Compost Feedstock and Compost Acidification Affect Growth and Mineral Nutrition in Northern Highbush Blueberry

in HortScience

New markets for organic northern highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum L.) have stimulated interest in using composts specifically tailored to the plant’s edaphic requirements. Because composts are typically neutral to alkaline in pH (pH 7 to 8), and blueberry requires acidic soil (pH 4.2 to 5.5), we investigated elemental sulfur (S0) addition as a methodology for reducing compost pH. The objectives were to 1) characterize initial compost chemistry, including the pH buffering capacity of compost (acidity required to reduce pH to 5.0), 2) measure changes in compost chemistry accompanying acidification, and 3) evaluate plant growth and mineral nutrition of blueberry in soil amended with an untreated or acidified compost. Ten composts prepared from diverse feedstocks were obtained from municipalities and farms. Addition of finely ground S0 reduced compost pH from 7.2 to 5.3, on average, after 70 d at 22 °C, and increased the solubility of nutrients, including K (from 22 to 36 mmol(+)/L), Ca (from 5 to 19 mmol(+)/L), Mg (from 5 to 20 mmol(+)/L), and Na (from 6 to 9 mmol(+)/L). Sulfate-S, a product of S0 oxidation, also increased from 5 to 45 mmol(−)/L. The composts were incorporated into soil at a high rate (30% v/v) in a greenhouse trial to evaluate their suitability for use in blueberry production. Shoot and root growth were strongly affected by compost chemical characteristics, including pH and electrical conductivity (EC). Potassium in compost was highly variable (2–32 g·kg−1). Concentration of K in the leaves increased positively in response to compost K, whereas shoot dry weight and root growth declined. Leaf Mg also declined in response to compost K, suggesting that elevated K concentrations in compost may cause Mg deficiency. Composts with the highest K were also high in total N, pH, and EC. Compost acidification to pH ≤ 6 improved growth and increased leaf Mg concentration. On the basis of these results, composts derived from animal manures or young plant tissues (e.g., green leaves) appear to be unsuitable for high-rate applications to blueberry because they usually require high amounts of S0 for acidification and are often high in EC and K, whereas those derived from woody materials, such as local yard debris, appear promising based on their C:N ratio, compost acidification requirement, and EC.

Contributor Notes

This research was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Formula Grant OREI 2008-51300004443) and our industry contributors.

Mention of trademark, proprietary product, or vendor does not constitute a guarantee or warranty of the product by Oregon State University or the U.S. Department of Agriculture and does not imply its approval to the exclusion of other products or vendors that also may be suitable.

Former graduate student. Current address: 2109 Rimrock Court, Olympia, WA 98512.

Current address: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, 1444 Diamond Springs Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23455.

Corresponding author. E-mail: dan.sullivan@oregonstate.edu.

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    Relationship between initial compost pH (1:10 method) and soil pH (1:2 method) determined at 78 d after transplanting (DAT). Composts were untreated (−S0) or acidified (+S0) by adding 32 g of elemental S per kg compost-C. Data points for dairy solids compost were outside of the confidence interval for the regression equation and therefore were considered outliers and excluded from the regression dataset. Once adjusted, the regression was significant at P < 0.001 (***). Error bars indicate standard deviation of the mean (n = 5).

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    Shoot dry weight and root development of ‘Duke’ blueberry plants grown in soil amended with untreated (−S0) or sulfur-acidified (+S0) compost or douglas fir sawdust (industry standard), or in soil only. Bars are arranged according to rank of shoot dry weight in treatments without S0 (n = 5). Asterisks indicate shoot dry weight or root growth were affected by S0 acidification at P ≤ 0.05 (*) or 0.01 (**).

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    Relationships between the concentration of K (A) and Mg (B) in the leaves of ‘Duke’ blueberry and soluble K in the compost. Composts were untreated (−S0) or acidified (+S0) by adding 32 g of elemental S per kg compost-C. Each regression was significant at P < 0.01 (**) or 0.001 (***).

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    Relationships between shoot dry weight and compost pH (A) and between root development and compost electrical conductivity (EC) (B) in ‘Duke’ blueberry. The plants were grown in soil amended with untreated (−S0) or sulfur-acidified (+S0) compost. Data in panel A were fit using piecewise, two segment linear regression (r2 = 0.76, P < 0.001); a breakpoint was found at pH 7.6. Regressions in panel B were significant at P < 0.01 (**) or 0.001 (***).

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