Until recently, most blueberry fields in the United States were irrigated with sprinklers. However, many new plantings are irrigated by drip, particularly in newer growing regions such as California and eastern Oregon and Washington (Strik and Yarborough, 2005). Microsprinklers are also used occasionally for irrigation of blueberry (Haman et al., 1997). Blueberry plants irrigated by drip require about half as much water as those irrigated by sprinklers or microsprinklers (Bryla et al., 2011), but drip occasionally produces inferior fruit quality (softer fruit with lower soluble solids concentrations) (Bryla et al., 2009) and may result in root rot (Bryla and Linderman, 2007). Drip resulted in a lower cumulative yield than microsprinklers in a 7-year study on blueberry in Chile (Holzapfel et al., 2004).
Soluble N fertilizers such as ammonium sulfate, urea ammonium nitrate, and liquid urea are easily injected and applied through drip and microsprinkler systems and are commonly used for fertigation in vine and tree fruit crops (Bar-Yosef, 1999; Kafkafi and Tarchitsky, 2011; Schwankl et al., 1998). The practice often results in more growth and yield than equivalent rates of granular fertilizer, including in highbush blueberry (Bryla and Machado, 2011; Ehret et al., 2014; Vargas and Bryla, 2015). Some advantages of fertigation may include greater fertilizer use efficiency, a lower risk of “salt burn,” and reduced energy and labor costs (Burt et al., 1998). However, disadvantages of fertigation may include higher fertilizer and equipment costs, increased water filtration requirements, greater risk for drip emitter plugging, and potential for soil water logging when operated during cooler and wetter months.
Recently, several manufacturers began developing modified drip products such as geotextile irrigation systems to deliver a band source of water and nutrients to the plants, rather than a point source produced by a standard drip system. A typical geotextile irrigation system has an impermeable base sheet or layer usually made of polyethylene or polypropylene, a drip line along that base, and a layer of geotextile fabric over top of the drip line. The geotextile material facilitates mass flow and disperses irrigation water and nutrients over a larger area than drip, which potentially increases the efficiency of water and fertilizer applications (i.e., less deep percolation and nutrient leaching) (Charlesworth and Muirhead, 2003; Devasirvatham, 2008; Miller et al., 2000). A wider, uniform wetting pattern may be particularly beneficial in shallow-rooted crops such as blueberry (Bryla and Strik, 2007). Furthermore, blueberry acquires primarily the ammonium (NH4) form of N (Claussen and Lenz, 1999), which is immobile in soil and, when applied by fertigation, decreases with distance and depth from the drip emitter (Haynes, 1990).
The objective of the present study was to compare the effects of irrigation and fertigation with drip, microsprinklers, and geotextile tape on growth and early fruit production in northern highbush blueberry. Six cultivars were evaluated with each system, including, in order of ripening, Earliblue, Duke, Draper, Bluecrop, Elliott, and Aurora.
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