Water Content of a Pine-bark Growing Substrate in a Drying Mineral Soil

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  • 1 Department of Horticulture, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 301 Saunders Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061
  • | 2 Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 330 Smyth Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061

Newly transplanted container-grown landscape plants are reported to require very frequent irrigation. However, container nurseries in the U.S. commonly use growing substrates that are mostly bark, even though the contribution of bark-based growing substrates to water relations of transplanted root balls is unknown. Therefore, a field experiment was undertaken to determine water relations of a pine-bark substrate (container removed) within a drying mineral soil over a three week period. A range of common production container sizes—3.7 L (#1), 7.5 L (#2), 21.9 L (#7), 50.6 L (#15), and 104.5 L (#25)—was used. The fraction of substrate volume that is water [total volumetric water (TVW)] within the top and middle zones of substrate was compared to TVW at corresponding depths of adjacent mineral soil. The fraction of substrate and soil volume that is plant-available water [plant-available volumetric water (PAVW)] was calculated by subtracting the fraction of substrate or soil volume below where water is unavailable to most plants (measured with pressure plates) [plant-unavailable volumetric water (PUVW)] from each TVW measurement. The pine-bark substrate had a PUVW of 0.32 compared to a PUVW of 0.06 for soil. Top sections of substrate dried to near zero PAVW 6 days after irrigation for all containers. Larger container sizes maintained higher PAVW in middle sections than smaller container sizes, and PAVW was always higher in the adjacent soil than in the embedded substrate. Overall, very little PAVW is held by the embedded pine-bark growing substrate, suggesting the need for container substrates with greater water retention once transplanted to mineral soils.

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