Erica Hernandez is a horticulturist based in Oregon who has an MSc in Horticultural Biology from Cornell. Throughout her career she has worked on some super interesting projects, such as trying to develop a greenhouse system to support an astronaut on the moon or mars and exploring how light affects Vitamin C production in tomatoes. Erica is now the Controlled Environment Agriculture Technical Specialist at Griffin Greenhouse Supplies and helps growers around the country increase their production. We were lucky enough to chat with Erica about the various projects she’s worked on and what she’s growing in her gardens. Enjoy!
Erica’s History With Gardening
Growing up, we always had a garden but we never really did a whole lot with it. I came to gardening a little bit later in life than many in the field now. I always hear people talking about how they came from a farm, or they grew their own food, and my family was much more laid-back about our garden. We always had houseplants and gardens and plants were always present, but it was never really a strong focus in my life until I got to college.
The Project That Started It All: The Lunar Greenhouse Project
I actually got an internship with the University of Arizona working at the Lunar Greenhouse project. That project really captured my imagination and curiosity, I mean even the title sounds cool, right? It was a project with the Arizona Space Grant Consortium sponsored by NASA. Basically, we were trying to develop a greenhouse that would support one astronaut on the moon or Mars with all of the air, all of the water and half of the calories they would need to survive on a day-to-day basis. I worked on that project for three years and I got my undergraduate degree in plant science from the University of Arizona.
Erica’s Research At Cornell
From there, I went on to get really deeply involved in controlled environment agriculture while I was at University of Arizona, and then applied to Cornell to continue working on the same sort of stuff with Dr. Maxson at Cornell. I ended up studying horticultural lighting applications which are also super important in controlled environment agriculture. We did a little bit of that research from the University of Arizona as well, because it’s one of the components of how to supply light to plants on the moon or Mars — what's that lighting condition like? We did that research there and I continued it at Cornell.
I was at Cornell for two and a half years and worked on three separate projects while I was there. The first project that I worked on was a lettuce variety trial; we grew 25 different varieties of lettuce in an NFT hydroponic system and we compared performance under high pressure sodium light versus a single spectrum of LEDS. We used LumiGrow, 20% blue 80% red spectrum under ambient greenhouse lighting conditions. We were looking at things like how did the different varieties perform in the greenhouse conditions, how was morphology affected, how is taste affected, how is yield overall affected for each of these varieties. And then trying to figure out which where the best performers and helping a company to identify which of these varieties they should start with if they’re growing in those conditions and which lighting conditions would be the best.
The second project I worked on at Cornell was working in the growth chambers. Cornell has a series of little growth chambers on site where you can really tightly control environmental conditions. All light is blocked out except for the light you're providing. In this situation, what I was looking at were dwarf tomatoes — Micro-Toms — and we wanted to find out if different percentages of blue light affected Vitamin C production in the fruit, because it's one of the crops of interest for NASA. When we're looking at growing plants in space, one question is can we provide a source of fresh Vitamin C on the ISS, on missions to the moon or Mars? Could tomatoes be a potential source for this, and how can we bump up that production? What I found was, spoiler alert: blue light doesn’t help Vitamin C production at all. Which, you know, no results are still results. So we eliminated that production method. And I've actually seen that result backed up in other places at this point as well. So I feel a little vindicated; I was right.
The third project I worked on at Cornell was trying to develop a mini curriculum that can be used for middle schoolers in the science classroom. I was interested in plant science and how can kids explore different areas of science through the use of plants in the classroom?
On Erica’s Work At Griffin Greenhouse Supplies
A lot of the work I did in undergraduate and graduate school has crossed over into my job at Griffin. I did a lot of public speaking [in school], explaining to people about the various projects I was working on and understanding the background science for a lot of what I was researching to answer people’s questions.
Now that I'm here at Griffin, people ask me questions all day long! So with my experience, I’m able to answer those questions and break them down into understandable chunks to help people learn. Solving problems has become a part of everything that I do every day here — it’s non-stop answering questions and teaching people about growing.
Erica’s Most-Asked Question
That’s a tough one! People ask me all sorts of stuff about problems that they’re having in their gardens, whether it be insects, watering, or other things. But the topic I get asked the most about is probably nutrients. People always want to know more about plant nutrition and how it actually works for their plants.
