Home Grown

Tips and resources for farmers and gardeners

The Virtual Greenhouse

Growers can now build and heat a "virtual" greenhouse -- or upgrade existing greenhouses -- on a computer, to find out how much it would cost to heat with different fuels, heating schedules, heaters, building designs and materials.

Developed by Agricultural Research Service researchers with the ARS Greenhouse Production Research Group at Toledo, Ohio, the "Virtual Grower" software is available for download free of charge.

A plant component is being added to the computer program so growers can see the effects of their heating choices and schedules not only on costs, but also on their plants.

The software is gradually being expanded to include all other aspects of greenhouse management, including applications of nutrients, water, growth regulators and pesticides. Ultimately, it will also help growers manage labor, optimize plant productivity and set sale prices.

There are many individual programs like this, but none that considers all of these factors interacting together, as this one eventually will.

To estimate energy requirements and costs using Virtual Grower, users input the dimensions of their greenhouse and its construction materials, such as poured-concrete floor, glass sides and roof, or concrete-block walls. They also choose design features, such as roof shape and orientation to the sun.

A historical database gives a year's worth of typical weather for the city nearest to the greenhouse location -- including factors such as temperature, sunlight and cloud cover -- for each hour of the day.

Growers choose a heating schedule and set the temperatures they want to maintain during day and night, or for each hour. The program then calculates per-square-foot heating costs by the month or year.

Since Virtual Grower is a work in progress, growers are invited to e-mail questions or suggestions to help the research tea fine-tune the tool for managing greenhouses for greater productivity at lower costs.

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