Growing in the Cloud: Modern Nursery Data Management Systems

Abstract

Today’s modern telecommunication and Internet technologies have come a long way to help decrease the amount of paperwork and make information easier to use. Phones are becoming small handheld computers capable of so much more than just a simple phone call. Smart phones have apps for calendar, social media, business functions, and much more. This technology can be used to simplify or improve nursery operations. This article gives an introduction to a few beneficial cloudbased technologies that can make nursery management a little easier, optimize time, provide useful real-time information, and minimize data input and associated errors. This paper was presented at a joint meeting of the Western Forest and Conservation Nursery Association, the Intermountain Container Seedling Growers Association, and the Intertribal Nursery Council (Boise, ID, September 9–11, 2014).

What Is the Cloud and How Can Nurseries Use It?

In the simplest terms, cloud computing means storing and accessing data and programs using the Internet instead of a computer’s hard drive. Internet storage eliminates the need to rely on one computer or device. Depending on the cloud service used and how it is configured, information could be available everywhere Internet access is available, and, in some cases, even where Internet access is unavailable. A cloud-based version of most computer-based applications and software can be used on any computer or handheld device. For example, Microsoft® Office is now in the cloud and has the same functionality of Microsoft® Office on any computer or device almost everywhere. One can simply log onto the Web site or open the app on a handheld device and be able to use the programs as needed. The cloud can be used for sales and invoicing, inventory, databases, data storage, e-mail, software, and more. Because many options are available for using technology to improve information flow, it can be difficult to determine which technologies are best suited for a given nursery. Examples of a few cloud-based technologies that can greatly improve nursery functionality and work flow are described in this article.

Syncing Information Across Devices

Several applications make it easy to share data among computers and devices so the most current version of a file is always available to each computer that has access to it. Cloud-based storage options such as Google Drive and Dropbox provide access to files from any device with an Internet connection at a very low cost (table 1). These applications also have options for downloading files for use when not connected to the Internet. By simply downloading the application from its Web site and following the setup instructions, the program will then run in the background and constantly update files as they are changed on any computer or handheld device linked to it. It may seem simple, but these programs are very powerful in their application by allowing access to files, regardless of where one is and what device is in use, and by syncing automatically among computers, phones, and other devices. This system has the added benefit of a real-time backup of all files on a remote, secure server thereby eliminating the need to keep physical data backups. When installing the applications on mobile devices, the files can be physically downloaded to that device, taken into the field for data collection, and then automatically uploaded to all other devices. This ease of access is especially useful for field inventories in locations where Internet connections may not be reliable. Many companies today offer cloud storage, and each program has unique options. Some programs also offer business plans that enable you to control access to specific files and folders.

table 1

Cloud-Based Databases

Most nursery offices have piles of handwritten paperwork with
information on seed, sowing dates and locations, culturing,
transplanting, packing, shipping, etc., which require someone
to manually input that information into a database so it can
be used in some manner. These piles of paperwork often get
piled according to their importance, and less important paperwork
may sit for a very long time before being entered into a
computer database. Some paperwork may never get input into
a system, because the time required to enter it outweighs the
benefit of the information. During busy seasons when other
aspects of nursery management require attention, paperwork
can go by the wayside. Nurseries can benefit greatly by
eliminating paperwork and spending less time entering the
information into a mobile device than was previously spent
writing it by hand.

Some database programs available today mimic commonly
used programs such as Microsoft Excel® or Microsoft Access™,
thereby minimizing the transition period and learning curve
necessary to use them. With these databases, existing Excel
documents can be uploaded to the program’s Web site so that
important information is available when the new database
system is put into operation. When crops are tracked with a
unique number or identifier, new information about the crop
can be linked to that identifier so existing information does
not have to be reentered. This ability to link data is called a
relational database and is something to consider when looking
at all the databases offered. If linking different tables and
information across a database is desired, then a relational
database is a must.

After researching a few options, we chose TrackVia (http://
www.trackvia.com, Denver, CO) for use at IFA Nurseries
(which grew out of the old Industrial Forestry Association) in
Canby, OR. TrackVia is an online database that offers a mobile
interface and full access on both desktop and mobile devices.
It is described as a “do-it-yourself workflow software platform
for business users.” The following sections describe a few nurs-
ery operations in which this technology has been applied at IFA
Nurseries to assist with information collection and data flow.

Cultural Practices

Nursery cultural practices are anything done to the crop
during its growth cycle. Culturing includes fertilizer and
chemical applications, pest management, root pruning, quality
testing, etc. Using cloud-based databases has been a huge help
in information flow and recordkeeping and has significantly
improved our overall efficiency.

