How temperature and light affect basil production

Departments - Hydroponic Production Primer

These two factors can make or break production.

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January 31, 2021

Proper lighting, be it HPS or LED, can be a massive asset for growers.
Photo © Iarygin Andrii I Adobe Stock

Basil is the most popular culinary herb that is grown in hydroponic systems. For many hydroponic herb growers, basil is the backbone of their program. Growers are usually commenting on how they are able to sell all the basil they produce and can’t grow enough!

However, another comment I hear frequently is how their basil just doesn’t grow in the late fall, winter and early spring. This is when growers are experiencing longer crop times and delayed harvests. Although growth is slower during these “off-seasons,” there are steps that can be taken to increase growth and keep production on track.

When producing cut basil, yield is based on the weight of harvested shoots. Therefore, in order to increase the amount harvested or reduce time until a crop reaches a harvestable size, we want new leaves to appear and mature as quickly as possible. The two factors that are going to have the greatest impact on leaf unfolding and growth are light and temperature.

Temperature

Temperature can affect plants in several different ways. Extremely low or high temperatures can cause damage, reducing yields and/or making shoots unmarketable. Increasing or decreasing the difference between day and night air temperatures (“DIF”) can increase or decrease stem and internode elongation. As previously mentioned, increasing the rate that new leaves are formed can help increase yield. The rate at which new leaves are formed is strongly influenced by the average daily temperature. There are three temperatures that help us understand the effect of average daily temperature on plant development: 1) the base temperature (Tbase), the temperature below which plant development stops, 2) the optimal temperature (Topt), the air temperature at which plant development is maximal, and 3) the maximum temperature (Tmax), the temperature above which plant development stops. Between the Tbase and Topt, plant development has a linear response to average daily temperature and this range of air temperatures is called the linear range. Within the linear range, plant development increases as the temperature increases and decreases as the temperature decreases.

With respect to basil, we start to see growth slowdown in the fall, winter and spring because the average daily temperature is getting lower in the greenhouse and the rate of new leaf appearance is decreasing. With the slower leaf unfolding rates, it takes longer for basil shoots to form enough leaves to become harvestable. While your greenhouse air temperature set points for heating and cooling may have not changed throughout the year, average daily temperatures may decrease for several reasons. First, with lower light intensities there is less radiant energy entering the greenhouse and increasing the air temperature. Additionally, plants will lose heat to the greenhouse superstructure and to clear night skies, which can result in plant temperatures below air temperatures.

Basil is sensitive to cold temperatures and has a Tbase of 47° F for leaf unfolding based on our research at Iowa State University. Alternatively, it grows very well at warm temperatures and our research shows leaf unfolding of sweet basil increaseses with air temperature up to 84 °F.

Therefore, one of the ways you can hasten growth and reduce the time to harvest is to increase your average daily temperature. Though you may be concerned about the cost of increasing air temperatures (and rightly so!), there are a few things to take into consideration. First, unlike ornamental plants we are not as worried about increased internode elongation from a positive DIF. Therefore, you can start by increasing your daytime air temperatures. Secondly, while raising your air temperature may increase heating costs, how much are missed crop turns from longer production cycles costing you?

Basil remains the most commonly grown herb in hydroponic systems.
Photo © Psychotria I Adobe Stock

Light

Temperature primarily influences the rate of development, while light primarily influences growth — an irreversible increase in weight or mass. Light drives photosynthesis, which produces carbohydrates that have a variety of fates, from becoming cell walls to stored starch. As the intensity of light increases, more carbohydrates are formed and weight increases. Alternatively, photosynthesis decreased under lower light. As such, reduced photosynthesis from low light levels are another contributing factor to the diminished growth of basil in the late fall, winter and early spring. Research at Iowa State University has shown that the optimal light intensity for production of fresh mass in sweet basil is 500 µmol·m–2·s–1 and light intensities are often much less than this from fall through spring. Additional research we have performed has shown that increasing the daily light integral (DLI) from 7 mol·m–2·d–1 to 15 mol·m–2·d–1 increases the fresh mass of sweet, lemon and holy basil by 144%, 207% and 208%, respectively.

To maximize transmission of light into the greenhouse, make sure your glazing material is clean and your superstructure over the plants is minimal. However, when ambient light levels are low, there is really only one way to appreciably increase your light intensity or DLI inside the greenhouse, and that is with the use of supplemental lighting. High-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps are the most widely used light source for increasing light intensity and DLI in greenhouses. Many types of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been introduced into the marketplace recently and, while this is a new technology that may be less familiar to growers, it shows promise as a supplemental light source. Whether HPS lamps or LEDs, diminished photosynthetic activity from low light levels is another contributing factor to the diminished growth of basil in the late fall, winter and early spring.

Research at Iowa State University has shown that the optimal light intensity for production of fresh mass in sweet basil is 500 µmol·m–2·s-1 and light intensities are often much less than this from fall through spring. Additional research we have performed has shown that increasing DLI from 7 mol·m-2·d-1 to 15 mol·m-2·d-1 increases the fresh mass of sweet, lemon and holy basil by 144, 207%, and 208%, respectively.

Whether HPS lamps or LEDs, a good starting supplemental light intensity is from 70 to 100 µmol·m-2·s-1. The number of lamps that you will need will depend entirely on the output of the fixtures, distribution of the light, and distance from the plants they are placed. Lighting companies can help provide support when trying to determine your needs and can assist you in putting together a lighting plan.

The author is an extension specialist and professor at Iowa State University. Reach him at ccurrey@iastate.edu