Low-To-No-Heat hanging Baskets

Final Report for ONE10-125

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,681.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Judson Reid
Cornell Vegetable Program
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Project Information


In 2010 a trial of ornamental hanging baskets was grown above an in-the-soil crop of determinate tomatoes. These baskets were hung in blocks of different densities to measure yield impact on the understory crop. Other cold tolerant flower species were evaluated for economic performance in ‘no-heat’ tunnels. The basket trial in 2010 gave very promising results with a net profit of 3.50/basket (after paying labor) or $1050/4800 sq ft. This increase in revenue came with no loss of tomato yield.

In 2011 the project turned its attention to evaluating other flowering annuals in addition to petunias. Even after calculating fuel inputs, greenhouse grown flowers in this trial outperformed high tunnel flowers economically. High tunnel baskets remain a viable option for Northeast growers, who are not risk averse, and seek to minimize inputs. Baskets finished in tunnels require less energy than those in greenhouses, representing a lower environmental impact. Petunias continue to be the best performing tunnel basket flower.


The production of ornamental spring bedding plants is an important sector in New York with more than $107,400,000 in gross sales spread among some 800 growers. However, the production of flowers for the peak market season of May and June requires extensive heat inputs, often with propane, fuel oil or other non-renewable energy sources. Growers are challenged by escalating fuel costs. There is also increasing consumer demand for products grown with less non-renewable resources. Unheated ‘high tunnel’ greenhouses have become popular with vegetable growers for the harvest of early season produce without non-renewable heat inputs.

Project Objectives:
  • Photosynthetic active radiation (PAR) under the different blocks of baskets
    Economics of low-to-no heat hanging baskets based on farm gate value of petunias and tomatoes.
    Tomato yield under different basket densities (including a no-basket treatment).
    Evaluate multi-species, multi-seed pellets for flowering hanging baskets.
    Compare greenhouse and high tunnels for earliness to market and economic return of flowering hanging baskets.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Howard Hoover
  • Neil Mattson


Materials and methods:

Multiple colors of ‘Shock Wave Petunias’ (Ball Seed Company, Chicago, Ill) were seeded on February 16 (pelleted seed) in a commercial potting mix (Promix, Premier Horticulture, Quebec). These were subsequently transplanted to 48-cell transplant flats at the 2-leaf true stage on March 12. A final transplant took place on April 12, when 4 plants per 12-inch hanging basket were transplanted and hung on the hoop-cross pieces of a 20 by 240-foot unheated high tunnel. Baskets were hung in two blocks of densities of 16 square feet per basket and 32 square feet per basket. A 24 x 20’ portion of the tunnel was left without baskets as a control. Irrigation was accomplished with drip emitters, fertigation twice per week with 20-20-20 plus micronutrients (Millers Nutri-Leaf Greenhouse Grade) at 150-200 ppm Nitrogen, plus phosphoric acid sufficient to achieve irrigation water pH of 6.2, per grower standards.

Seeds of BHN 589 tomatoes (obtained from Sieger’s Seeds) were also seeded on February 16 and subsequently transplanted to a 3-inch pot once foliage from adjoining plants began to shade each other on March 2. Tomatoes were then transplanted on April 12 into the tunnel soil, a Lima silt loam soil (pH 6.6), with 5 blocks of 8 plants each randomized under the two different blocks of baskets (16sq ft spacing and 32 sq ft) baskets and 5 blocks of 8 plants each randomized without any overhead baskets. Black plastic mulch and drip tape (Chapin Watermatics, 1.0 GPM/100’, 4-inch emitter spacing) were laid prior to transplanting. Plants were irrigated as needed and fertilized with 12-48-8, 20-20-20 and 9-15-30 plus micronutrients at a rate of 100-200 ppm N throughout the season, per grower practice (Appendix 1).

Petunia baskets were ‘pinched’ one time on April 22 to promote branching. A Cornell Vegetable Program Technician scouted weekly for pests and diseases. Baskets were removed from the tunnel over a 4-week period beginning in early May with all sold by the end of the month. Price data was collected for all baskets sold at the Finger Lakes Produce Auction (Penn Yan, NY). Tomatoes were harvested multiple times per week from June 23 to October 22. Total weight of fruit per block was recorded at each harvest. Data were analyzed using statistical software Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) procedure, and treatment means (baskets vs. no-baskets) were separated using Fisher’s Least Significant Difference (P < + = 0.05).

Photosynthetic Active Radiation (PAR) was collected in micromols of photons per meters squared per second (?mol m-2 s-1) with a photon flux quantum meter (Apogee Instruments, model MQ 100) from 1 random flagged location in under the baskets in each block, as well as the control and outside of the high tunnel, on April 16 and April 23 at approximately 10 AM, 1 PM and 4 PM. Thereafter the same PAR data was collected weekly at 4 flagged locations per treatment and control (12 readings per block per day). Mean PAR readings were created for each day measurements were taken and data were analyzed using statistical software Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) procedure. Treatment means were separated using Fisher’s Least Significant Difference (p&amp;amp;lt;0.05).


