Can controlled environment chambers be used for better seed-propagated strawberry transplants?

Paper referenced:

Tsuruyama, J., & Shibuya, T. (2018). Growth and flowering responses of seed-propagated strawberry seedlings to different photoperiods in controlled environment chambers. HortTechnology, 28(4), 453–458.


Although other crops are often in the spotlight when it comes to growing food in greenhouses, strawberry is gaining popularity and for good reason. It can be grown in greenhouses through the cold winter months in temperate climates to make local, fresh, high quality fruit available when not much else is. To maximize fruit set and profitability, starting the production cycle with high quality transplants is a necessity. Transplants, also known as plug or tray plants, can be produced from seed, rooted runner tips, or field dug bare root crowns, though, use of field dug plants can introduce pests and diseases into the greenhouse. Seed propagated hybrid strawberry cultivars suited for greenhouse production have been developed, leading to increased adoption of this technique in Europe and Japan.

Controlled environment technology presents strawberry plug producers with the tools needed to provide growers with high-quality transplants due to the tremendous level of control over environmental conditions such as light quality and quantity, humidity, and temperature. This high degree of control is advantageous because greenhouse grown plugs produced for August/September transplant can experience high temperatures and variable conditions, which can delay flowering and fruit production. However, with the use of an indoor controlled environment facility, plants can be grown under optimal conditions no matter the weather outside. In addition to temperature, photoperiod (the amount of time plants are exposed to light) as well as light intensity, can affect the growth and flowering of strawberries. Due to this, determining the optimal photoperiod for indoor plug production could lead to enhanced quality of transplants.

In this study the authors use two-seed propagated cultivars, one European (‘Elan’) and one Japanese (‘Yotsuboshi’), to produce tray plants for mid-August transplant. Both cultivars are long-day strawberry types which generally meaning flowering is promoted by long light periods.

To start the experiment, once seedlings had germinated and grown two true leaves, at 23 days old, they were replanted into larger trays for the light treatment phase. Next, groups of seedlings from both cultivars were subjected to different propagation systems. Four groups were grown in a growth chamber with blue/red LED lighting, this allowed the researchers to control the conditions the plants experienced, while the control group was grown in a greenhouse. The growth chambers were maintained at 25°C (77°F), but had different photoperiods and light intensities. The photoperiods tested in growth chambers were 8, 12, 16, and 24 hours. To ensure all plants received the same total amount of light, the light intensities were proportionally adjusted based on photoperiod, so the shortest photoperiod had the highest intensity and the longest had the lowest. The control plants were subjected to summer greenhouse conditions, moderated by shading during the day and air conditioning at night. The greenhouse average photoperiod was 13.6 hours with day temperatures around 30°C and night temperatures around 23°C for an average temperature of 26.8°C (80.2°F). All plants were grown in their respective treatment conditions for 38 days. After which, 10 plants per cultivar of each treatment were measured for dry mass, leaf area, leaf number, and length of the longest petiole to assess plant growth. Using pre- and post-treatment leaf area and dry mass, the relative growth rate (increase in mass), net assimilation rate (photosynthesis efficiency), and leaf area ratio were calculated.

After 38 days, when they had 6-7 leaves, plants were transplanted into a different greenhouse for the flower emergence trial, which lasted 110 days (from mid-August to late November). Plants were checked daily for flower bud emergence. Temperatures started high around 40°C (104°F) in August but slowly cooled as time progressed to a more typical strawberry production temperature range (25-10°C).

Results and Discussion
In both cultivars long-day, low intensity lighting out performed short-day and greenhouse conditions regarding plant mass, leaf area, petiole length, relative growth rate, and net assimilation rate, indicating enhanced photosynthetic efficiency. This suggests that plants were able to use the steady low amount of light over long periods more efficiently than high amounts of light over short periods or the summer greenhouse conditions, which exceeded the ideal growing temperatures for strawberry. Thus suggesting that using a controlled environment system with low intensity long-day lighting was more effective for plant growth than the greenhouse control.
Regarding how long it took plants to flower once transplanted into a fruit production greenhouse, for Elan, long-day conditions nearly halved time to flower compared to greenhouse control and short day photoperiods. This suggests that the long-day low intensity light treatments were effective for inducing flowers earlier than the summer greenhouse or short day conditions.
In Yotsuboshi however, photoperiod treatments did not have an effect on time to flower. Yet, the greenhouse control flowered slightly sooner than the photoperiod treatments, which may be due to transplant shock that the controlled environment plants experienced. These results demonstrate what other studies have found in that cultivars can react differently to the same conditions even if they are the same photoperiod type. Thus, these results suggest that more research is needed into which factors and their levels affect Yotsuboshi flowering to better understand the cultivar’s flower emergence.
Overall this study demonstrates that using low intensity LED lighting in controlled environment settings for long-day seed-propagated strawberry tray plants is a viable alternative to summer greenhouse production.