We have one master table with a list of every chemical we
use, along with rates, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
numbers, reentry intervals, necessary personal protective
equipment, chemical classes, etc. (figure 1). As we walk
through the crop to determine pest management needs, we can
simply add a new chemical application (or cultural practice)
to the task list and let our operators know a new chemical
application or culturing practice has been posted (figure 2).
The tasks are ordered by importance and the operators simply
access the database on their mobile device and select each
task to get all the information they need to properly apply the
chemical or cultural treatment (figure 3). After the application
is complete, the operators input when and where they applied                                                     the treatment(s) and the amount of any chemicals they used.
This system has enabled us to efficiently keep track of our
chemical usage and have a running list of everything we have
applied or have done to a given crop at the click of a button.
Now, when we are out in the field with customers and they
ask what has been done to their crop, we can immediately
access a list of dates and activities for their crop on a mobile
device. Also, when it is time to order more chemicals or
fertilizers, the database provides an inventory of exactly how
much chemical has been used in the past, thereby enabling us
to accurately estimate future needs.

trackvia

figure 2

figure 3

Lifting and Packing

Another area of our operation in which using TrackVia
has increased efficiency and decreased paperwork is lifting
and packing operations. Lifting and packing season is the
busiest season we have, because all the stock will be lifted
and shipped or stored during a few short months. It is also
the season when the ability to stay abreast of paperwork is at
its worst. In the past, we would print a list of beds or crops
we wanted to lift that day and hand it to our lifting operator.
The operator would then fill out the information such as the
number of workers, start times, stop times, beds, etc. At the
end of the day, the operator would give the paperwork to
someone in the office who would then enter it into a computer-
based Microsoft Excel® or Microsoft Access™ database.
Since introducing TrackVia, the operators have been carrying
mobile tablets on which they can access real-time information
about each nursery bed and the lifting schedule priorities. As
the operators complete the work, they enter the date and time,
comments, number of lifters, and other details. The database
then automatically calculates the labor production as the
operator enters the information. This system also enables the
manager to easily change the scheduling priorities based on
conditions or needs; these changes show up immediately in
the operators’ tablets.

Another useful piece of information we are tracking in the
cloud is cull data. In the past, all cull data was input on the
back of the packing forms and never input into any database
because the volume of information was too much and we
rarely used the information. Now, as the packing line leaders
do their quality checks in the packing shed, they enter the
lot number and its corresponding cull data. The cull data is
displayed graphically in real time as the information is being
collected. This feature has provided a unique retrospective
examination of our crop types to gauge the quality of each so
we can improve in subsequent seasons.

Shipping and receiving information has also been very useful
to keep in TrackVia. It enables us to link current pack production
and volume to a specific customer. After the information
is linked, we can bring up a specific customer’s name and see
every lot that the customer has in the cooler or freezer and
lots that have not yet been lifted. This approach enables us to
readily see the total lots packed and shipped and to determine
the balance remaining for each customer.
By tracking all this information in the cloud, we have a power-
ful database for real-time tracking of crop information, as well
as for following the progression of seedling lots over multiple
years. In addition to recording data, we can add “dashboards”
within the program to build graphs to summarize information
across tables. These graphs update as we input information.
For each season, we create graphs for transplant production,
packing production, sowing, etc., to gauge efficiency. With
all the information in one place, we are able to keep track of
daily production and the production among crews.

Cloud-Based Control Systems

Irrigation scheduling at our greenhouse is a full-time job. In
the past, irrigators had to do a lot of walking through the crop
and then walking back to a computer to schedule the irrigation.
Now, irrigators have a tablet or smartphone that can turn on
and set irrigation schedules as they walk around the greenhouse
(figure 4). In addition, we are able to control irrigation
applications using a cloud-based system. Opensprinkler
(Rayshobby Shop, Amherst, MA, at http://www.rayshobby.
net) is a Wi-Fi based irrigation controller that uses an app on
a mobile device or Web site to set irrigation schedules and run
programs (figure 5). It enables anyone with Wi-Fi or Internet
access to instantly turn sprinklers on and off. The program
includes the ability to input restrictions to prevent turning on
more irrigation lines than the pump can support. Irrigation
zones can be prioritized and put into a queue; the system will
turn on the next irrigation zone when the current zone finishes.
It has been a very valuable time saver and solved a lot of
logistical and timing issues. The system is easy to set up and
very inexpensive compared with a computer-based system
and integrates easily with handheld devices and computers.

