Both NC students and Canadian growers benefit from plant research

(L-R) Student researchers Evan Hadley and Charlie Laport with Frontline Growing Products president Dave de Haan and NC horticulture professor Mary Jane Clark, with verbena plants from the research study in the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus greenhouse.

Research recently completed by Niagara College horticulture students will go a long way in helping illustrate the benefits of a bioavailable product that helps strengthen plant resilience to environmental stress and disease, says Dave de Haan of Frontline Growing Products, the industry partner and Canadian distributor for the product tested.

The product is Silamol® (containing the only plant-available form of Silicon) and, while there has been a lot of research on the world stage, Canadian growers want to hear of Canadian studies testing Silamol®, explains de Haan, Frontline’s founder and president. For local growers, he says, local research studies “seem to have more credibility than studies done around the world.”

It also helps that the students’ 11-week trial of Silamol® found positive results after evaluation of whether the product would reduce incidence or severity of disease from a crop of potted verbena in the NC greenhouse. The work done by Research & Innovation assistants (and now recent graduates of the College’s Horticulture Technician program) Charlie Laport and Evan Hadley, with some assistance from the Applied Plant Pathology class, determined that a weekly application of Silamol® sprayed on the verbena leaves seemed to offer the best protection from powdery mildew disease symptoms.

Verbena, an annual flower, was chosen by local greenhouse growers as the “ideal” subject for this study due to its high susceptibility to disease, says NC horticulture professor Mary Jane Clark. All plants were grown on the same bench in the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus greenhouse, and there were trays assigned to one of four different weekly treatments, arranged in a randomized block design. Plants were monitored for visual symptoms of diseases and pests.

Laport and Hadley made the weekly applications and monitored the plants, recording observation notes. Explains Laport: “We would take measurements on a weekly basis to track plant height, canopy spread, soil pH and EC and finally, the presence of any pest or pathogen.”

Silamol® is not a pest control product, but rather a biostimulant. It contains a high concentration of stabilized silicic acid, which gets stored in cell membranes of foliage and stems, creating a barrier within the cell walls. This acts as the plant’s natural defense system, which, in turn, improves resilience and growth, says de Haan.

Ultimately, the weekly foliar spray application of Silamol® seemed to offer “the best protection of greenhouse-grown verbena from initial incidence as well as severity of powdery mildew symptoms,” explains Clark.

Aside from the needed research, de Haan says the main reason he chose Niagara College to collaborate with is to lay some educational groundwork for the student researchers. “I wanted to help future Canadian growers learn more about alternative products that will help to reduce the need for more chemicals,” he says. “With less use of agricultural chemicals, our environment and food chain improve, benefitting all of us.”

Laport agrees he has reaped the benefits from such research: “I gained a tremendous amount of valuable knowledge and experience while being employed by NC’s Research & Innovation division, further cementing many techniques and concepts learned in our curriculum at NC,” he says. “Working for an actual industry partner and testing a product such as Silamol® was a great way to get an introduction to this vast industry, and gave the project a real sense of purpose. We both knew that this was valuable data we were collecting because many growers face challenges with powdery mildew and this could become a tool in many growers’ tool boxes.”

As for Hadley, participating in the research project has provided many rewards. “It definitely gave me some confidence prior to entering the workforce and I think it equipped me with some tools and ideas that have carried forward when problem solving at work,” says Hadley. He also credits a good part of his being accepted into an internship at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania to his research job with the College. “My experience here was definitely something [Longwood Gardens] considered in my application, as I will be assisting in some horticultural research there.”

This horticulture research was made possible thanks to funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and its College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program. Through this grant, industry partners can acquire new prototypes, products, processes, and test results that validate their products and services, bringing them closer to market.

Frontline Growing Products Inc. is a Niagara-based horticultural company specializing in providing sustainable growing options, helping to reduce the need for chemical use. Supplying products like Silamol®, as well as standard and custom peat and coco-based growing substrates.

NC’s Research & Innovation division provides real-world solutions for business, industry and the community through applied research and knowledge transfer activities. This includes conducting projects that provide innovative solutions, such as producing and testing prototypes, evaluating new technologies, and developing new or improved products or processes for small- and medium-sized businesses. 

Course-based research projects are part of the suite of experiential learning opportunities offered to students at Niagara College. Research & Innovation supports academic programs and faculty who wish to undertake projects with real-world industry partners, in a variety of programs. Resources include recruiting industry partners, toolkits for conducting a course-based project, and suggested frameworks to help shape the integration of the project into the teaching and learning outcomes. To learn more about course-based projects, please contact course-based project coordinator Alisa Cunnington at [email protected].