Waste is a bad word in the twenty-first century. We need to focus on efficiency – not just in the vehicle we drive or appliances and electronics we buy, but in everything we use and do. Efficiency in gardening boils down to input versus output, which just happens to be the general definition of efficiency.

Everything is becoming more efficient. Electronic ballasts have increased efficiency over magnetic ballasts. Newer greenhouse materials have better insulating capacity. These are just two examples of increased efficiency. Energy efficiency is important for all indoor growers, but is crucial to very intensive systems where a lot is at stake and maintaining a constant climate is critical.
Energy can be lost in a number of ways. Ventilation being a big cause of energy losses. Excess heat must be ventilated out, but where no excess in temperature is present, fresh air does have to be added to insure proper plant growth. In both cases energy will be lost through ventilation. Closed off or semi-closed off systems counter this problem by adding CO2 to the air and recirculating it, instead of ventilating the air out.

There is also energy lost when heat is absorbed by surrounding material. For instance, concrete floors provide good summer cooling, but also suck up winter heat. It is best to have proper insulation for efficient energy use. In turn, your utility bill is lower and stabilizing the growing climate is easier Then there is biological efficiency. Every plant has an optimal temperature, humidity and other parameters. Maximizing biological efficiency means meeting all parameters and keeping them as stable as possible. Many times this comes from experience, though rough parameters are established for most plant species. The most important aspect is to keep the climate as stable as possible. Plants adapt to a changing climate, but productivity is greatest with very little climate variation. Large swings in temperature and humidity impedes growth, and eventually noticeably affects quality and quantity of your harvest.

Several factors define your maximum attainable yield – light, temperature and genetics. These set the upper bar of possibilities. To attain this the grower must provide sufficient water, nutrients and CO2 to ensure the plants efficiently use all available light at the temperature their photosynthesis is most active. Meet these parameters and crops will convert the input energy most efficiently into a harvestable output.

Hydroponics is especially suited for very efficient production. It allows for very precise constant monitoring of the complete climate including root-zone. Hydroponics allows for rapid reaction
to changes. It is usually less susceptible to pests that can be real efficiency killers – wasting input energy by lowering output yield. This environment is perfectly suited to control and stability. Insulated containers or systems can be used and nutrient heated for maintaining root temperature.

Some will argue that growing plants at their highest biological  efficiency is a contradiction, and won’t reduce the energy use. Yes, more equipment is needed to stabilize the climate, but what is the goal? You must choose growing a high quality product using biological efficiency, or greatly reducing energy use by sacrificing harvest size and quality. We all want to reduce waste, energy use and costs – but reduced harvest is inefficient too.

Labour is also an energy input. A grower’s chores can be done with absolute perfection or just adequately. Both ways mean time and effort is invested. It’s up to your perspective in choosing which details matter most. Planning is the most vital chore a successful grower has to do. Efficiently using space, time and other inputs all require planning.

Although plants don’t seem to move very fast at some growth stages, they still require a quick response. Properly planning ahead reduces the chance of messing things up or being overwhelmed with work all at once. Especially when juggling a variety of plants at different growth stages planning becomes difficult and a vast amount of experience is required for best results. Many times, planning ahead will be save you time working later on.

Efficiency may not be equally valued by everyone, but only compostable waste is valued by anyone. Now it’s not exactly waste, but the base material for fertile soil amendments production. Recycling is yet another way to increase garden efficiency.

Finding total efficiency is a struggle for more output from less input. The solution varies by each grower’s perspective on which parts of the garden must run efficiently. With planning and innovation there are solutions possible to deliver savings in time, money and effort or energy. In the end you must choose which inputs are most valuable to you, and use them most efficiently in your situation.

[alert type=white ]This article was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine, Issue 2, under the title, “Garden Efficiency”.[/alert]

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