency and stability in outdoor gardening practices that are notorious for getting off schedule due to human error.
It’s worth noting outdoor growers must be diligent in taking care of controllers, as sun, dirt, and dust can easily damage these somewhat fragile pieces of technology. Controllers should be well-mounted in a protected, low-traffic area, ideally within a metal or wooden box.
For both indoor and outdoor growers, fertigation injection systems have become a staple of ease and efficiency. Traditionally, water-based fertilization processes have been hinged on the labor-intensive practice of manually mixing nutrients in reservoirs or holding tanks. For commercial-sized operations, this demanding and tedious chore often involves the mixing of thousands of gallons of water at a time, multiple times a day. However, with some ingenuity and careful planning, the engineers behind fertigation injectors have developed a product which nearly eliminates the painstaking chore of hand mixing water-soluble fertilizers.
As discussed in the previous section, smart controllers can be implemented in conjunction with fertigation injectors, creating a highly efficient and precise system for outdoor soil irrigation. In layman’s terms, the controller dictates the operations of several pressurized valve systems that are fed from separate containers of nutrients. The controller also regulates water pressure from the primary water source. When the irrigation process begins, water flows through a pipe that is integrated with the nutrient valve system, then the fertigation injector releases nutrients into the water flow in conjunction with specific levels of water pressure. When operating and balanced correctly, the fertigation and controller combination delivers precisely measured, nutrient-rich water into soil containers — with little human effort.
For good reason, outdoor commercial cultivators have come to cherish the ease-of-use of fertigation injectors. For outdoor growers committed to a six- to seven-month growing season, automation options like fertigation literally eliminate hundreds of hours of unnecessary labor in manual nutrient mixing. The precision of fertigation is entirely unmatched by human effort; top-of-the-line injectors disperse carefully controlled amounts of nutrients down to five ml per injection
For economically and environmentally conscious cultivators, the precision afforded by fertigation injectors brings significant savings on both water and fertilizer use compared to traditional hand-mixing methods. Because hand mixing nutrients in large reservoirs always leads to an excess of leftover water that generally cannot be reused — this problem is non-existent with the strict controls of fertigation.
Watering: Drip Systems
While drip watering components don’t necessarily fall into the automation category, they are an essential element in any smart irrigation plan for the outdoors, especially concerning organic growing. With that, the controller and fertigation injector combination feed nutrient-rich water through hoses or pipes, and finally into soft-plastic tubes that should be embedded deep in the soil of each garden container.
Since outdoor growing containers are generally far larger in size than their indoor counterparts (Smart Pots can range up to 1,000 gallons in size), top drip systems work inefficiently for outdoor growing. Concentrated drips of water in such large containers leave a clear majority the soil unirrigated, leading to several serious problems. Therefore, to effectively deliver water and nutrients, automated outdoor irrigation systems must utilize long lengths of perforated irrigation tubing that is coiled around inside the soil-filled container. With this method, fertilization will be accomplished in a uniform fashion, and organic soils will retain the requisite moisture content to maintain the integrity of their biological communities.
In utilizing some of the automation perks from indoor gardening, and adding some necessary tweaks, outdoor cultivators can enjoy the benefits of cutting-edge irrigation technology. For commercial-sized operations, the benefits of smart equipment like controllers and fertigation injectors far outweigh financial costs. Looking forward, one can only assume outdoor growers will continue to combine their passions for soil growing with the modern gardening technologies, making for a practice that utilizes the best of both worlds.