figure 4

figure 5

Considerations for Selecting a Cloud-
Based Database

It is important to consider a few things before starting to use
a cloud-based system. First, not everything is most efficient
when directly input into the cloud. As mentioned previously,
we download our inventory files to our tablets for input during
the day and then upload them back to the cloud at the end of
the day. Cellular and Wi-Fi connections, however, are not
always the best choice when constantly updating a file in the
field. Even though we have great mobile service in our fields,
it does not always have a good connection to the site and data
can be lost if we are not careful. This system can also be a
big drain on phone batteries using a cellular connection, but
using a physical file on a tablet does not use nearly as much.
Second, it may not be desirable to directly enter everything into
the database. For instance, we decided to have pack volume
and production entered into the database directly by the line
leaders in the packing shed, but we chose to enter actual volume
packed later, after we double check the numbers. An accurate
pack volume is worth the extra data entry compared with
troubleshooting errors at a later time. Third, and last, it will
take time to develop cloud-based applications to be useful and
efficient for a given operation. We started out in the summer
by adding cultural practices, and then before every season, we
added more functionality and made adjustments as we went
along. Upon initial use, the system may not be exactly as desired,
but with trial and error and input from others who use it, it
will become more efficient and easier to use over time.

Address correspondence to—
Michael Taylor, Nursery Manager, IFA Nurseries Inc., 1887
N. Holly Street, Canby, OR 97013; e-mail: mtaylor@ifanurseries.
com; phone: 503–805–1222.

(Taken by permission from “Tree Planters’ Notes” by Michael Taylor)

How to find out if your plant seed is viable.

Seed Testing

After seeds are cleaned, it is a good idea to determine their quality by testing seed viability, seed germination, or both. Seed viability tests estimate the potential for seeds to germinate and grow, whereas seed germination tests measure the actual germination percentage and rate. For seeds you are purchasing or selling commercially, you may also
want to know the percentage of pure live seeds (PLS.)

Seed Viability Tests

Cutting tests, described previously, are the simplest seed viability tests and are usually performed during seed collection and often just before treating seeds for sowing. Cutting tests should also be performed on seedlots that have been stored for a long time to visually assess their condition. Cutting tests can reveal whether or not the seed is healthy, but really cannot determine anything about the potential for germination. A better test is the tetrazolium (TZ) test, a biochemical method in which seed viability is determined by a color change that occurs when particular seed enzymes react with a solution of triphenyltetrazolium chloride. Living tissue changes to red, while nonliving tissue remains uncolored (figure 8.19). The reaction takes place both with dormant and nondormant seeds, and results can be obtained within a couple of hours. Although the TZ test is easy to do, interpretation of results requires experience. For this reason, some larger nurseries or nurseries that also sell seeds send seed samples to seed analysts that have the necessary laboratory equipment and experience for testing. A third test is an excised embryo test. Embryos are carefully removed from seeds and allowed to grow independent of the seed tissue. Seeds often must be soaked for several days to remove hard seed coats, and excision of the embryo is an exacting procedure that normally requires the aid of a microscope. As when doing TZ testing, most nurseries send their seed samples to seed analysts for excised embryo testing.

Figure 8.19

terazplium

Figure 8.19—Tetrazolium (TZ) tests stain living tissue red and can be used to estimate seed viability of a seedlot. Shown in this figure (left to right): dead embryo, damaged embryo, and healthy seed. From Stein and others (1986).

Germination Tests

A seed germination test determines both germination rate and total germination percentage, and is used to determine sowing rates so seeds are used efficiently (figure 8.20). The germination rate indicates how promptly seeds germinate, whereas germination percentage indicates what proportion of the seeds eventually germinate. Germination tests are used to determine how many seeds to sow per container and how long you can expect seeds will continue to germinate after sowing. If the species being tested has some type of seed dormancy, an appropriate treatment to remove dormancy will be needed before the germination test. Many nurseries will test dormant seedlots before and after the dormancy treatment to check its effectiveness. Actual germination in the nursery may vary greatly because of the inherent variability of germination in most plant species and differences in the environmental conditions during testing and growing at the nursery.

Use the following steps to conduct a germination test:

• Select an area in the greenhouse or office that canbe kept clean.

• Line the bottom of plastic trays, Petri dishes, or similar containers with paper towels. For large seeded species, line the bottom with moist sterile sand (bake sand in the oven at 212 °F [100 °C] for at least 1 hour to sterilize it) or unmilled Sphagnum moss.

• Moisten the paper towels or other substrate withdistilled water.

• Remove equally sized seed samples from each container of the same seedlot, or, if only one container exists from the seedlot, remove the seeds from different portions of the container. Mix these samples together to form a representative sample
(figure 8.21).

• From the sample, make 4 replicates of 100 seeds and spread each replicate onto the moist substrate in a container. The containers may be covered to reduce evaporation from the substrate.

• Use distilled water to remoisten the substrate as necessary, but never allow standing water to remain in the container.

• Place the containers under optimum germination conditions—ideally those in which light, temperature, and humidity can be controlled. Conditions similar to the nursery will yield more meaningful results.

