Water-holding Polymers: Revisiting Their Role in Bedding Plant Production and Shelf Life

in HortScience
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  • 1 USDA-ARS, Applied Technology Research Unit, Toledo, OH 43606
  • | 2 Univ. of Toledo, Plant Science Research Center, Toledo, OH 43606
  • | 3 USDA-ARS, Applied Technology Research Unit, Toledo, OH 43606

There are several commercial materials available that have remarkable hydrating properties and many claim them to be ideal for use in horticulture and deliver water to the roots better than other soilless media. These are often referred to as “hydrogels.” There is general agreement in the literature that the physical characteristics of hydrogels are altered in the presence of divalent cations such as Ca and Mg. Tap water can reduce the water holding capacity by 70% or more. Unfortunately, the literature agrees on little else in terms of the performance of hydrogels. Some of the confusion is caused in part by comparing one type of hydrogel to another but treating all as equal. There has been no mathematical performance evaluation of hydrogel and what affect the environment may play in that performance to predict potential irrigation savings or shelf life extension. In a series of greenhouse and laboratory studies, we have evaluated the physical characteristics of several types of hydrogels and characterized bedding plant performance throughout a typical growth cycle. We measured leaf expansion, water content of the media, root growth, flowering, and fresh and dry masses. We have found little to no differences in the rate of leaf expansion when using hydrogels, but enhanced root growth early in production with the hydrogels. Our results indicated that plant growth was enhanced early in production, but any advantage they may have was lost by the end of production. Plants grown in hydrogels needed irrigation less frequently than those without hydrogel, but the effect was diminished over time. Since the use of the material can add about 15% to the cost of potting media, this data is designed to assist growers in hydrogel use and to determine any benefits of the added costs.

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