Helping grow University of New Hampshire’s greenhouse research

UNH alum Luke Hydock recently was named the manager of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station's Macfarlane Research Greenhouses at the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture. Learn more about his experience and what is planned to grow UNH's greenhouse research in this interview.

What drew you to your career in greenhouse management?
Having worked in a greenhouse growing up, I was deeply impacted by seeing how plants were produced. I loved how the labor, the machinery, and the specialized technology all came together to produce row after row and greenhouse after greenhouse of healthy, vibrant plant material. As I came and went from greenhouse work over my career in the green industry, I never lost the fascination with the process of producing plants indoors. My college experience, exposure to talented researchers, and interactions with greenhouse growers served as strong encouragement to pursue a career in greenhouse management. When I had the opportunity to apply for the manager position, I knew it was the right move.

What is your previous work experience and education in this area?
I worked in a retail greenhouse all through high school. That job was what really got me hooked on growing plants. I started to see the connection between all the jobs that I was asked to do in producing a plant that someone thought was ideal and wanted to buy. It became clear to me that I should go to school to study plants. I chose UNH and received a B.S. in Horticulture and Agronomy. After graduation I spent several years working in cut flower production for two different growers. During those two years I was able to work in a small production facility and a very large production facility. Although the two were vastly different, I gained a valuable perspective on the management requirements for each one. After having left greenhouse production for a career in the landscape field, I came back to work for several winters as a research technician here at Macfarlane Research Greenhouses. It was during my winters as a research technician that I developed a more complete understanding of plant experiment setup and execution. I was responsible for the setup and management of a variety of young plant experiments and trials. When I finally decided to come back to greenhouse work full-time, I came back to Macfarlane Research Greenhouses to work as a greenhouse technician. I worked for four years as the greenhouse technician and really learned what was involved in successfully managing this facility. I was sad to lose a colleague, in the retiring of former manager David Goudreault, but excited to be named the new greenhouse manager.

What do you enjoy about managing greenhouses and working with plants?
I think that the fact that we build glass houses just for the purpose of growing plants in is the coolest thing ever! We do it so we can have more control over the plant’s environment. I think that having that control and knowing how to implement it to get the desired effect in the growth of the plant is amazing. So many things go into the managing of the plant’s environment: technology, entomology, pathology, chemistry, and botany, to name a few. Managing a facility like Macfarlane Research Greenhouses requires that you are skilled in all of these areas. Maintaining and growing that skillset so that I can offer the best support to our students and researchers is what I enjoy most about the job.

How is managing a research greenhouse different than managing a commercial greenhouse? 
One of the big differences between research greenhouse management and commercial greenhouse management is scale. In a research greenhouse environment, there are many small groups of plants with very special requirements. It is quite the opposite in a commercial greenhouse where it is more profitable to have many plants in a larger space with fewer special requirements. The amount of inputs required to maintain research plant material would be very hard to justify if measured by the same profitability standard as plant material grown in a commercial production facility. I found success as a greenhouse technician by valuing the 15 plants in an experiment the same way that a grower would value the 15,000 plants that they were responsible for in a big greenhouse. I also let go of the idea of finding large efficiencies in the way that we grow plants here. The requirements from compartment to compartment are so different that I was much more successful in looking at very small efficiencies that could be implemented across similar experiments over time.

What do you enjoy most about working in this managerial position at UNH?
There is a lot to enjoy. There is a phenomenal group of students and researchers working in the greenhouse right now and it’s really enjoyable to help them all achieve their goals. There is also the excitement of not knowing who is going to walk through your door and what they are going to ask you to do to their plants. “You want to do what to your plants?! You’re sure? Ok, let’s give it a try.” That exchange never really gets old.

What opportunities do you see for UNH when it comes to research at the Macfarlane Research Greenhouses?
It is a wonderful resource for students and researchers looking to take advantage of a controlled environment space for their projects. With a state-of-the-art expansion slated to begin this summer, we should be in a great position to comfortably accommodate both existing research and new projects for some time to come. I don’t think that there has ever been more support for the greenhouse facility, or the NH Agricultural Experiment Station in general, than there is right now. It is a really exciting time for us. I am looking forward to getting the facility filled up with lots of great projects.

Can you tell me about the Macfarlane Research Greenhouses expansion project? How is this going to advance research at this facility? 
The expansion project will include two new greenhouse ranges that will total approximately 6,800 square feet of additional growing space. That space will be optimized for greenhouse research by being further divided into eight independently climate-controlled compartments. This configuration gives a lot of flexibility to the type of research that we can host and dramatically improves our ability to control biosecurity (preventing plant infections and harmful insects from spreading throughout the research greenhouses) in the facility. Automated thermal curtains will help reduce overall heating needs in the colder months and automated shade curtains will give us better control over light and temperature in the warmer months. The new space will be tied into our existing environmental control system and give us even better control over the plant environment and broaden our ability to support more technically demanding research.

What’s your favorite plant and/or flower?
Wow. What an unfair question! In college it was Penstemons. For the last 20 years it was Viburnums and Clethras. But through it all I have always had an affection for Camellia sinensis. That is the tea plant. I have been a lifelong tea drinker and have always marveled at all of the wonderful blends of tea that all come from this one plant! I have to admit that it does not share the same affection for me, as I have failed the few times that I have tried to grow it in the greenhouse. I am pretty determined, so stay tuned.

What’s your advice for those of us who are “plant challenged?” Any specific especially hardy indoor plants that are difficult to kill?
I can speak as a former houseplant collector, as a former landscape contractor, and now as a greenhouse manager when I say that the healthiest plants are the ones that get the water! If you are “plant challenged,” put your house plants on the windowsill above your kitchen sink and your landscape plants and new vegetable gardens not further than your hose can reach comfortably. You will be setting yourself up for serious success by just following that one piece of advice. As far as plants that are difficult to kill, I would recommend trying what catches your eye. You might surprise yourself. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry, your local greenhouse will always grow you more!

What are your hobbies/interests outside of your work with plants?
I love hanging out with my 10-year-old son. He reminds me that I still have a lot to learn! I still really love landscaping and doing small design/build projects. The plant combinations are endless. And a little over a year ago, a graduate student convinced me to go for a free Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lesson at the academy where her and her husband train. I have been going twice a week since that first class and am absolutely hooked. It is amazing. That’s another activity that is a constant reminder that I still have a lot to learn.

What blockbuster action movies have you starred in and what was your most difficult stunt?*
Most of my stunt work was done in lesser Swedish action films, but I am particularly proud of having been a technical advisor in an as-yet-unreleased remake of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”

*No greenhouse manager mentioned in this story is or was a stuntman, although he aspires to be in his daydreams.

Source: University of New Hampshire (Lori Wright)

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