• Count the number of germinants on a daily or weekly basis for up to 4 weeks on herbaceous species and up to 3 months on woody species. Uniformity of germination
timing may be advantageous, but be sure you do not exclude healthy seeds that simply germinatemore slowly from the genetic pool for that species.

Figures 8.21

image a
A
image b
B
image c
C

Paper towels (A), sterile sand (B), and Sphagnum (C) are suitable substrates for germination testing. Photos from Vozzo (2002).

Percentage of Pure Live Seed

The percentage of pure live seed (PLS) is a seed quality index that can be calculated during seed testing (figure 8.22). When seeds are bought or sold, it is important to know the seeds have high PLS values and very low percentages of weed seeds and other inert materials. It is often a good idea to ask about where the seed was collected and to determine what weeds may be present in the seedlot.

primary samples

Figure 8.21—Test seeds by collecting primary samples from an entire seedlot to make up a composite sample. The composite sample is further divided into samples tested at the nursery or submitted to a seed laboratory for testing. Illustration from Dumroese and others (2008).

pls

Figure 8.22—Pure live seeds (PLS) is the percentage of the bulk seed weight that is composed of viable seeds. In this example, results of a purity test show 95 percent of the bulk weight is composed of seeds. The subsequent germination test indicates that 83 percent of the seeds germinated. Multiplying percentage purity by percentage germination yields 79 percent PLS. Illustration from Steinfeld and others (2007).

(Taken by permission from “Tropical Nursery Manual” by Tara Luna, and Kim M. Wilkinson)

 

Check out RNGR’s very useful forum

Here is an Announcement from our friends at RNGR:

Announcing – online forum to collaborate, discuss, and network with colleagues in the nursery, reforestation, and restoration community! This forum provides a place to post discussion topics and job announcements pertaining to plant production, outplanting strategies, and new technology.

http://forum.rngr.net

Please follow the link above and click on “How to Use this Forum” for information on participating in the forum. Once registered, you can also access the forum on your smartphone using the “TapaTalk” app.

Also, be sure to “like” the RNGR Facebook page: www.facebook.com/rngr.net for regular announcements of new nursery/reforestation/restoration events, publications, and other topics of interest.

Thank you,

Daniel J Drummond

IT Specialist & Mobile Applications Director

Southern Regional Extension Forestry

 

HOW TO CLEAN USED NURSERY CONTAINERS

Most nursery containers are reusable. Charging a deposit (for example 10 cents per cell, refundable if returned within 30 days of plant delivery) or otherwise encouraging clients to return containers saves money and resources. Reusable containers usually have some residual growing medium or pieces of roots that could contain pathogenic fungi. Seedling roots sometimes grow into the pores of containers with rough-textured walls, such as Styroblock™ containers, and remain after the seedling plug has been extracted (figure A). Liverworts, moss, and algae also grow on containers and are very difficult to remove from reusable containers. Used containers should be washed first to remove old growing media and other debris. If available, a pressure washer is excellent for this purpose. Otherwise, a regular hose, or a soak in a garbage can followed by a rinse with a hose, works too.

Next, the containers should be sterilized. Because many tropical nurseries choose not to use pesticides and chemical disinfectants, hot-water dips are the most safe, environmentally friendly, and effective way to kill fungi and other pests in used containers. Most pathogens and weed seeds are killed when containers are held at 158 to 176 °F (40 to 60 °C) for more than 3 minutes (figure B). A good rule of thumb is to use a soaking temperature of 165 to 185 °F (75 to 85 °C) for 30 to 90 seconds for Styrofoam™ containers; 15 to 30 seconds is probably sufficient for hard plastic containers (Dumroese and others 2002). Soaking Styrofoam™ at hotter temperatures can cause the material to distort. Commercial units are available, but many nurseries have built homemade container dipping systems that hold the containers under hot water in a dip tank.

Other options for sterilizing containers and nursery tools include using household bleach or alcohol. These chemicals are phytotoxic to plants and should never be used on or near seedlings. For bleach, use regular household bleach (5.25-percent sodium hypochlorite concentration), diluted 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Dip or soak the containers and tools in this bleach solution; then rinse them well before using. If the diluted bleach is stored in a covered container, such as a garbage can with a good lid, the solution may be used again, as long as it has not lost its strength. Wood, grain, or rubbing alcohol (70 to 100 percent) may also be used to sterilize containers and tools. Alcohol is used full strength. Dip or soak the containers and tools in the alcohol, but do not rinse them. Allow the containers and tools to dry in the air before using them. (Taken by permission from “Tropical Nursery Manual” by Thomas d. Landis, Tara Luna, and R. Kasten Dumrose)

A.

STYRO

B.

CHART FOR CLEANING USED NURSERY CONTAINERS