How Erica Got Into Cannabis Growing
Honestly, I really got involved in Cannabis growing through working at Griffin. I had never grown cannabis before, maybe I once grew a plant in college. But before I came to Griffin I was all about lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries — that’s what I was used to growing. When I got to Griffin, they were like ‘great,’ you don’t have any preconceived notions on [growing cannabis], you’re a blank slate, and that’s what they were looking for. At this point I’ve spoken to a lot of horticultural growers and I still need to talk to a lot of legacy growers and coming into it with no bias is probably the best way to do it.
Erica’s Advice For New Cannabis Growers
I would say the best advice is to take a look at established horticultural crops and what the practices are there, other established crops that have high light requirements like tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries. Take a look at what is recommended for those plants because ultimately, what it comes down to is cannabis is just a plant; it’s a fruiting plant. We want to make it grow efficiently and as best as we can. Tomato growers, strawberry growers, all of those vegetable growers have been doing that for a long time and the science is there for them.
So we can start there in seeking guidance, but we also want to pay attention to what legacy growers or underground growers have been doing for a long time, without the guidance of the horticulture field. These growers have been growing for a long time, they’ve just been growing in isolation. They do things a certain way for a certain reason; they may not fully understand the reason without that strong horticultural base, but they do know the plant. So if we can try to join the horticulture science that’s out there with the base of legacy knowledge, that’s where we’re going to get the strongest growth. So my advice would be don’t focus too strongly on just horticulture or just legacy. We need to take a little of both to do the best that we can at this point.
On Erica’s Oregon Garden
I've been doing mostly container and a small raised bed gardening for the last several years. Right now we're kind of preparing to winterize everything; I’ve been mulching, cleaning up, and preparing for spring a little bit. Some of my favorite things to grow in-season are tomatoes, cucumbers, and mint. I know mint can be a little scary because of its spread, but I love mint tea and I have about four different kinds of mint growing in my garden. I also really like growing aromatic herbs as well as cucumbers and tomatoes. They’re super rewarding because they’re both very big producers. So if you have a healthy plant you’re going to get a lot of veggies off it. This year we got so many which was great. The other thing I love to grow are snap peas but unfortunately we had a rabbit this year and he mowed down several of my favorite crops. I wanted to grow beets for my mom and every time I put beet seeds down he would smell them and eat them right up.
This was also the first year I decided to integrate flowers in my garden. I grew a bunch of marigolds and alyssum and sunflowers. So that was what I was focusing on for this year and I think it went really well, the sunflowers were huge and I also grew a couple types of alyssum that drew in a lot of beneficial insects.
What Erica's Excited About In The Garden Industry
I am really excited about the new explosion of interest in gardening. A lot of people who may not have been previously aware are all of a sudden interested in garden because that was all people could really do during COVID-19. A lot of people took up gardening at their houses and ended up doing shared gardens as well. I think it captured a lot of the attention that gardening has been lacking and it’s great to see so many people interested in gardening. What’s also really exciting is people are talking more about small gardens in the space that they have, like growing in containers or tiny raised beds. They’re talking more about sharing food and trading food on a neighborhood level, which helps with food security.
How Erica’s Used C-BITEs In Her Garden
I mentioned my pesky rabbit before, so I really want to grow peas next year and I need a way to protect my garden from that darn bunny. He’s way too cute to relocate so we are just going to have to focus on keeping him out of the garden. So I’ve been using the C-BITEs to erect a bunny-proof fence with plastic fencing and the garden stakes with the C-BITEs to hold it all in place. They seem to be fairly sturdy in terms of the different heights I placed them at and they’re holding on to the plastic fencing very well. I love them because it’s kind of like playing with adult Legos, right? It’s been great to make this fence around one of my garden beds and it looks solid.
The second thing I’m doing with C-BITEs is I’ve actually used them to construct an a-frame structure that holds an indoor grow light. I hung the grow light from the C-BITE frameLike I said before, it’s like adult Legos and I was able to construct something really fast to get this grow light hung up. I'm able to adjust the height somewhat and, you know, it works for my needs and it's great and I was able to make it really fast.
I’ll have many more projects with C-BITEs during the spring, like when I can actually grow stuff outside again and want to make sure I have trellises set up to support my plants. This year things got a little bit wild and crazy in my garden, so it will be nice to get everything supported early in the season next year.
You can follow along on Erica’s growing journeys and get awesome growing advice from her on her instagram @PDXPlantGirl