Environmental Sustainability

Since 2010 Willoway has participated in recycling plastic pots and trays. We are reducing the amount of non-biodegradable items being sent to a landfill, which has led to reduced garbage disposal costs associated with plastic containers we discard. Our recycler is a container manufacturer, and they take our used, broken, and obsolete containers and flats and manufacture new pots for the green industry from the recycled materials. 

We have sent over 745,000 pounds of plastic containers, that might normally be sent to the landfill, to recycling since the start of this program. We receive a payment for the plastic materials sent to the recycler. Those payments are used to offset purchases of new pots/flats from the recycler.

And we use any plastic pots and flats that can be reclaimed for our own plant production – they are sterilized to eliminate any plant pathogens or weed seeds that might be present before reuse.

Each year 250,000 pounds of plastic sheeting, that’s 3,000 plastic rolls, are used to cover hoop houses for overwintering plants. When the weather warms and the plastic is removed from the houses, it is gathered using bailer machines so that the spent plastic can be shipped to recyclers and used to make other items. This helps keep a large amount of plastic out of landfills.

In addition to plastic plant containers and sheeting, Willoway also recycles other post-consumer materials such as cardboard, used shrink wrap/plastic sheeting, paper, catalogs, and magazines. We work with a local recycler that picks up items for recycling once per month. This effort keeps these items out of the landfill, and they are used in making new products through the recycling process. Paper use is reduced further with our online customer portal for electronic availability, ordering, and invoicing, and our updated process for shipping dock communication and dataflow.  

The old shipping communication process involved printing and shuffling paper in a multitude of steps – from the beginning when a pick ticket was printed – specifying which plants to pull and bring to shipping, to the Quality Control (QC) team hunting down the paperwork to review and resolve issues, to the Loading Team using printed forms for noting racks and shelving used for transport. After this, all the paperwork had to be physically carried to the Traffic Office where the Traffic Supervisor would finalize and print more paperwork for the truck driver, and for Accounts Receivable for invoicing.

Although the new process maintains use of the pick ticket, now each plant on the pick ticket has a barcode which is scanned when the plants are brought to the dock. Issues and questions are entered into a computer, generating an email to those who can help resolve the issue or answer the question. Once the barcode is scanned, the data is available to QC via an iPad. Once QC has completed their portion, an email is sent to the Loading Team and allows them to enter their data via iPad. Once the Loading Team has completed their data input, another email is triggered going to the Traffic Supervisor, who prints the paperwork for the truck driver, but electronically forwards records for invoicing.

This new shipping system not only reduced paper usage, but greatly improved work efficiency and decreased errors; and generates dashboards that are used to track the daily workload progress.

At our 5-acre Huron Greenhouse, we take great steps toward our passion for the environment.

Irrigation Booms – used for overhead watering and misting of cuttings. Precise misting is achieved through use of VPD (Vapor Pressure Deficit) programming. Measurements of temperature, humidity and light are taken, and misting occurs only as needed to provide proper misting of cuttings. This prevents overuse of water and provides a healthier environment for cuttings to develop roots. Overhead watering/fertilizer is achieved through use of programming crops and zones. Crops are selected to water/fertilize as needed, also reducing water usage, and thus providing a better environment for plant development.

Flood Floors – the entire 5 acres has flood floor capability. Crops can be watered by filling floors where plants are grown with water/fertilizer. Plants “soak” for a designated time allowing their soil to absorb the water/fertilizer. Floors are then drained, and the water returns to a storage tank after being filtered. Recycled water can be reused for future waterings. With flood watering, the foliage of the plant stays dry, and water goes only to the soil/roots. This helps with foliar disease control. Recycling the unused flood water reduces water usage.

Energy Curtains – used primarily to act as an “insulation blanket” on cold nights. Energy curtains provide a 30% savings on heat usage. The curtains, located in the roof areas, are closed at night during the heating season (November through April), but also during the months of May through October when the boiler is not in use. Simply closing the energy curtains at night during these months helps hold in heat from the day without needing to run the boiler when we have an occasional cold night.

Shade Curtains – an additional layer of curtains in the roof, made of a light-colored material, is closed during the sunny part of the day to protect plants from the sun. This shade curtain also provides an additional layer of heat retention on cold nights.

Venting – the 5-acre range is cooled with open roof style vents that open as houses reach their designated cooling set point. The open roof venting provides an efficient method of venting the houses during all seasons of the year with minimal electric usage.

Biomass Boiler – the 5-acre greenhouse is heated solely with a 500HP biomass boiler. Fuel used for the boiler is a byproduct of various wood industries, such as land clearing and paper mills. The renewable energy source is sustainable and efficient. Heated water from the boiler is stored in a 75,000-gallon insulated storage tank, keeping heated water available for heat requests from the greenhouse. Hot water heat flows through heat tubing in the concrete floors which provides heat right at the plant level. Additional hot water heat flows through a variety of heat railings located in the roof area, providing heat to the air as needed.

Disease and Insect Control – use of beneficial/biological control for insects on certain crops, as well as biorational insecticides and fungicides. Use of non-traditional disease and insect controls reduces our impact on the environment and is safer for workers. An inline Copper ionization system treats our water and helps control algae and fungal issues. Copper ionization has no negative impact on the environment, our plants, or our workers, but is useful in suppression of algae growth and disease in the growing areas.

