Use of overhead irrigation in container tree seedling production can be wasteful of water resources and should be re-evaluated as social and legal pressures increase to reduce water consumption (Landis and Wilkinson, 2004; Oka, 1993). Moreover, water interception by leaves of broad-leaved plants creates uneven water distribution in overhead systems (Landis and Wilkinson, 2004). Subirrigation could serve as a viable alternative to overhead systems for container seedling propagation of temperate deciduous forest tree species. This is because subirrigation averts potential waste of water, leaching losses, and uneven water distribution associated with overhead systems (Morvant et al., 2001). For example, subirrigation may conserve ≈58% to 70% of irrigation water (Dumroese et al., 2006; Landis and Wilkinson, 2004) and promote plant growth at reduced nutrient applications (50% to 70%) compared with overhead systems (Beeson and Knox, 1991; Pinto et al., 2008). Additionally, subirrigation may reduce water consumption without jeopardizing plant quality (Cox, 2001; Davis et al., 2008; Elliot, 1990; Santamaria et al., 2003; Yeh et al., 2004).
Fertility management is another important aspect of nursery production. Factors that affect nutrient availability such as cation exchange capacity, electrical conductivity (EC), and pH must be maintained at proper levels for optimal plant growth (Jacobs and Timmer, 2005; Timmer and Teng, 2004). Elevated EC at the top of containers in subirrigation systems is associated with fertilizer buildup in the growing medium (Cox, 2001; Richards and Reed, 2004; Van Iersel, 1999). Media pH may decrease at higher fertility, especially with application of ammonium (Kang et al., 2004). Moreover, inadequate nutrient supply in nursery systems may result in some nutritional disorders such as visual discoloration, cessation, and/or decreased growth (Duryea, 1984). Incorporation of controlled-release fertilizers (CRFs) into media (Jacobs and Timmer, 2005; Landis et al., 1989) may minimize elevated EC and/or potential leaching losses (Landis et al., 1989) and nutrient runoff compared with fertigation with readily available nutrients. Media composition is another important factor that may influence plant growth in subirrigation systems. Substrates with 60% sphagnum peat were shown to provide the best capillary rise and growth of privet (Ligustrum sp. L.) and viburnum (Viburnum L.) (Caron et al., 2005). Similarly, substrate composition was found to influence EC in the culture of Egyptian starcluster [Pentas lanceloata (Forssk) Deflers] and Philodendron sp. Schott (Klock-Moore and Broschat, 2001).
One potential problem in subirrigation systems is fertilizer salt buildup in media resulting from repeated use of recycled water (Klock-Moore and Broschat, 2001). Salt buildup may affect plants in numerous ways, including changing soil permeability, water and nutrient availability, and direct ion toxicity (Jacobs and Timmer, 2005; Landis et al., 1989). Therefore, it is important to critically evaluate impacts of subirrigation systems on media chemistry and plant growth before adapting this approach in operational container nursery production of tree seedlings.
Our study objectives were to determine whether 1) subirrigation could serve as a viable alternative to conventional overhead watering systems by promoting growth and nutrition of container red oak seedlings; 2) fertilization would modify media chemistry to benefit red oak seedling growth and nutrition; 3) media composition has significant impacts on red oak seedling growth; and 4) subirrigation, nursery fertilization, and media composition promote early field performance of red oak seedlings. Red oak is selected for this study because of its economic importance and increased use in conservation plantings (Jacobs et al., 2004).
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