Plant Population and Nitrogen Fertilization for Subsurface Drip-irrigated Onion

in HortScience

Onion (Allium cepa L.) production in the Treasure Valley of eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho has been based on furrow irrigation with 318 kg·ha-1 N fertilizer and average yields of 70 Mg·ha-1, but these practices have been implicated in nitrate contamination of groundwater. Drip irrigation, introduced in the early 1990s, has several advantages, including reduced leaching losses. Since onion plant populations and N fertilizer rates can affect economic returns, studies were conducted in 1999, 2000, and 2001 to determine optimum plant populations and N fertilizer rates for subsurface drip-irrigated onion. Long-day onion (`Vision') was subjected to a combination of seven nitrogen fertilization rates (0 to 336 kg·ha-1 in 56-kg increments applied between late May and early July) and four plant populations (185, 250, 300, and 370 thousand plants/ha). Onion was grown on silt loam in two double rows spaced 0.56 m apart on 1.1 m beds with a drip tape buried 13 cm deep in the bed center. Soil water potential was maintained nearly constant at -20 kPa by automated irrigations based on soil water potential measurements at a 0.2-m depth. Onion bulbs were evaluated for yield and grade after 70 days of storage. Onion yield and grade were highly responsive to plant population. Onion marketable yield increased, and bulb diameter decreased with increasing plant population. Within the range of plant populations tested, gross returns were not always responsive to plant population. Returns were increased by the increase in marketable yield obtained with higher plant population, but higher plant population also reduced the production of the largest sized bulbs which had the highest value per weight. Onion yielded 95 Mg·ha-1 with no applied N fertilizer, averaged over plant populations and years. Onion yield and grade were not responsive to N fertilizer rate or interaction of N fertilizer rate with plant population. Preplant soil available N, N mineralization, and N in irrigation water all contributed N to the crop. Onion N uptake did not increase with increasing N fertilizer rate.

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