Varietal pellets (‘fuseable’seeds) of ‘Flirtini’ (Petunia: Debonair Lime Green / Carpet Rose), Silk and Satin (Petunia: Shock Wave Pink Shades / Bacopa: Snowtopia White Improved) and Cotton Candy (Petunia: Shock Wave Pink Vein / Bacopa: Blutopia Blue), Ol’ Blue Eyes (Lobelia: Riviera Blue Eyes / Mrs. Clibran) (Ball Seed Company, Chicago, Ill) were seeded on February 15, 2011 in a commercial potting mix (Professional Potting Mix, Conrad Fafard, Inc. Agawam, Mass). These were subsequently transplanted to 50-cell transplant flats at the 2-leaf true stage, approximately March 5. A final transplant took place on March 28, when 4 plugs per pelleted varietal mix were moved into 12-inch hanging baskets; 40 baskets per varietal mix. These were hung on the hoop-cross pieces of a 20 by 74-foot heated greenhouse at a density of 16 square feet per basket. Greenhouse temperature and ventilation was managed with a goal of day time temperature of 80F and nighttime of 58.5F. Irrigation was accomplished with a single drip emitter in each basket. Fertigation was carried out per plant moisture requirements with 20-20-20 plus micronutrients (Millers Nutri-Leaf Greenhouse Grade) at 150-200 ppm nitrogen, plus sulfuric acid sufficient to achieve irrigation water pH of 6.5. On April 8 20 baskets per varietal mixture were moved to an unheated high tunnel, with the same density and fertigation plan as the remaining 20 baskets of each varietal mixture that were left to grow in the heated greenhouse. Date of sale and prices received per basket were collected from a wholesale auction and on-farm sales. These prices were tabulated and averaged for the 20 baskets of each varietal mixture.

Research results and discussion:

Tomatoes grown without any baskets overhead (control) gave a mean yield of 24.63 lbs per plant compared to 24.18 lbs per plant for those with a low density of baskets and 25.08 lbs per plant under a high density of petunia hanging baskets. These differences were not significant statistically. The baskets received an average price of $8.09 at wholesale auction. There were no recorded insect or disease issues on either crop. PAR readings were not significantly different between treatments.


Even after calculating fuel inputs, greenhouse grown flowers in this trial outperformed high tunnel flowers economically. However, the data used here is based on one farm, one season. The vagaries of wholesale prices could dramatically change the above results. The grower’s experience with the multi-seed, mixed-variety pellets was a positive one, however, Lobelia alone was considered too late to market when grown in a high tunnel, as well as less visually appealing than other mixes containing multiple species. The petunia mixture ‘Flirtini’ had a dense, upright habit which made it more susceptible to Botrytis Gray Mold (Botrytis cinerea). This and other plant density concerns lead us to recommend 3 plugs per 12-inch basket when working with multi-seed pellets (vs. 4 of traditional plugs).

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach of our results took place in the following meetings in the winter of 2010-11:

Dec 14 Mohawk Valley Produce Auction (Reid and Hoover)
Jan 11 WNY Bedding Plant School (Mattson)
Jan 12 Finger Lakes Produce Auction (Reid)
Jan 18 Long Island Ag Forum (Mattson)
Jan 27 Empire State Fruit and Veg Expo, Syracuse, NY (Hoover and Reid)
Jan 27 Pennsylvania, SE Region GH Grower’s Day (Mattson)
Feb 16 Indiana Flower Growers Association Spring Bedding Plant Conference (Mattson)

Feb 22 Capital District Greenhouse School (Mattson)
Feb 23 Hudson Valley Greenhouse School (Reid)

An abstract of the project’s findings were accepted for an Oral Presentation at the International Society of Horticultural Society International Symposium on High Tunnel Horticultural Crop Protection October 16-20, 2011; State College, PA. See attached abstract below.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Economic Analysis


In this trial hanging baskets above high tunnel tomatoes did not reduce tomato yield (although they did in a 2009 trial). The baskets themselves performed well economically with a wholesale gross of 8.09 per basket, netting $3.50/basket (after expenses are deducted). Hanging petunia baskets would give a net return of $525 per tunnel, if the tunnel were planted uniformly at a density of 32 sq ft per basket (75 baskets in 4800 sq ft). At the high density planting, of 16 sq ft per basket, the net return increases to $1050 for the tunnel. It should be noted the grower reported a higher price for retail markets of 13.75 per basket. This would dramatically improve economic performance, yet these markets have additional expenses and may not sustain the same volume of sales as the wholesale auction.


In this project baskets grown in a heated greenhouse gave a gross return of $2.80 more per basket than those grown in a high tunnel, likely due to the earliness to market, as well as a larger plant(s) with more open flowers. Over a 2880sq ft. area (a common single bay area for both tunnels and greenhouses), this would result in a difference of $504.00 gross revenue. However, heating a greenhouse from April 8 to May 14, as we did in this trial, adds to the production costs. Amortizable inputs include a heater with a capacity of 200,000-250,000 BTUs per hour, an additional layer of polyethylene glazing and a fan to inflate the plastic layers. Electricity to run the inflation fan is negligible.

This leaves us with fuel as our highest additional input, or variable cost, when comparing tunnel and greenhouse flowers. At a price of $2.00 per gallon of propane (the most common local fuel) this increases our cost of production in the greenhouse considerably. However, we cannot simply assign this cost to 180 hanging baskets over the 2880 sq. ft., but must include the crops grown on the benches as well. Our cooperating grower estimates a use of 200 gallons of propane over this time period (April 8-May 15), or $400 in fuel/2880 sq. ft. Hanging baskets at the 16 sq. ft. density are estimated by the grower to represent approximately 15% of the total revenue. Thus $60 in fuel can be spread among the 180 baskets for a charge of $0.34 per basket.

Farmer Adoption

In the Spring of 2011, 4 additional farms had adopted the projects methods’ of growing baskets above an in-ground tomato crop. Further adoption beyond 2011 remains to be seen, but is likely.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

We suggest the continued study of: alternative flowers to petunias, potential pest and disease issues, PAR under different densities, the use of organic substrates and fertilizers for low-to-no heat baskets with particular attention to phosphorus and nitrogen.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.