Weed Suppression

Something as simple as the application of rice hulls in our containers effectively suppresses weed seed germination in container nursery production. Rice hulls are an excellent renewable resource that Willoway uses to reduce weeds and minimize the need for herbicides. We also use it as a soil amendment, it is environmentally friendly and it is sustainable. The hulls are a co-product - so the rice is removed, and what is left is the actual hull. It’s an attractive option, using a product that is sustainable, and traditionally considered waste. On top of the environmental benefit, using rice hulls has reduced costs and increased profit margins. The greatest cost reduction Willoway has seen is a decreased dependency on herbicide applications - far costlier than using a rice hull.

Water Management

Willoway recaptures 95% of our water runoff and it’s reused throughout the nursery.

The water is funneled through tiles and ditches to collection ponds via gravity and is then pumped from the collection ponds into our watering ponds. The gravity fed water helps cut back on electricity because pumps are not running to push the water where it needs to go.

All recaptured water is tested and monitored daily to ensure the right amount of nutrients are added to it, so the plants are happy and healthy.

Plants use different amounts of water depending on the time of the year and the various weather conditions, such as the amount of sunlight, high winds, cloudy days, and temperature.

Willoway uses several forms of technology to reduce the amount of wasted water. One form of technology is HOBO water sensors. These sensors are used in different areas and on crops highly susceptible to overwatering. Using these sensors, we can look at minute by minute water usage in the plants to learn how to better provide the right amount of water.

Another sensor used is a flow meter data logger located inside our pump houses. These sensors track the flow during our watering times at night. They help us understand problems from our programs to help us keep the same flow going all night long which helps us eliminate wasteful spikes of electricity from pumps ramping up and down all night.

Nutrient Management

Water management and nutrient management go hand and hand here at Willoway.

We measure all pre-mixed nutrients daily and inject them into our water supply through a process called fertigation, the nutrient water is then dispersed throughout the nursery.

Daily nutrient readings are taken at the beginning of each irrigation set to make sure the right amount of fertilizer is being applied to the water for optimal nutrient uptake by the plants.

We mix and have individual injectors for all the essential nutrients. Different than having a premixed blended package from a manufacture, having individual tanks for the elements allows us to decrease any nutrient at any given time. This works perfectly for various stages of growth, and times of the year when plants will favor one element over another.

In addition to fertigation, we top dress our plants to help them grow. The top dress fertilizer (applied to the surface of the growing medium) is engineered to have different release curves so that the fertilizer is slowly released to the plant when it is most needed. This ensures the fertilizer is used within the plant rather than being leached and wasted away.

To help Willoway growers determine the proper nutrient management, they take numerous leachates in the containers which help them decide when to turn things on and off with our fertigation. This also helps determine if we have the right release curves for our plants.

Numerous soil samples are taken and analyzed to ensure our field stock plants are planted in optimal growing conditions. The soil samples tell exactly what needs to be added to the soil, so we do not over fertilize an area. We only apply what the plant needs.



SANC is the Systems Approach to Nursery Certification. Willoway’s SANC-certified facilities use best production practices to reduce the risk of spreading plant pests throughout the trade. This program was put in place to help find problems with pest and diseases before they get out of hand. This proactive venture has made every employee at Willoway part of the success of growing clean, quality products for our customers.

We start by looking at potential problems where pests or diseases can occur. This begins with incoming plant material; all of which is inspected/scouted by growers or our plant health care personnel to address problems before allowing the plants in the nursery.

Proactive scouting is completed and tracked through Willoway Systems, which delivers communication of potential problems to employees throughout the company. The System can also track past problems, which help when new pests or diseases emerge, we look to the past successes, so we can repeat them.

With training sessions for all employees, SANC has improved Willoway’s communication regarding issues to watch for. From pests and diseases that have been around, to new challenges that arise, we have the steps in place to inform employees so we can work together to monitor problems and find solutions.

IPM/ Phenology

Willoway employs various tactics to battle pests and diseases. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the combination of the different strategies being used. Our IPM starts with scouting (inspection). When scouting plants, we determine the origin of the problem. A disease or pest may be troublesome because of something environmental. We also monitor for a beneficial balance between good bugs and bad bugs. As in the name, we don’t try to eliminate every issue, we manage them.

This approach is better for the environment. Scouting allows us to see when the bad bugs start to get out of hand, and then we take action to help control the situation. Over the years Willoway has developed various tools in our IPM toolbox, from direct sprays to biologicals or even changing environmental practices, these are all part of our IPM strategy.

The Phenology of the plants, part of our IPM practices, is another method that helps us determine when to start looking for problems. Phenology is the study of recurring biological phenomena and their relationship to weather. This measurement of the growth and development of plants and insects during the growing season gives us the ability to react proactively and limit the use of chemical needs. It focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines.

Willoway employs the use of a phenology garden, where selected key plants help indicate when pests will start to “wake up”.  Plants have a distinct development pattern every year based on temperature. So even when plants seem to be flowering earlier or later by a calendar date, the plants are right on time based on the accumulative temperature they have received so far for the year. This measurement of the growth and development of plants and insects during the growing season gives us the ability to react proactively and limit the use of chemical needs.

Smart Sprayers

Smart Sprayers are offering a new technology that detects unique crop architecture and makes management decisions based on height, width, spacing, and density of each plant or tree.

Willoway was able to prototype “THE INTELLEGENT SPRAY CONTROL SYSTEM” on our Tower Sprayer used in field and pot-in-pot production. Developed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service grant, the system employs a laser to detect size and space between canopies thereby activating only the correct nozzles instead of the entire spray zone. The system gives equal or better crop protection than traditional sprayers with the advantages of:

  • 47-73% reduction of spray consumption
  • 40-87% reduction in spray loss beyond tree canopies
  • Up to 87% less airborne drift
  • 68-93% reduction in spray loss on the ground